To Embellish or Not to Embellish?

That is my question.
Okay, so that was actually not my question. I’ve definitely asked it before, but one astute commentator on my last post was kind enough to ask it again and inspire today’s topic. If you haven’t read my last post, we were talking about style— drama as opposed to simplicity.

Here’s his question:

I was just thinking and wondering if there was a spectrum of extremes. Like having too much and stripping away, as well as others on the other end of the spectrum who have too little and must therefor add to find their voice. Thoughts?

According to Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘There is nothing so noble in a tale as baldness’. I disagree. Sorry, Rob.

This is a tricky discussion, because everyone comes with their own ideas of embellishment, simplicity, balance, and beauty. Witness the soaring, poetic descriptions of Tolkien’s fantastical Middle Earth against the gritty, smoke-in-your-lungs and fog-in-your-eyes caricatures of Dickens’s nineteenth century London. Both authors are universally beloved, and both styles, in their different ways, are beautiful.

I can’t tell you how to write beautifully. I’m not you.

But I can take you through a quick study in finding balance.

First off, please realize how important the style of your prose is. It’s overlooked too often. Also realize that prose is the vessel that carries the idea, and is only as inherently beautiful as the truths it conveys. It’s not the prose’s job to make your narrative beautiful and resonant. Thick, flourished and sticky-sweet phrases, showered with metaphors, conceited words, and overblown comparisons are inherently false because they distract from the truths they are carrying. If it requires more effort on the reader’s part to digest the prose than it does to digest its meaning, you’ve got a problem.

However. I also believe that about fifty percent of what makes any story re-readable is the cleverness, beauty, and engaging strength of the words that tell it. Once the reader has finished your book, discovered all the truths it has to offer, and found out what happens to the characters they love, the only reason they have to go back is if the words themselves were so timeless, engaging, and refreshing that the journey means just as much the second time around… and the third… and the three-hundredth.

Dressing a sentence up to the neck in frills, furbelows, and lace is tasteless like the 1789 French aristocracy was tasteless. 😛 But stripping a sentence of all adornment and leaving it there like a grey brick wall is tasteless like the British Parliament was (*coughs* is) tasteless.

For instance. If we’re going on the principle that less is always better, we could write this:

‘We’re all going to die.’

Yet, dramatic as that is, it doesn’t have near the evocative power of this:

‘Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs; make dust our paper and with rainy eyes write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.’

On the other hand, if we say that more is always better, we could write this:

‘What profit is there for man in this weary and troublesome strife of living? As we live and fear life, we live in greater fear of death. Caught between two grindstones, one of searing light and one of blinding darkness, man struggles eternally between two options equally horrible and full of anguish.’

Ehh. Mm. It could be worse. But now, compare it to this:

‘To be, or not to be? That is the question.’

They say the exact same thing. But which one hits you harder? Which one are you most likely to remember?

As with so many things, balance is the key. Practice will teach you when to embellish and when to pare down, but you can speed up the process by studying any prose you consider beautiful. Become a critic of the art of words. Not just the art of stories, but the words that tell them. And next time you’re tempted to wax melodramatic, try a few simpler words. You’d be surprised how much punch they can pack.

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15 thoughts on “To Embellish or Not to Embellish?

  1. This is terrific advice! Thank you.

    One thing I’ve observed from reading and writing is that – I think – some of the balance in descriptiveness can be found by identifying whose POV you’re writing in, what setting you’re in, and even what time period. I mean, you wouldn’t have the same descriptiveness in first person/present tense/sci-fi as you would in a third person medieval epic. I think that’s one place you can look to find that “balance.”

    Just a thought from someone who spends too much time thinking! 🙂

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  2. Great advice again, Kate! Yeah, it’s hard to find a balance sometimes. Lately I’ve been doing better though, and as I read this I paused to look back at something of my writing from a few days ago. I can see where I used simpler words and where I used more flowy, dramatic speech. This is an interesting topic to talk about, strangely, and I think I’ll just stop here otherwise i might not.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. *is amazed that once again, this was something she was pondering* This is wonderful from start to finish.
    (That’s one of my favorite Shakespeare quotes, by the way. The one from Richard II. Despite it being somewhat… morbid.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. *sweet smile* Oh, didn’t I tell you? I’m a reader of minds.

      Richard II is a masterpiece. It requires a lot of concentration and appreciation for very small and subtle things (and Henry IV is better), but it really is pretty great.

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  4. Yes! A lot with prose really comes down to character/narrator voice. To put it simply, one does not want to read Percy Jackson in Shakespearean style, and one does not want to read Shakespeare in Rick Riordan style. 😛
    Prose is so important, and one thing that I think needs to be remembered is that what you write at school for marks will not be what you send to a publisher. A lot of young teens find that they are told to use one metaphor/simile per sentence, and ugh. That just sounds horrible. But that’s what we’re taught.
    I really love how you’ve talked about prose, it is something that is definitely overlooked. Most writing articles I see are on characters, plot, and theme. All of those are great, but we have so many of them right now. Prose is really important too. Thanks for addressing it!
    I’ve only just found your blog, but I reckon that you can be expecting me to be stalking it way more now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Whoo-hoo, and welcome!
      /Great/ thoughts. If my current style was acceptable to my high-school English program… ugh. I don’t wanna think about it. 😛
      I am now trying to imagine The Lightning Thief in Shakespearian English and Hamlet in Rick Riordanese… *turns slightly green* 😛

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  5. “Also realize that prose is the vessel that carries the idea, and is only as inherently beautiful as the truths it conveys.”

    As a poet, I beg to differ. Something can be beautiful even if you don’t understand it, or even if it doesn’t actually mean that much. However, poor content is a lot harder to get away with in prose. (And of course the IDEAL is a synthesis or fusion of both, perfectly harmonized.) What you’re actually saying here is that you can be too flowery for your own good; which is not actually beautiful, it’s sickly-sweet. Truly beautiful language is not made less beautiful by the fact that it doesn’t mean very much. It may not be as powerful, it may not convey any particular message, but it can still be beautiful. Just maybe not quite AS beautiful.

    The rest of the post was great. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mmm, yes. Poetry operates under slightly different rules. I haven’t studied poetry a lot (most of mine just comes randomly from my head because a part of me likes messing with weird and abstract things) but that’s a good way to say that. Thanks for the tips. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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