Friday, October 1

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Prose Make Me Look Fat?


Continuing with our discussion on purple prose, a brave reader has submitted a sample with a few questions. I'm going to approach this RLD a little differently this time around, because there are several questions here, but all of them really pertain to the purple/voice issue. I thought they'd make great discussion points.

Before we dive in, let's talk about what voice is. It's incredibly difficult to describe, which is why it's so frustrating. From a purely technical standpoint, it's how we choose to put words on paper. How we structure our sentences. What words we decide to use and what rhythm we arrange them in.  

But most importantly, I think voice is the judgment behind those words. It's that sense there is someone telling you the story, not just facts on a page. (and by telling I mean a strong narrator, not the show don't tell version) It's what the things being described mean to the person looking at them, be it a close first person or omniscient third. The strongest voices to me have always been the ones where the narrator was solid and I knew whose eyes I was looking out of.

Without that solid narrator, the info is just facts. Just stuff.  

So, let's move on to the sample and read it with this in mind.  

Original Sample
The smoke inside the hall should have choked her but it hadn’t, now where there was less smoke every breath cost her dearly. She continued to place one foot in front of the other but her pace had slowed and her path had altered. She was veering away from the river towards the shadow figure. People rushed around her screaming, injured, fleeing, dying; the hall burned, lumber falling as a community tumbled to the ground. All this receded from Mya’s awareness – there was only the figure cloaked in Shadow drawing her onwards as it destroyed her. She was sweating now. Her mouth was dry from attempting to suck down air that barely made it to her lungs. A creeping coldness entered her joints bringing with it a sense of malevolence and apprehended violence. 
The medallion prickled before searing Mya. Unaware of her skin being scalded laboured onwards enthralled. Abruptly the medallion became frigid. A blossoming frostiness stole outwards from the hollow of her neck. Her hand clasped the medallion. Still beating rapidly Mya’s heart recovered its even tempo. The dying dryness of the air surrounding her was replaced by the cool touch of a wet winter’s morn. A small cloud of her condensed breath kissed her lips silently and Mya breathed deeply once more.

1) Does it convey a distinct voice?
I can hear your voice here, and suspect it would come through stronger in a different passage, but without a sense of the narrator, it's hard to get a solid sense of your unique voice, if that makes sense. This will sound odd, but it reads more as "fantasy style." This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as fantasy readers love that style. I have a "YA" style myself. But the question was about a distinct voice, and I'm not sure this does that yet. (and keep in mind it could very easily be the sample, not the author)  

This sample is telling me what stuff looks like and what's going on, but it's not yet telling me how Mya (or another narrator is someone else is telling this tale) feels about it. I don't hear Mya in this, I just hear the author. And since the author is writing a fantasy story, it has a fantasy voice. A subtle shift in thinking from a fantasy story to Mya's story would probably tip the scales and show the author's unique voice better. Or a shift to a narrator who has an opinion about what's being shown here.

Yeah, I know, but how do you do that?

I wish I had an easy-to-follow list for you. Try using POV to your advantage. Who is describing these things? That can be Mya, or it can be a omniscient narrator watching from on high. How do they feel about it? What's going through their minds as they experience this? I think as soon as the narrator starts judging, the voice will pop. 

I want to give an example, but I don't know the story and the author's style is so different from mine, but I'll try to edit to show what I mean. (A)


(A) The smoke inside the hall should have choked her but it hadn’t. It brought little relief, however, because now where there was less smoke she gasped greedily, and every breath cost her dearly. But she had to move on. Had to continue to place one foot in front of the other. Her pace slowed and her path altered. There he was, ahead in the shadows he refused to leave. She veered away from the river towards the shadow figure. People rushed around her screaming, injured, fleeing, dying, unaware of the menace so close; the hall burned, lumber falling as a community tumbled to the ground, but she didn't care. There was only the figure cloaked in shadow drawing her onwards as it destroyed her.

Do you get a better sense of a person behind those words this way? My edits are subtle, don't change anything said in the paragraph, but I put them in Mya's head. Below, I bolded the words that use some kind of judgment or emotion to color the plain facts.

 The smoke inside the hall should have choked her but it hadn’t. It brought little relief, however, Relief is a feeling, and refers to the hall not choking her like expected. She has an opinion about that because now where there was less smoke she gasped greedily, and every breath cost her dearly. But she had to move on. Had to continue to place one foot in front of the other. Greedily, costing her dearly, are both emotional, so I followed those up with reactions to those feelings. Despite feeling these things, she had to act. Her pace slowed and her path altered. There he was, ahead in the shadows he refused to leave. Some internalization here puts us in her head and gives us a sense of her goal, and even her personality. He "refused to leave" implies she feels this is intentional on his part She veered away from the river towards the shadow figure. People rushed around her screaming, injured, fleeing, dying, unaware of the menace so close; More judgment. She feels the shadowy figure is a menace.  the hall burned, lumber falling as a community tumbled to the ground, but she didn't care. There was only the figure cloaked in shadow drawing her onwards as it destroyed her. How she feels about it. What is consuming her, and her goal to act.

2) Is my prose too flowery/purple? (Something I've often been accused of!)
I don't think so. There might be a few spots that could be trimmed, but nothing here jumped out at me as purple. You have a flowery style, but not to the point of distraction. I've bolded the "trouble spots." 
The medallion prickled before searing Mya. Unaware of her skin being scalded laboured onwards enthralled. Abruptly the medallion became frigid. A blossoming frostiness stole outwards from the hollow of her neck. Her hand clasped the medallion. Still beating rapidly Mya’s heart recovered its even tempo. The dying dryness of the air surrounding her was replaced by the cool touch of a wet winter’s morn. A small cloud of her condensed breath kissed her lips silently and Mya breathed deeply once more.
"blossoming frostiness stole outwards"  felt a tad overwritten, because blossoming implies an outward movement. Also, a lot of S there, and a lot of alliteration often feels purple.
"dying dryness" The alliteration hit me funny, because I kept wanting to read it as "drying dryness"
"small cloud of her condensed breath kissed her lips silently" By itself this wouldn't have bothered me, but right after the wet winter's morn line it felt a tad too much.

But also keep in mind that others might love every one of those lines that stood out to me. 

However, if this style continues this way for a while, I'd start to feel the flowery-ness of it. But it's not because of the prose itself, it's because of the lack of that personal POV. Even though there's action here, it's being described in a detached way so it feels like a lot of description. A lot of description often feels flowery or purple, even if it really isn't. Flowery can equal too much description at once.  

Background: I wanted to create a sense of tension as it's the first time we see the 'bad guys'. (Who are responsible for burning the town hall with all the population in it. The inciting event... something i learned from your blog. :) ) I deliberately used imagery relating to Winter and the cold. In Mya's world death is heralded by a cold dryness in the air, however, fresh crisp air is a sign of life. The references to Winter are also significant to later plot developments. A third question, which I suspect can't be answered without reading more of the book (which is why its here instead of up there with the important questions), as this is a pivotal scene should it be expanded? 

These last questions relate to one of the comment questions, about drawing events out for the sake of tension. This is what our author here is trying to do. But without the sense of a POV in trouble, I didn't get a sense of tension. Tension comes from readers worrying about the character. Description isn't something we worry about, so drawing it out doesn't do much unless the person behind it is worried.

In my edited paragraph, did you feel the tension? Probably, because I focused more on  Mya's goal: to get to that shadowy figure, even though it was costing her dearly. Goal + stakes = tension. 

Layering in that emotional component during action really helps up the tension. Readers want to know how a character feels and what's going through their mind. Don't overdo it, but even a few words here and there can keep blocks of description from being just blocks of description.  

The last question, is as this is a pivotal scene should it be expanded? 

I say yes, but only if you expand the personal and emotional aspect. More description or exposition isn't going to help ramp up the tension -- it'll likely do the opposite. But if you show the personal side of Mya and her problem, show what shes risking to get what she needs, then you'll have a great scene.


Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting their work to us to pick apart. For more thoughts on voice, writer Juliette Wade has a great post on her blog with good examples.


Hopefully I've answered the questions about voice and how far is too far, but if not, let me know and we'll keep chatting about it.

5 comments:

  1. Great post! I agree with everything you said about the passage. I think that the author did a good job, but I would have enjoyed the passage more if I had felt little bit of the MC's personality coming through. Very brave of them to put it out there for scrutiny!

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  2. I tend to worry my prose isn't interesting/literary/poetic enough! I tend to write very straight forward simple prose.

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  3. Hmmm, makes me want to submit one of my paragraphs to you.

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  4. Great post. Voice is so hard to nail down. I recognize it when I read it but often my characters sound too much alike. I could really see the difference in your examples and am trying to recognize good voice more as I read. Thanks for the great advice as usual.

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