When Your Prose Upstages Your Story
(Originally posted in December 2012.)
Lately, I have been doing a lot of reading about writing. Not just books but blog posts and essays and worksheets on everything from style to character to setting and more. One day I came across a rather unsettling but interesting idea – that sometimes your prose can be too beautiful.
I literally scoffed. Really? Too beautiful?
Yep, that’s what it said. Unfortunately, I can’t find the exact reference underneath the piles of #Nano remnants, bills, and kid homework lying around, but that was the gist of it. (If anyone recognizes this idea, let me know so I can give credit.)
Now most of the folks I know write flash fiction and we, like our poet brethren, struggle with perfect prose. We search for just the right words with just the right sound and cadence and wrestle them into line, striving to evoke a sense of mystery and some larger-than-life destination within our 200-word limit. And those perfect sentences are like gourmet chocolate on a day full of broccoli. But, in a novel that one transcendent sentence can, in fact, be too beautiful for its own good.
Seem counterintuitive? That’s what I thought. But then as I was reading Game of Thrones, I occasionally would stumble on a sentence that had such a delightful sense of craft to it that I had to stop and re-read it. Gleefully, I’d read it a third time, rolling it around in my head. Then I wanted to highlight it because it was just “the perfect sentence.” And do you know what? That gorgeous turn of phrase did exactly what it’s NOT supposed to do. It pulled me out of the book. One minute, I’m in the book, fighting for my life or skulking through the deep dark, and the next minute, I scavenging in my drawer for a purple highlighter with overeager writerly excitement.
Those sentences were too beautiful.
When prose is too delightful, too exotic, it calls attention to itself, pulling the reader out of that world you’re trying to create beyond the words themselves. Ideally in a novel, the writing should be thrifty, descriptive without exposition, showing without telling and add to that list: INVISIBLE. So invisible, in fact, that the reader forgets they are reading and feels literally transported to another realm. You’ve read books like that, the ones that when you come up for air, it’s like you’ve just gotten back from a long trip.
Now I believe that in art there is no absolute right or wrong, but I can see the advantage of transparency. Not everyone is forgiving about losing their book buzz. With Game of Thrones, I had no trouble stepping right back into the world of the Seven Kingdoms but I’m easy that way. I can suspend reality at the drop of a hat. I don’t think all readers are like that.
And so I feel like I’ve discovered a totally new facet of ink slinging. (And yeah, I’m sure you all knew this already but I’m fascinated by it.) It’s a new way to bend the writing. So, as I go back to edit my #NaNo words and add more to them, in the back of my head will be this question: How do I write words that disappear behind the story when my inner self really wants words that are too beautiful? It’s a new kind of voice I’ll be striving for. We’ll see how I do.
What are your favorite examples of a too beautiful sentence. Share them here. Let’s give them some appreciation.