Prose is general writing, in contrast with dialogue, poetry, and other forms that have more specific rules and meaning. Prose includes description/exposition, summarization, and statements/actions. What follows is a series of techniques and ideas to help revise and strengthen an existing rough draft, not techniques for writing a rough draft. Keep in mind that writing is all about creating contrast, and sometimes it may make sense to deviate from these guidelines.
Choosing the Right Words
Strive for concise, clear writing. Start with a clear statement, “A car drove by.” Now evaluate the statement. What about the car driving by is significant? For example:
1. The car could be a distraction.
2. The car could be significant to the character; provoking desire, fear, or anger.
3. The character may be watching for something specific.
4. The character might be watching out of boredom.
There are many possibilities. The key is to understand why and how the car is significant, and try to enhance that attribute, if possible. If the character sees the car as a distraction or out of boredom, saying “a car drove by” might be the right choice, but if the car inspires fear, anger, or desire, then something more is needed.
Keep in mind that the number of words used in reference to the car denotes importance. If the character is glancing at the car, then only a few words are warranted. If the character stares at the car intently, then more words can be used to reflect that.
Revealing Character Through Knowledge
What does the character know about the subject/object? In the case of a car, one character may simply see “a car”, while another sees “A 1980 Camaro”. Decide what matters in the scene and focus on it. Most stories spend 2/3 or more of their words referencing 10-15% of the details that make up the diegetic (fictional) world. This focus is one of the ways authors define a story, and reveal more about their character. What a character knows and how they feel about the things around them are a powerful way of implying that character’s past and personality without going into a lot of detail, giving audiences the opportunity to fill in the gaps.
Achieving More with Less
A big part of concise writing is learning to convey more than one meaning with the same words. On a basic level writing can do 4 things:
1. Develop/advance the plot
2. Reveal character information
3. Establish tone & setting
4. Explore ideas and themes
Most of this is accomplished through word choice and subtext. For example, imagine two players are competing in a game of chess. How would they refer to each other? As opponents, rivals, enemies, competitors, adversaries, or friends? Each word has its own subtext. By itself the distinction is small and subjective, but what if every reference to the game features hostile words; attack, enemy, kill, etc. Over time audiences would realize this is more than a simple game. Of course this example is very heavy handed, while most writers strive to use a light touch, letting audiences believe it’s their own conclusion, instead of the intentions of the author.
Word choice can also create a sense of distance or closeness. For example, a scene could read “A car drove by” or “I watched a car drive by”. The first is direct. The audience is inside the scene, while the second distances audiences from the external scene. Audiences are reminded that they are watching the protagonist, who is watching a car drive by. Words like “saw”, “heard”, and “felt” all create distance.
Distance is a useful technique when a character is revisiting a memory, or if they are withdrawn into their own mind. In times of extreme emotion or intense focus people often feel as if the rest of the world has become distant. They are more in their mind than they are in the world. Similarly, avoiding words like “saw”, “heard”, and “felt” create a sense of immediacy.
“I ran my fingers through his wet fur.”
“His fur felt wet against my fingers.”
Leave Your Audiences Room to Jump
There’s a fine line between a clear meaning and an obscure one. As a storyteller you want audiences to leap to conclusions, but you want to steer them towards specific conclusions.
Details & Description