Have you ever stopped reading, not because the story itself was bad, but because the author’s phrasing was awkward? Few annoyances push me back into the real world faster than unwieldy prose. In the right combinations, words are beautiful and engaging. But in the wrong combinations, they grate on the ear and hinder an otherwise enjoyable experience.
You see, storytelling has two levels. The first is the art of weaving ideas into a cohesive and captivating design. The second is the art of threading words into sentence after sentence that complements the larger pattern and gives it a seamless appearance. This article addresses the latter: fluency in language.
When I’m revising my first drafts, I apply three strategies that I’ve learned through practice and advice from others. Each one smooths and enriches my prose, and with the same amount of care, you can upscale your own work-in-progress.
1. Zoom in or out to Make Your Descriptions Vibrant
As a writer, you hold an invisible camera that you aim in the direction you want readers’ imaginations to go. You can pan from one side of the scene to the other, lock the focus, or even change the exposure. Each dial you turn will have a distinct effect on the final snapshot.
When zooming out, the rule is less is more. That might seem counter-intuitive. How can fewer details increase specificity? But think about it like an orchestra. Though the ensemble is loud and triumphant, the individual instruments blend together. Nothing can compare to the moment when every other sound fades and a lone violin begins to sing.
One precise detail makes a sharper impression than a volley thrown at readers in rapid succession.
Consider these examples:
Version 1: The dwarf raised his axe. Cracked leather bound the haft, and runes studded the head that had lost its gleam years ago. The blemishes spoke of the innumerable battles he’d fought in since youth.
Version 2: The dwarf hefted his battle-weary axe.
While the longer description is decent (and may be preferable in certain instances, as I’ll discuss below), the shorter one conjures up a host of connotations that readers will automatically incorporate into their mental image—without any effort from the author. The weapon isn’t simply battle scarred but battle weary, building an aura of age, exhaustion, and decay. This is the principle of show, don’t tell combined with less is more.
When you share only the most pertinent detail, you’re allowing readers to fill in the rest of the picture. The more unnecessary information you cram in, the more you limit their imaginations. Unlike visual artists, writers can’t control everything readers see, and if they try, bloated descriptions will be the result. A few strong words can do wonders in populating readers’ imaginations.
Sometimes a moment or setting will call for a grand tour that lasts a paragraph or more. As the guide for readers’ imaginations, you shouldn’t rush past the most stirring views. You need to pause so readers can absorb as much emotion as possible.
If your protagonist has lived underground since birth, how would she react to gazing at the night sky for the first time? With a sigh and a fleeting thought about its vastness? Or would she be overcome? Note the differences in these excerpts:
Version 1: The sky’s immensity crashed down on my shoulders. Leaning my head back, I immediately found the starfather. I don’t know how I recognized the constellation when I’d never seen it before, but there he was, smiling at me.
Version 2: The sky’s immensity crashed down on my shoulders. All the specks of light—galaxies, nebulae, planets—hovered so near that they poked me. And my heart bled at every prick.
I ran forward, stumbling under the weight and ache of the splendor above. My legs buckled just outside the doors, and I bashed my knees on the red stone of Steoria. But I didn’t feel the pain. I let myself fall back into the grass and stared straight into the face of the starfather. I don’t know how I recognized the constellation when I’d never seen it before, but he smiled as if he’d been waiting for me.
If a universal description would reduce an event’s significance (as it does here), don’t worry about brevity. Instead, relish the moment and keep underscoring its meaning to your character. For another perspective on crafting impactful prose, check out Daeus’s article about The Book Thief.
2. Scrap the Head-Scratching Sentences
This title is a case in point: Are the sentences scratching their own heads, the writer’s head, or do readers scratch their heads after looking at them? English linguistics are tricky, with plenty of opportunities for ambiguity. Sometimes you’ll confuse readers, and sometimes you’ll be confused.
Avoid Sentences or Phrases that Can Be Interpreted More than One Way
A quick Google search provided a couple humorous examples of baffling sentences. If you write “the foreigners were hunting dogs,” readers might be unsure whether the foreigners themselves are dogs, or the dogs are being hunted by foreigners. In a similar vein, if “everyone was staring at Erin and saw her duck,” some readers might imagine Erin holding a pet duck instead of bending over. Although the context will often clear up any ambiguities, it won’t save readers any frustration. Your book will be better received if you structure your sentences so that your intent is unmistakable: “the foreigners were in the forest hunting dogs” and “everyone was staring at Erin when she ducked.”
Recast Troublesome Sentences
If you struggle to articulate a thought, readers will struggle to unscramble it. If it sounds weird to you, it will probably sound weird to everyone else too. Typically, the problem is that you either misordered the parts of speech or mashed too many phrases together—both of which are easy to fix once you recognize where your sentence went awry. Let’s start with the first issue.
Version 1: It was the cathedral that her music began to restore.
Although this sentence is grammatically correct, it overturns the logic of the English language. The object appears first, the subject second, and the verb last (forming an OSV sentence structure). When you rearrange these elements into the traditional SVO structure, a stronger, more intuitive sentence emerges:
Version 2: Her music began to restore the cathedral.
Now that the sentence is straightforward, you can add content to make it more complex:
Version 3: Her music began to restore the cathedral, where the constant scent of incense reminded her of her mother’s prayer closet.
This is the point where you may trip over the second issue. Varying length and structure is important, but if you aren’t cautious, it can lead to overpacked sentences that are difficult to follow:
Version 1: Terror pounded inside Julia’s chest as she ran, twisting to avoid the vines with their poisonous thorns, and screaming for her brothers to stay away.
Gerunds (twisting, screaming) tend to be writers’ go-to resource when incorporating multiple actions into the same sentence. They modify the main verb, defining how Julia ran. Unfortunately, they also distance readers from the action. When overused, gerunds can be as fatal to prose as passive voice. If you break the original into shorter sentences, you can turn the gerunds into verbs:
Version 2: Terror pounded inside Julia’s chest as she ran. She twisted to avoid the vines with their poisonous thorns and screamed at her brothers to stay away.
The wording is only fractionally different, but splitting the sentence prevents readers from getting lost. If you divide it any further, however, the passage will become stilted.
As you search for and iron out rough sentences, you’ll hone your instincts. Over time, you’ll be able to identify which sentence structures work, which don’t, and which ones you rely on too frequently.
3. Don’t Underestimate the Power of Rhythm
Here at Story Embers, we’ve explored the connections between poetry and prose on a number of occasions—we even released an entire article series on the topic! Poetic techniques have been so helpful to me that I feel obliged to reinforce what others have already taught.
The pattern of your words affects the aesthetic quality of your prose. Clumsy phrasing comes across as unskillful, no matter how skillful your plot, characters, and theme may be. Word choice distinguishes good prose from great prose. But how do you learn to gravitate toward the ideal words? Practice, practice, and more practice.
Read and Write Poetry
The linguistic tools you encounter in poetry will stretch your writing muscles, thereby increasing your eloquence overall. Poetry employs the full range of literary devices: alliteration, assonance, metaphor, simile. And the restrictions of rhyme and meter force you to develop a flexible vocabulary and sensitivity to the cadence you’re creating.
If you’re a native English speaker, your ear is already tuned to what sounds right. Thus, the simple act of reading your prose aloud will reveal dozens of nuances and mistakes that you wouldn’t otherwise notice. You can also experiment with rearranging words. To further tune your ear, find books that feature your favorite styles of prose and read them aloud.
A note of caution: the more intentional your word choices are, the more an editor’s intervention will hurt. You need to be able to explain your decisions calmly and clearly. When she highlights flaws (and she will), that mutual understanding will allow you (and her) to make necessary improvements to the text while preserving your voice. If you don’t have complementary visions for the final product, you’ll believe your intentions have been ignored, and she’ll believe you’re resistant to change. This binds an editor’s hands so that she can’t truly help your text shine.
Time Well Spent
As a young writer, I agonized over the flow of my writing for hours upon hours. I selected words like Michelangelo choosing a paintbrush, but my sentences still felt blocky, as if I were mining ore by hand. I didn’t yet understand the magic and liberation that writing offers. But, as I kept assembling and disassembling the basic building blocks of the English language, I realized that it trained me to be artistic.
So don’t be afraid to spend hours applying these self-editing techniques. Each of us can refine our writing when we treat ourselves like craftsmen and our stories like carpentry. Anyone can write, but not everyone can write well. That requires perseverance, skill, and lots and lots of time. Your prose will only benefit if you become intimately acquainted with the language you use to bring your stories to life.
Martin Detwiler is mostly normal. For a writer. He is, like most of us, a mess of paradoxes. Dreamer & cynic, philosopher & clown, hopeless romantic & grim realist—if there’s a contradiction, you’ll find it in him somewhere or another. But at the heart of it all, Martin is a man made new by Christ, the Author of that cosmic tale we call history. He has had a passion for stories from his earliest teen years, and the transition from reading others’ stories to writing his own seemed a foregone conclusion. His greatest inspirations are C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, both of whom stirred a passion for stories that combine the aesthetic and the true in such a way that the reader is given an experiential glimpse of God’s reality.
Martin lives with his wife in South Carolina, where she keeps his sky-high hopes and dreams firmly rooted in the humble yet beautiful soil of reality.