What Hand-Copying The Book Thief Taught Me about Strong Prose

December 2, 2019

On my first read of The Book Thief, the peerless prose stunned me. I wanted to achieve Zusak’s skill, but I didn’t know how. So I began a nightly experiment to see if any techniques would emerge.

 

I’d take out my pencil, notebook, and angled writing board (to encourage good posture) and copy the text for half an hour. Partway in, I made an astounding discovery. Most of the lines I loved gained their brilliance from one fundamental principle: concreteness.

 

The more specific a term is, the more solidly it appears in a reader’s imagination. The verb “place,” for instance, is indistinct. But “scatter” illustrates how the character is doing the action, and “sow” fills in even more detail, because it hints at a future harvest. In the case of nouns, “terrain” is difficult to visualize, “valley” is better but still too broad, and “dell” plops us into a treed sanctuary. Since our culture is addicted to abstractions, concrete descriptions stand out.

 

In a novel, abstract descriptions should be used sparingly while concrete descriptions should be in profusion—with one caveat. “Giant of a man” or “lanky man” might be more precise than “tall man,” but sometimes the latter is all you need to communicate. You must pay careful attention to the impression you hope to leave and relax your writing muscles when a moment is less significant.

 

However, the power in Zusak’s prose is derived from more than intentional noun and verb usage. He relies on metaphors to further enrich his descriptions, and I’m going to show you how to imitate the effect.

 

Uniting Figurative and Vivid Language

Sow kindness throughout your life” and “he trekked into the dell” is respectable prose, but it will never earn wows. Where The Book Thief excels (and you can too!) is in hyper-creativity.

 

Suppose you need to depict the transition between night and morning, so you write “the light dawned.” A pretty sentence, but it’s one you could pick up at the clearance section. Perhaps you could change it to “the light conquered the sky.” That’s a slight improvement because it implies a struggle. You’re headed in the right direction. Your next version might be “the light dueled the sky,” which adds emotion to the conflict, as well as a clearer mental image. But Zusak plunges even deeper. Exactly what weapons are involved? Behold his masterful prose: “The light arm-wrestled the sky.”

 

As another example, maybe you’re trying to convey that a lady’s eyes are stern. If you’re an astute student of “show, don’t tell,” you’ll realize that you shouldn’t spoon-feed an interpretation to readers. Instead, you need to allow them to draw their own conclusions from the visual cues you give them.

 

“Hard” might be the first option that leaps to mind. But it still falls on the abstract side of the spectrum. What adjective would carry the right connotations? Think about the objects and situations you’d equate with sternness. Zusak decided on “bulletproof eyes.”

 

But what if a scene requires you to touch on a broader concept, such as denial, despair, or loyalty? These can be converted to palpable descriptions too. If I reverse-engineer Zusak’s revision process, he probably thought of how truth can hit people like a torrent, realized he could play off of that imagery, and ended up with “staunch the flow of truth.” When he wrote “pieces of shattered despair,” he was likely inspired by the brokenness depressed people feel. And instead of stating that a character favored the Nazi party, he grounded the fact in one of the five senses: “[She had] breath that smelled like heil Hitler.”

 

Personification is another helpful trick, as in these two snippets:

 

  • “There was nothing but the nothingness of life moving on with a shuffle, or a near-silent twitch.”
  • “The words cobbled her in the back.”

Hyper-creativity results in hyper-engaged readers who keep turning pages, buying your books, and sharing their enthusiasm with anyone who will listen. That’s the reputation you want to build in a crowded market where your work can easily get overlooked.

 

Practicing Concreteness

Now that you’ve been exposed to transformative knowledge about descriptions, a weighty responsibility rests on your shoulders. How can you ensure that you grow in this area?

 

  1. Analyze a book containing masterful prose. I encourage you to start with The Book Thief, but my other recommendations would be The Name of the Wind and The Great Gatsby. As you read, underline or jot down concrete phrases, particularly ultra-specific ones.
  2. Apply what you’ve learned to your environment. Whenever I step outside, I attempt to brainstorm the perfect way to describe the horizon. I’ve seen clouds that resemble a stormy sea with floating armadas, blueberry stains on a tablecloth, moth-eaten garments, popcorn, claw marks, spinal columns, and a starship fleet over a planet.
  3. Read poetry. Not all poems exhibit concreteness, but you’re more likely to encounter it there than in prose. A wonderful example is “I Am Love,” which was published here at SE.
  4. Expand your vocabulary. Sometimes your only limitation is a shortage of words. If you’re having trouble crafting descriptions, thumb through your thesaurus or dictionary.

After all of these exercises, you’ll be equipped to dive into your work-in-progress with a new awareness. So dredge away the slimy abstractions and sharpen your descriptions to a razor edge. You’ll tantalize readers before they’ve finished the first chapter!

13 Comments

  1. Kate Flournoy

    I love this so much! Great points. I want to do the thing where I brainstorm how to describe things around me now. 😀

    Reply
    • Michaela Tasker

      I was just doing that yesterday! It’s so fun. I was trying to figure out different ways to describe the wind.

  2. Buddy J.

    Oooooooooooooh! YES! This article is like the silver rays of moonlight knifing through a cloud covered night.

    You lit a candle in my mind, a candle among many others of different colored flame. And this one carried its light to each candle, and helped it burn a little more brightly… I think a lot of us authors tend to try to use the abstractions to impress the reader. And from my experience it doesn’t work too well. And we need to remember that the idea is not to impress the reader, but give them an image they can’t ignore… one that has them understand it.

    Reply
  3. Kellyn Roth

    Reading this and all I can think is … I never want to read a book that has prose that’s anything like half of that. xD I haven’t read The Book Thief, so I must not understand. To me, it seems like that kind of prose would completely obscure the main focus – e.g. the story and characters!

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      Huh. Interesting perspective. I’d be really interested in what you think of The Book Thief then, because it has better characterization than 99% of books in my humble opinion.

    • R.M. Archer

      I agree the examples seemed a little over-the-top. 😛 I haven’t read The Book Thief, either, but maybe there’s more of a balance when you read the whole book?

      These principles seem helpful, though. I’ll have to practice this sort of thing for when I get to the line-edits of my NaNo project.

    • K.M. Small

      I just wanted to add a thought here: I don’t think this sort of prose would be a detriment to a book if it’s used the right way. I haven’t read The Book Thief, but I’m thinking the author used this type of prose to reveal something about the POV character. Having distinct lines like this would improve characterization, and perhaps even make what’s happening in the plot more easy to visualize. If every single line was like this, that might be a bit difficult to read through, but if used the right way, I think this type of prose could really strengthen a novel.

    • Brianna Storm Hilvety

      As an editor who specializes in style, I thought I’d jump into this conversation. You’re right that these kind of descriptions would bog a story down if they fill every page or are inserted only for embellishment. But I think you may have overlooked this sentence in the introduction of the article: “You must pay careful attention to the impression you hope to leave and relax your writing muscles when a moment is less significant.” The key is to have a purpose for the way you phrase each sentence, so that means some will be simpler and more straightforward than others. Concreteness will also take different forms depending on the author’s goals and the type of story. And when you’re trying to communicate important details or enhance characterization (as K.M. mentioned), the techniques Daeus describes will make your text more vivid and memorable.

    • Daeus Lamb

      What Brianna said. 😉

  4. Shannon Voeller

    Just ordered the book thief and can’t wait to dive into it! Thanks for this article Daeus, you make some super good points and I am definitely going to go and overhaul my writing now to work on concrete images!

    Reply
  5. Isabelle

    Very interesting. I haven’t read The Book Thief, but it seems like those kinds of sentences would have to be used sparingly. Concrete is definitely the best, though some of the examples seemed a little over written. I don’t want to judge it by simply using the examples you gave, I loved several of them. Especially “bulletproof eyes”! 😍

    Reply
  6. Rachel Rogers

    Such interesting insight! And. Now I must read The Boof Thief. (*coughs* Especially since one or two of my friends are already nudging me to do so. 😂)

    Reply
    • Rachel Rogers

      *The Book Thief

      Wow, and maybe I’ll learn to spell and/or type while I’m at it. 🤦🏻‍♀️😆

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