The next installment of my series on What Makes a Great Story is about prose. To see the previous posts in this series, check out these links:
Openings - Part 1
Openings - Part 2
Dialogue and Internal Thought

Prose is language that is not poetry. Prose is instead defined as writing or speech that is ordinary or matter-of-fact, without embellishment.

An author’s writing style is defined by how an individual uses prose to convey their story to the reader. This style is what makes an author unique and separates themselves from their peers. Some writers spend a great deal of time on style and language. They want their writing to take center stage and many craft prose that has almost a lyrical quality to it. This can be a very time consuming process as one agonizes over every word. In the end, such a method can also backfire on the author since by focusing on language it is easy to lose the emotion and characters of the story. Patrick Rothfuss immediately comes to mind as someone who is able to successfully craft a great story while maintaining a beautiful style with his prose.

Below is a sample of his writing. Notice the easy rhythm of it.
IF THIS STORY IS to be something resembling my book of deeds, we must begin at the beginning. At the heart of who I truly am. To do this, you must remember that before I was anything else, I was one of the Edema Ruh.

Contrary to popular belief, not all traveling performers are of the Ruh. My troupe was not some poor batch of mummers, japing at crossroads for pennies, singing for our suppers. We were court performers, Lord Greyfallow’s Men. Our arrival in most towns was more of an event than the Midwinter Pageantry and Solinade Games rolled together. There were usually at least eight wagons in our troupe and well over two dozen performers: actors and acrobats, musicians and hand magicians, jugglers and jesters: My family.

My father was a better actor and musician than any you have ever seen. My mother had a natural gift for words. They were both beautiful, with dark hair and easy laughter. They were Ruh down to their bones, and that, really, is all that needs to be said.

Save perhaps that my mother was a noble before she was a trouper. She told me my father had lured her away from “a miserable dreary hell” with sweet music and sweeter words. I could only assume she meant Three Crossings, where we went to visit relatives when I was very young. Once.

My parents were never really married, by which I mean they never bothered making their relationship official with any church. I’m not embarrassed by the fact. They considered themselves married and didn’t see much point in announcing it to any government or God. I respect that. In truth, they seemed more content and faithful than many officially married couples I have seen since.

Our patron was Baron Greyfallow, and his name opened many doors that would ordinarily be closed to the Edema Ruh. In return we wore his colors, green and grey, and added to his reputation wherever we went. Once a year we spent two span at his manor, entertaining him and his household.

It was a happy childhood, growing up in the center of an endless fair. My father would read to me from the great monologues during the long wagon rides between towns. Reciting mostly from memory, his voice would roll down the road for a quarter mile. I remember reading along, coming in on the secondary parts. My father would encourage me to try particularly good sections myself, and I learned to love the feel of good words.

My mother and I would make up songs together. Other times my parents would act out romantic dialogues while I followed along in the books. They seemed like games at the time. Little did I know how cunningly I was being taught.

I was a curious child: quick with questions and eager to learn. With acrobats and actors as my teachers, it is little wonder that I never grew to dread lessons as most children do.

The roads were safer in those days, but cautious folk would still travel with our troupe for safety’s sake. They supplemented my education. I learned an eclectic smattering of Commonwealth law from a traveling barrister too drunk or too pompous to realize he was lecturing an eight-year-old. I learned woodcraft from a huntsman named Laclith who traveled with us for nearly a whole season.

I learned the sordid inner workings of the royal court in Modeg from a . . . courtesan. As my father used to say: “Call a jack a jack. Call a spade a spade. But always call a whore a lady. Their lives are hard enough, and it never hurts to be polite.”

Hetera smelled vaguely of cinnamon, and at nine years old I found her fascinating without exactly knowing why. She taught me I should never do anything in private that I didn’t want talked about in public, and cautioned me to not talk in my sleep.

And then there was Abenthy, my first real teacher. He taught me more than all the others set end to end. If not for him, I would never have become the man I am today.

I ask that you not hold it against him. He meant well.
Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

Steven Erikson is another favorite author of mine who has a pretty unique style. It isn’t as elegant as Rothfuss, but there is something very distinctive about it that I enjoy.
THERE WAS LIGHT, AND THEN THERE WAS HEAT. He knelt, carefully taking each brittle fold in his hands, ensuring that every crease was perfect, that nothing of the baby was exposed to the sun. He drew the hood in until little more than a fist-sized hole was left for her face, her features grey smudges in the darkness, and then he gently picked her up and settled her into the fold of his left arm. There was no hardship in this.

They’d camped near the only tree in any direction, but not under it. The tree was a gamleh tree and the gamlehs were angry with people. In the dusk of the night before, its branches had been thick with fluttering masses of grey leaves, at least until they drew closer. This morning the branches were bare.

Facing west, Rutt stood holding the baby he had named Held. The grasses were colourless. In places they had been scoured away by the dry wind, wind that had then carved the dust out round their roots to expose the pale bulbs so the plants withered and died. After the dust and bulbs had gone, sometimes gravel was left. Other times it was just bedrock, black and gnarled. Elan Plain was losing its hair, but that was something Badalle might say, her green eyes fixed on the words in her head. There was no question she had a gift, but some gifts, Rutt knew, were curses in disguise.
Steven Erikson, Dust of Dreams

Personally, I don’t feel I have the talent to write something similar to either Rothfuss or Erikson. It’s just not who I am as a writer. Then again, few are. Many writers prefer a more straight-up approach to their prose/style. I recently read a quote from legendary science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, which made a lot of sense to me.

I made up my mind long ago to follow one cardinal rule in all my writing—to be clear. I have given up all thought of writing poetically or symbolically or experimentally, or in any of the other modes that might (if I were good enough) get me a Pulitzer prize. I would write merely clearly and in this way establish a warm relationship between myself and my readers, and the professional critics—Well, they can do whatever they wish.

I think that’s what I strive for in my own writing. To be as clear as possible. Granted, I may have a cool phrase or line in there (by accident probably). However, the goal of my writing is not to showcase language. I’m just not the person to do that.

Now, just because an author doesn’t write a beautiful piece of prose doesn’t mean they can’t knock you out with their style. Here are two great examples that to me, fall in the latter group.
Captain Lasmark thrashed through the barley at something between a brisk walk and a jog, the ninth company of the Rostod Regiment following him as best they could, dispatched towards Osrung with the ill-defined order to “get at the enemy!” still ringing in their ears.

The enemy were before them now, alright. Lasmark could see scaling ladders against the mossy logs of the town’s fence. He could see missiles flitting up and down. He could see standards flapping in the wind, a ragged black one over all the rest, the standard of Black Dow himself, the Northern scouts had said. That was when General Jalenhorm had given the order to advance, and made it abundantly clear nothing would change his mind.

Lasmark turned, hoping he wouldn’t trip and catch a mouthful of barley, and urged his men forward with what he hoped was a soldierly jerk of his hand.
Joe Abercrombie, The Heroes

By the sea, Rictus had been born, and now it was by the sea that he would die.

He had thrown away his shield and sat on a tussock of yellow marram grass, with the cold grey sand between his toes and a blinding white lace of foam from the incoming tide blazing bright as snow in his eyes.

If he lifted his head there was real snow to be seen also, on the shoulders of Mount Panjaeos to the west. Eternal snow, in whose drifts the god Gaenion had his forge, and had hammered out the hearts of stars.

As good a place as any to make an end.

He felt the blood ooze from his side, a slow promise, a sneer. It made him smile. I know that, he thought. I know these things. The point has been made. A spearhead from Gan Burian has made it.

He still had his sword, such as it was, a cheap, soft-iron bargain he’d picked up more out of a sense of decorum than anything else. Like all men, he knew his real weapon was the spear. The sword was for defeat, for the black end when one could no longer deny it.

And he still had a spear. Eight feet tall, the old, dark wood of the shaft scored now with new scars of white. It had been his father’s.

My father. Whose home, whose life I have now thrown onto the scales.
Paul Kearney, The Ten Thousand

Here’s a quick excerpt from my own writing in comparison to the above:
A deafening silence filled the inner courtyard. Massacred bodies with faces frozen in fear and despair covered the space once home to beautiful gardens. Nothing stirred except for the five High Mages fanning out amongst the motionless forms, each searching for a sign of life. The smell of burnt flesh enveloped Amcaro and worked its way into his nostrils and robes. More than two dozen royal guards lay dead, joined by half as many servants—charred husks against the white stone floor.

Standing amid the devastation, Amcaro’s mouth hung open in disbelief. “One Above, how did this happen?” he whispered.

After feeling the immense wave of sorcery, he and the only other mages powerful enough to teleport had arrived from afar. He wanted to help search for survivors but he couldn’t turn his attention away from the woman before him. Her beautiful face unrecognizable, her body blackened, there was no denying that the dark red remnants of her robes belonged to one of their order, a High Mage. She was one of only seven in Cadonia. Amcaro felt his gut tighten at the realization that his former pupil, Fei, was dead.
Joshua P. Simon, Rise and Fall

In closing, regardless of your style or prose, the most important thing to me when telling your story is being able to convey your story to the reader in such a way that they want to come back for more.

Whose style/prose do you enjoy? Why?


2 Responses so far.

  1. The stuff from Patrick Rothfuss is awesome. Honestly, that is what I always hoped I could sound like when I write. It's just so "comfortable." There's a complete ease to it when you read it that draws you right in - no pretensions, totally conversational and transparent. But yeah, when I write - that's what I hear in my head...whether it actually comes out that way when I type it is a WHOLE other story.

  2. Yep. Rothfuss is a great writer and storyteller. He openly admits that he agonizes over every little word which is why his books take so long to write. Still, he is extremely successful... so something is working.

Leave a Reply