Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Writing styles: pretty vs plain

I read a half dozen writing books this past year. Most claim that colorful verbs are superior to plain ones. This:

“Coveting anything for Christmas?” Vickie said, kneading her computer mouse with her right hand.

would be preferable to this:

"Anything you really want for Christmas?” Vickie said, tapping her computer mouse with her right hand.

The one dissenting voice is Stephen King. "Use as plain language as you can," he says. "Never say 'I ambled down the corridor' if you can say 'I walked down the hall'."

Who's right? I suppose it depends whether your style is closer to Stephen King, or to literary New Yorker magazine columnists who pen books on how to write.

While I'm on this topic, Peng said tonight that he learned in Chinese secondary school the elements of fiction: focusing on conflict, eliminating non-essential plot development, exposing characters' personalities by creating scenes around their reactions, putting their passions at odds with each other.

I cannot say how indignant this made me.

Why, oh why, did my American high school english courses spend 90% of their time on symbolism? By graduation I could analyze a leaf falling from a tree six ways from Sunday, but I knew nothing of the basic fiction elements.

The falling leaf represents a fall from grace. The leaf's passage through the air is a rebirth through the birth canal. The leaf falling is an indication of fall turning to winter, hence the story moving to a new season. The separation from the mother tree is man's rejection of his origins. Or it is man's isolation from nature, going away from the forests and onto the cement sidewalks of modern society. The leaf will turn into mulch, indicating the cycle of death and life and continual struggle.

Why was I converted into an expert symbolism detector by age 14, but I didn't know fiction should resolve around conflict until I was 26 and self-studying off books?


semiotica said...

"She's the hermeneutic hierophant of Company G..." (sung to the tune of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy)

Anonymous said...

Because the majority American HS students can barely write a coherent paragraph?

Natalia said...

Yes I agree with you on the fact that American English courses focus too much on symbolism. This happened in my college English class as well and it got so ridiculous. I remember somebody deducing sexual symbolism from the fact that a character ate a peach.

I mean does every sentance really have to mean something? If I was a writer I certainly would not construct a story in such a way that the reader had to decode every sentance for hidden symbolism.

Sure you can try to inflict some implicit messages but I agree with using plain and precise language. I also am a great opponent of flowery fluff.

Brian said...

I was just dealing with this last night while reading a book by someone I really care about who wants me to provide editorial feedback. It's gonna be painful.

Lordy, keep it plain and simple language, unless you have a genius for language and metaphor, which very few have. Writing, like all art, is about truth (small "t").

When you read writing that is florid but does not resonate, it's because the writer is trying to mask a lack of emotional connection to the story by using language that they think will impress or that "sounds good." Readers spot it a mile away, even if language is not their thing.

Conflict is everything in story. It's through a character's reaction to conflict that his true character is revealed to us. That's why the stakes must escalate through each plot turn.

The inciting incident in a story is an event that irrevocably changes the life of the protagonist. How the protagonist changes and reacts through each escalating turn of the plot is what makes story interesting.

Anna said...

As Americans we also tend to read into things way more than other cultures. And we are the ones so overly concerned with political correctness. We analyze everything... asking "what does this REALLY mean", etc.

I actually love symbolism, but it sure is out of balance. If it makes you feel any better, I taught my 1 1/2 year old son to stomp on leaves because they make a fun crunching sound. hahaha

Tom G. said...

Cynically, because symbolism (which leads to the practice of various "readings" of the text from different perspectives) gives much more material for academic English types to write papers about, leading to tenure. It's been pointed out that English departments are the only ones staffed by critics of their subject, rather than folk who actually do their subject.

Then again, I've long held a theory that different brain types put very different weights on different aspects of fiction; engineer types like plot and ideas, other folk prefer poetry and rhythm of language, others like characterization of various types, etc.

Seneca the Younger said...

Because the majority American HS students can barely write a coherent paragraph?

Anon, I think you've got the causality reversed: American HS students can't write coherently because they're being taught by people who were taught that symbolism was more important than clarity.

Dog of Justice said...

Pretty vs. plain: I would say this depends on your objective. Use plain language if it is the literal content of your writing that really matters (this should be the case the vast majority of the time), but consider using prettier words if there is a specific emotional experience you are trying to deliver.

American vs. Chinese education: China cares more about basic competence, America cares more about originality. In principle this is as it should be, given that China is developing while America is the world leader. (But in practice, I think the American education system has pushed this tradeoff too far, and your anecdote is one example of this.)

ArC said...

Why was I converted into an expert symbolism detector by age 14, but I didn't know fiction should resolve around conflict until I was 26 and self-studying off books?

Because they were teaching you to read, not write?

ishkabubba said...

most writers are inspired by reading the words of other talented writers. great writing isn't something you pick-up in a *creative writing for dummies* book. it's about reading works by authors you admire and have great reverence for. it's about developing your own voice, so your words and creativity flows naturally.

lately the writer that inspires me the most whose words completely blow me away is a teenager who blogs stories from his life. his words cut through me like a sharpened butter knife -- always caught off-guard and unexpectedly.

here is a sample of his writing:

From her window she seemed to be counting the stars, and the street lamps periodically illuminated her features with pale orange fire. She was beautiful in a painful way, and I wondered with a heavy heart what this poor woman must have wanted out of her life, and what kind of hell had her now that her dreams had left her. It wasn't hard to imagine her as a teenager, her eyes not yet darkened and hollow and her hair untouched by cheap bleach. When did she first realize that her life had arrived and it hadn't brought with it what she thought it would? Had she even realized it at all?

amazing and he's only nineteen.

physalia said...

"She caught my eye, like one of those pointy screen door latches..."

"The hailstones leapt from the pavement, like maggots being fried in hot grease..."

(source unknown)

bruce said...

So where's the link ishkabubba??

Hang on, am I falling victim to an advanced form of comment spam, where the blog link is preceded by a teaser comment?

ishkabubba said...

bruce, i'm confused. what link? :-/

Anonymous said...

Fiction doesn't have to revolve around conflict either:

"I made out with Niniane last night and it was awesome."

See, no conflict. Just awesome.

Anonymous said...

Like you