Prose: Crayons, Colored Pencils and Markers

When a story turns from nebulous thought bubbles floating in the tepid pools of a writer's brain to actual words on a page, they naturally take on different forms and styles. The story itself does dictate some of how it comes to life, but most of it is a Frankenstein-style golem stitched together from the writer's own tastes, skill and experience. And how a writer tells a story tends to affect the story itself naturally, so really it works both ways.

Just like choosing the verb tense changed a lot of how the story is told, the style of a book's prose changes it as well. Things like the narrative perspective, the tone and descriptive style being used, even the vocabulary that the writer uses all affect how a story is perceived by the reader and how the story itself takes shape. If the book is in a wide perspective, with a lofty vocabulary and broad, sweeping descriptors, then it naturally feels like a bigger story. If a story is done in first person, with very colloquial dialogue and narration, the story will feel smaller and more intimate.

Of course, there are exceptions to any sort of rule, written or unwritten, and things like style and types of prose can be used to tell any sort of story the writer wants to tell. You can tell an epic, sweeping story from a first-person perspective, for instance. You can also tell a very limited, small story from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. You can use a lofty vocabulary to describe mundane, even profane events. And so on.

Color me purple (or pink, red, brown, etc)

People usually talk about two different colors of prose: purple and brown. Purple prose is flowery, super-stylish, a rhyme scheme away from being poetry, to the point where a story's meaning can get confused behind the mess of words. Brown prose is the opposite, plain, simple, generic and utilitarian, so plain and boring that it feels more like a textbook than a story. Of course, neither extreme is really where you want your story to lie (unless it's for a specific reason).

The ground between purple and brown prose is nebulous and basically impossible to categorize. Every writer is different, and writers often vary their style from work to work on purpose. Writers also change over time as people, and their writing changes with them. It's hard to nail down exactly what a writer's work is when it's always different, the boundaries keep shifting.

In that shifting middle ground, then, you'll find writers like myself, who tend to write third-person books from a tighter, more personal perspective, right alongside those who specialize in first-person narratives and even the odd second-person, though that's much rarer. You'll also find as wide a vocabulary range as any language you choose to read in; how some like myself try to use this to our narrative advantage is to match the words in use to the character the story is being told through. If it's a story about a child, use a child's vocabulary. If it's a story about a woman borne to a high-class society, use loftier and more varied words.

A style should be a tool as much as anything else, it should not be dictated or simply left to stagnate. Vary things up, stretch your legs, experiment and find out what works best for what you're trying to communicate to the reader.

Broad strokes with small brushes

As I said at the top, a story's prose and style should be born from a writer's own expectations for the work and their ability to tell a story in a certain way. That's not to say that writers should not strive to do new things and try new styles, quite the opposite in fact. But if you read enough books, you'll come across stories where a writer had a style in mind that does not come off at all well on the page. Now, this might sound counter to what I said in the paragraph above about being willing to experiment, but hear me out.

Style changes are hard. It's easy to fall into a rut and keep writing the same sort of stories over and over again, especially if you have an established reader-base who enjoy what you do and encourage you to make more. Anything different can be dangerous, because all of a sudden, you're unsure. Maybe it will work better, and maybe it will be worse. So here's my advise: be daring but cautious. Don't just get stuck in that rut, but don't vomit all over the page because you have a word-a-day calendar, either.

You can change things, certainly. But maybe start slow. Don't jump head-first into a new project with a hard deadline and attempt a completely new style right out of the gate. Go with what you know for the most part, but change up just enough to keep it fresh, to challenge yourself, to make each day's writing a new experience. Teach yourself how to write again as you go. No one learned how to write in one day, or even a month or a year. It takes time, practice and repetition.

And for the readers out there, don't be afraid to read new styles and things, either. Just because you've never read a first-person novel and you're confused and get lost when you read something in second-person doesn't make those works bad. It makes them what they are: unfamiliar and different. Those aren't bad things. As I said, styles are unique and can't be put in a box, every work is different. Give those new things from a favorite author a chance, or go with a completely unfamiliar work that was recommended to you. Maybe you'll like it, maybe you won't. But you'll never know until you give it a shot.

Next time: Give it some character!