Written for NZ Society of Authors’ New Zealand Author magazine
Advance that plot! How poetic prose can hold fiction back
by Michael Botur
Frozen Flower Fiction
The most essential piece of advice for people trying to write impressive fiction is this: Every sentence must tell us something about the character or advance the plot. Attributed to Kurt Vonnegut, that mantra is the simplest guidance on writing fiction there is – and it clashes against the popularity of poetic prose which, while sultry and sensuous, fails to create a gripping narrative.
The difference between writing which evokes poetic imagery and writing which gives characters momentum is the difference between a still photograph and a motion picture.
Let’s look at some examples.
Moving Vs Frozen Writing: the test
How can we tell if we’re dealing with a ‘still’ piece of writing versus a ‘moving’ piece of writing? Here’s the test.
Think of a poem, a flash fiction, a short story and a novel. Try to describe each piece to a friend. Chances are all you’ll remember from the poem or the flash are a couple of phrases or images, whereas the longer fictions leave us with impressions of characters and their situations which we can elaborate on for ages. Each type of writing needs to know its place. Nobody wants to read a poem about Jack Reacher, just as nobody wants to read an entire novel about Robert Frost and his neighbour mending some stone wall out in the woods.
Short stories are the fiction we’re most likely to come across in print, on the airwaves and in competitions. Emma Hart won the Sunday Star-Times Short Story Award 2015 with these opening lines:
“This was not the sort of car Mike had been expecting to stop. Day like this, he hadn’t been expecting anyone to stop for a while. Mind you, if it hadn’t been for the rain, he wouldn’t have been hitching.” Plot advanced; character’s mission explained. That’s a pass.
2014’s Sunday Star-Times short story competition winner, Once Had Me by Tracy Farr, begins with five sentences describing a car on a winding country road, which sounds too poetic to go in a good short story– but the sentences actually tell us who is narrating, what they think, and why they are doing it. It’s a nicely compressed narrative opener, with the added bonus of some poetic images. Another pass.
There are plenty of failures out there, though – I’ve come across weak narratives in all sorts of places, from the local Pukekohe flash fiction writing group to New Yorker magazine.
The best way to illustrate this without hurting local Kiwis’ feelings is to make fun of long-dead authors, so let’s do that.
Flowery prose: yeah, nah.
E M Forster’s A Passage to India opens with three pages describing India with sentences like “As for the civil station, it provokes no emotion. It charms not, nor does it repel.” I supposed in 1924 writers were expected to deluge the reader with a subcontinental monsoon of flowery adjectives (and adverbs) including monotonous, steeply, noble, stipling, unconsidered et cetera, but writing like that will only grip the type of reader who is really looking for poetry. So yeah, nah.
East of Eden, another classic, opens with T.M.I. about the Salinas Valley and its flowery-ness (“Not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the colour of the poppies.”) Again: yeah, nah.
It’s not that pre-21st century writers were universally guilty of frozen flower fiction. Jane Austen was onto it when she kicked off Pride and Prejudice telling us that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife and had Mr Bennet and his lady exchanging curt, meaningful dialogue on the first page.
Plenty of writers back in the day knew how to write lean, taut, crisp fiction; meanwhile plenty of contemporary writers are doing the opposite, letting readers mistake beautiful writing for rigorous writing.
Advancing The Plot Means Not Going Backwards
Journalistic news stories have an upside down triangle structure, by which the most essential details are revealed in the first line and all the detail after decreases in importance.
Fiction does need to snag the reader in the first few words of strong narrative, then that narrative must be sustained until the end.
Not everybody is patient enough to read pretty prose hoping it goes somewhere. Flash fiction only gets away with pretty prose because the pieces are so brief.
IN every piece of writing, as soon as possible, we need to let the reader know who the protagonists are and what their motivations are. Write fiction so powerful the reader is compelled until they’ve taken in the final full stop. If the writing evokes gorgeous imagery along the way, that’s a bonus, but it’s not okay to write poetry and call it fiction.