A few weeks ago, a friend lent me a spy thriller, one of those read-it-in-one-sitting stories that regularly crops up on the bestseller lists. It was competently executed, with breakneck pacing, a plot twistier than a tornado, and lots of gadgets, guns and high-stakes geopolitics. One irritation, though, just wouldn't go away -- chunks of description drier than a Saharan summer. That shouldn't have surprised me. Genre aficionados know that too often entertaining narratives hold hands with dull prose. Speculative prophets and world-building wizards abound, but you can't call many in the field artisans in words. Day laborers, maybe, if we wanted to be cruel, but we don’t and so we won’t. Still, the challenge remains: How can genre writers move from mere utility to beauty?
Here’s a suggestion -- read poetry.
Verse is largely foreign territory for those weaned on broadswords and lasers, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid it. The poetic greats have a lot to teach us about style. Consider how Robert Browning’s complex rhythm and rhyme add punch to ghastly psychological horror. ("That moment she was mine, mine, fair, / Perfectly pure and good: I found / A thing to do, and all her hair / In one long yellow string I wound / Three times her little throat around, / And strangled her. No pain felt she; / I am quite sure she felt no pain.") Or how William Butler Yeats underpins a homebrewed myth with allusion and strong word choice. ("The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out / When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi / Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand; / A shape with lion body and the head of a man, / A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, / Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it / Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.") Or how John Donne turns a steamy stereotype into something downright scalding with a little alliteration and metaphor. ("License my roving hands, and let them go / Before, behind, between, above, below. / O my America! my new-found-land, / My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned ...")
Of course, poetry can prove dangerous for narrative writers, especially if they overindulge. Intoxication with language can make one’s writing rococo, over-ornamented, impenetrable. Sometimes a plain sentence works best. But sometimes a little beauty can be a twist of the knife, so to speak; it goes into you and marks you, and you never fully recover from it.
(Picture: CC 2005 by Thomas Hawk)