Writer-friends, I’ve been ruminating on the nature of excellent prose. I do this because, well, I’m me, and I’m an insanely picky reader. Not that stolid prose will utterly scuttle a story for me, just that it’s far easier for me to lose myself in a narrative if the writer’s prose is rock-solid and occasionally startlingly lovely.
I’m thinking about this because a friend recently passed on Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses to me, and boy howdy, does that man know how to write! No joke, he puts you on notice with the very first sentences, which I’ll share here so you can get the full effect.
The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door. He took off his hat and came slowly forward. The floorboards creaked under his boots. In his black suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase. Along the cold hallway behind him hung the portraits of forebears only dimly known to him all framed in glass and dimly lit above the narrow wainscotting. He looked down at the guttered candlestub. He pressed his thumbprint in the warm wax pooled on the oak veneer. Lastly he looked at the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed moustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.
Holy hell, but that’s a tour-de-force paragraph! I’ll unpack that for you a bit. Here’s why it’s phenomenal.
Check that first sentence. Now, McCarthy could’ve said something like, “The candleflame flickered in the wind as he opened the door, stepped into the hall, and closed the door behind him.” But no, we have a single, concrete image now in our minds of a candleflame twisting in a mirror as someone enters a hall. The slight skewing of perspective makes the image immeasurably more effective.
Then look at the rest of the imagery: lilies lean palely (note the adverb [put that in your pipe and smoke it, adverb police], and the assonance of the repeated “l” sound), waisted vase (alliteration), guttered candlestub (technically not even correct, since guttered is a past tense verb, not an adjective, but we accept it nonetheless), the thumbprint in warm wax, and lastly, the caved, drawn face and the paper-thin eyelids. You see it all. It’s presented in slightly oblique language, but I think it’s because of the obliqueness that the visuals are so effective.
And don’t even get me started on the repeated last sentence. Just that simple device, a sidewise slide into the point-of-view of the main character, tells us so much. There is confusion, and loss, and sorrow, and a sense of being adrift, all encapsulated in a four-word sentence, repeated.
I think the power of this prose consists in McCarthy’s taking a view askew. He takes a series of fairly conventional images and twists them a bit, giving them a freshness and vitality. You can learn to do this too.
Because I’m self-aggrandizing like that, I’ll give you one example from my own work. In my Bad Girl Blogfest entry, I depict the shooting of the antagonist thusly:
The bullet sent chips of asphalt flying behind Hector’s head. He choked, staring at Ana with wide eyes as blood spurted from the hole in his throat.
Notice I didn’t mention the bullet entering or exiting, or brains splattering across the sidewalk. All of that’s a bit bog-standard, no? Instead, I chose the image of the bullet chipping asphalt, and a quick bleedout from a throat wound. A bit skewed, but I feel it’s more effective that way.
And you know what? I think you can do this too. It just takes some retraining of the brain to think a bit differently about what you want to convey. Instead of bitter cold, perhaps it’s an Antarctic blast. Rather than a character slipping quietly through an archway, perhaps they scuttle, cockroach-quick and cat-silent, beneath the arcing doorway. It’s all in how you look at things.
Why not give it a try? I know you have it in you.
Write on, friends.