Every avid reader out there is convinced it’s the stunning use of words that makes a great writer. And every struggling writer out there believes it is the beautiful prose that hooks the reader.
Think back to essay writing in your English (or in my case, Croatian) classes back in elementary school. You might still hear your teacher raving about the lush, beautiful sentences, while conveniently ignoring the fact that the story itself was either a giant clump of consecutive things that happened (with not much causality between them), or all together — nonexistent.
Bestselling books, the classics . . . they’re all beautifully written (or most of them, anyway). So, intuitively we conclude — aided by our creative writing teachers — that it is stunning prose that makes a story worth reading.
When in fact, it’s the exact opposite.
It’s the story that makes the writing shine.
You don’t believe me?
Let’s have a look at some examples.
First example: Donna Tart — GOLDFINCH
Read the following first page of Donna Tart’s Goldfinch. Be mindful of the moment when you’re reeled into the story as the reader; that moment when your gut twists, and you simply have to know more.
Fair enough, Donna Tart can’t write a bad sentence, but I’ve tried to decipher which one of these exquisite sentences hooked me as a reader. I highlighted those in pink, and those I considered the most beautiful ones, in green.
The two sentences highlighted in pink tell us that the narrator is hiding in a hotel room in Holland. I’m instantly compelled to find out what happened to this character. Why is he hiding? Has he done something wrong? Is he in danger? Even more so, why is he hiding in a foreign country?
It’s not the beauty of these sentences that makes me want to read more— it’s their meaning, the notion they convey.
Second example: Sonja Yoerg — TRUE PLACES
Read the first page of this beautifully written novel, and see where you feel that tug to read more.
Here are my highlights; again, pink for the sentences that hooked me, and green for the ones I found most beautifully written.
“The girl knew before she opened her eyes that Mama was gone. She always knew.” 😯 Two simple sentences. By far, not the most luxurious ones on this page, but they convey an enigma, and I’m burning to know more! Who is this girl? Who is Mama? Is Mama her actual mother or a person she just calls Mama? Has the girl been held captive? Where did Mama go? What does the narrator mean by “she always knew?”
“The air inside the cabin cradled a hollow space (…)” — wow, stunning use of words. But, basically, what they’re conveying is that the cabin is empty (although, granted in a much prettier way. But what caught my attention is not the empty cabin (there are so many empty cabins in the world, so what makes this one any different?). What piqued my interest is that Mama was gone. And that the girl always knew it.
Third example: Christina Baker Kline — A PIECE OF THE WORLD
Here’s the first page:
So many beautiful words. And it’s really difficult to say which ones hooked me here (the problem with good writers is that they weave a tight narrative, making every word both shiny and important), but here’s my attempt at deciphering. Again, I used pink for sentences that sucked me into the story, and green for gorgeous prose.
So, food for thought; beautiful prose can’t make up for the lack of the story, but a good story will shine through mediocre, and sometimes even bad prose (which is by no means a case with any of these examples).
Translated into writer’s terms: don’t sweat about the beauty of your prose, especially not in the early drafts. Worry about creating a story worth reading. Give the reader something to think about, questions that need answering. Make them care about your characters and what happens to them. Plant the seeds of the main problem your novel addresses in those first pages. Sprinkle them with small inconsistencies that will subtly catch your reader’s eye, without them even knowing what hooked them.
And you can polish the prose later on.