It’s difficult for me to pinpoint what I want out of my writing style. It’s subjective– some people like florid prose (and manage to do it badly or well, depending on their skill), and some people like utilitarian prose (which also can turn out badly or well). I don’t know who said it first, but I heard it from Brandon Sanderson: prose is like a window. It can be transparent, allowing the reader to see the story clearly, or it can be decorative, calling attention to itself and away from the story. Sanderson’s prose is very transparent; he wants us to see all his plot twists and characters without the distraction of poetry. Laini Taylor’s prose is decorative; the story is mediocre, but the way it’s told is phenomenal. Patrick Rothfuss’s prose is hailed as poetic and his story as brilliant. He writes evenly, leaving the window clear enough to admire the story, yet decorating it enough to admire the prose. There’s nothing wrong with any of these three writers– they’ve just picked their strengths carefully. Occasionally, however, writers waver between a clear window and a decorative one.
What’s the problem with that? There’s always going to be some variation. Sometimes Rothfuss intentionally obscured some of the story in brilliant storytelling, and in other places intentionally hid the storytelling to make way for some brilliant story. Neither prose nor story can be considered the epitome of literary art, and variation is natural. However, blatant variation, allowing the great storytelling’s presence to suddenly contrast with its absence, is a problem.
I recently reviewed Atlantis Rising, by T.A. Barron. One of my comments was on his prose. He enjoyed being the flowery, Arthurian middle grade writer who described verdant green forests and exotic creatures. I didn’t really like it because it felt like it was trying to compensate for the story’s inadequacy. He made the first mistake of ignoring his story and letting the prose carry the book. He could have solved that problem easily, however– with a little bit of reworking, he could have made the story mediocre (like Laini Taylor’s), so that I could sit back and enjoy the telling. Unfortunately, his storytelling wasn’t consistent.
I mentioned in the review that the story seemed to vary between cartoonish and grotesque. The cartoon feel of it came from the flowery prose– the grotesque part came when he suddenly dropped the flowers. It happened early on in the book, ruining the rest of it. What happened? Well, he was writing a scene in a dungeon where just about everything was nasty. He didn’t want to write it– he’s a middle grade author, darn it, not some horror writer! Since his prose is obviously the most interesting part of the story, leaving the prose simple would take attention away from that part… right?
Nope. By leaving the prose simple, he suddenly made the window very clear– instead of glossing over the nasty parts, they were suddenly hard-hitting and gory. With no prose to distract us, we were only left with the horrific story. The prose went back to its florid self once the character got out of the dungeon, of course. But with that momentary lapse, he took away our illusion that everything was wonderful in this world of his. We had seen the worst and now he was just trying to cover it up.
This wasn’t simple variation, as Patrick Rothfuss used. This was negligence. Because he didn’t know the consequences of his actions, he created a jarring scene that popped me out of the book. Even if I had any interest left after the first few chapters, it was gone now.
And it isn’t just him. I’ve seen it in other places too, including, but not limited to, my own writing. In my early works, I wrote with an affected style, rejoicing in the words I could use in my descriptions. I described this, I described that– and then, when an action scene came along I didn’t want to write, I quickly resorted to the facts. By doing that, I left the reader to interpret the facts as they wished. That meant that action scene was a whole lot more gruesome than I wanted it to be.
Simple can be good. Flowery can be good. Everything in moderation, and variation is allowed, but control your subconscious impulses. When you come to a scene that is distasteful to you, the worst thing you can do is drop your style altogether. You’re going to need to work more on that scene, just to fudge the details enough to make it unnoticeable, than you normally would. Simple prose evokes more of a reaction to the story than florid does. Don’t let that catch you unawares.