I’m sure we’ve all encountered this remarkably overused but remarkably useful cliché (first coined in the sixties as a design principle by the US navy) but it’s amazing how many of us forget about it when it comes to writing fiction.
A panic often seems to set in about how writers should seek to use language in unusual and interesting ways. We start to think that we need to sound like writers; that every line must be a proclamation of our innate genius (signalled by the use of language in a “writerly” manner).
It’s possibly, in part, the fault of well-intentioned teachers who prescribe to programs like this in the mistaken belief that it’s the words we know and not how we use them contextually that matters within writing.
But such a writing philosophy means we end up with lines this:
“Hey, if I have five oranges in this hand, and five in the other, what do I have?” Alasdair inquired, his tone attempting to permeate the disconsolate atmosphere that had pervaded the preternaturally darkened room, and elevate the mood into the upper echelons of good humour.
That line, by the way, is influenced by genuine slush pile entries (but comes from none of them - the details are non specific to protect the innocent), all of which made the error of thinking that prose should be dense and “worthy”. But, here’s the thing, try reading that out loud. It’s impossible. The meaning is lost in the attempt at being sophisticated. And the sophistication is lost in the effort to use those “worthy” words.
Good prose should always feel natural on the tongue. Consider that audio books are a growing market. As my dad asked when he read an early draft of the manuscript would become my debut: “can you imagine Martin Jarvis reading this on CD?” My dad is, obviously, of a certain age. You might like to imagine David Tennant or Olivia Coleman, perhaps.
Attempting to “sound like a writer” ironically often disguises your voice and muddies the clarity of your storytelling. The above works much better when you do this (although I admit its still not great writing, but hey, this is an example only):
“Hey, if I have five oranges in this hand, and five in the other, what do I have?” Alasdair smiled warily as he spoke. You could cut the atmosphere in the room with a knife. Someone need to say something, to lighten the mood.
The difference here is that the language is plainer, and also more “inside” Gordon’s head (close POV is a hallmark of most modern fiction, whether told in third or first – or even second – person). Sure, “cutting the atmosphere with a knife” is a cliché, but it’s better than tying yourself in linguistic knots trying to sound profound (we’ll talk about clichés another day). Also note that Alasdair smiling warily not only eliminates the need for dialogue tags, but shows the reader that the character is making a joke, even if he’s uncertain about the reaction he’ll get. (“showing and not telling” is something we need to discuss, someday – again, its one of those how-to-write standards that is often misinterpreted).
The basic advice I would give is to keep your sentences clear, direct and simple. That is not to say you shouldn’t use sophisticated words at all, but rather that you should use them when contextually appropriate, and not only because you want to seem smart. We have large vocabularies because there are large contextual uses for them. The job of a writer – of anyone in communications, whether factual or fictional – is to use the right word in the right situation. Keep it clear. Keep it clean. Keep it simple.
Related to this, you should only use words that you are sure of the meaning of. The same goes with phrases, too. I have recently seen manuscripts use the word “nonchalant” to describe someone’s nose, and “translucent” to describe breasts; both of these uses of words sound great but mean something far different than the author intended.
On the theme of keeping things simple, there is a great resource that I point a lot of clients towards; an essay called HUNTING DOWN THE PLEONASM by Allan Guthrie (you may remember it from the previous post on this blog). The essay is an excellent and accessible guide to keeping your prose direct and simple, so that you can stop trying too hard and allow your prose to feel natural, sophisticated, and most of all, comprehensible to the reader.