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Balancing Beauty, Language, and Story

Recently, a friend and I were talking about writing (like you do), and he drew my attention to some comments from Jonathan Carroll about the relationship between beautiful language and storytelling. In a 2002 interview with Rain Taxi, Carroll says:

Too often, writers either write well or they story-tell well. Very rarely are they working toward the middle, and a lot of the time the guys who write well are considered hands-off, literary writers. I think that they are forgiven a lot. They may have beautiful language or metaphors, but when I read, I want both. I want to read a good book, and that’s one of the reasons why I don’t read genre fiction, because most of these guys can’t write well. They can story-tell well, but they can’t write well, and I just get bored. To sit on a page with furiously beautiful language: that entertains you for a while, but after a while, it’s like, come on! And if the guy tells a good story only and the characters are like film sets that have a stick behind them, and if you take it away they’ll collapse-no, I want both. I want both in what I read. And I’m trying to do it in what I write.

This is a nice quote because it is succinct and it communicates Carroll’s point clearly. However, I think that taken at face-value it oversimplifies the relationship between language and story-telling (bear in mind that an interview like this doesn’t really provide much room for nuance, and I suspect a writer as good as Carroll well understands the underlying nuance that informs such statements).

I agree with Carroll that beautiful prose and solid story-telling should not be mutually exclusive. However, I object to the use of the term “beauty” as a way of describing prose in any critical sense because it tells us more about the speaker’s literary tastes than about the text itself. It is an over-broad term, useful in colloquial, casual discussion (or in interviews), but useless in exploring how fiction actually works.

What Makes Prose Beautiful?

First, let me start by saying that I do not think that all books are created equal. Some stories are better than others, and some are just plain bad. But the beauty of prose alone, or the degree to which the story takes primacy over style, does not determine “quality” in my estimation. And that is because the style of a given story and the balance struck between story, character, philosophy, and style are consequences of authorial choice.

Consider for a moment three sentences, taken from three different “mystery” novels. While all three sentences serve a similar – technical – function, their constructions differ greatly:

Sentence A As our little mules strove up the last curve of the mountain, where the main path divided into three, producing two side paths, my master stopped for a while, to look around: at the sides of the road, at the road itself, and above the road, where, for a brief stretch, a series of evergeren pines formed a natural roof, white with snow.
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
Sentence B It’s a long drag back from Tijuana and one of the dullest drives in the state.
Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
Sentence C I opened the front door with my latch-key and purposely delayed a few moments in the hall, hanging up my hat and the light overcoat that I had deemed a wise precaution against the chill of an early autumn morning.
Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

All three of these sentences serve a straightforward narrative goal: they set the scene, they establish the setting in which the rest of the action is to take place. It is a simple goal, but they are each written in a completely different style. Eco relies on a multifaceted sentence, with plenty of subordinate clauses and descriptive imagery. Chandler rejects all of that, and instead offers a flat description of a character’s perception of the environment. And Christie, whose prose Carroll calls wooden elsewhere in his interview, presents an unemotional portrayal of the narrator’s actions, with some characterization implied through the narrator’s value judgments.

Which is the more “beautiful”? Which the more effective?

I posit that they are each “beautiful” in their own way: Eco’s sentence is more complicated, with more components and more images than either Chandler’s or Christie’s. It relies to a greater extent on visual imagery, and its punctuation and rhythm imbues a serene ambiance to the text. Chandler’s sentence, though simpler in its construction, tells us more about the speaker/narrator, and uses an the elongated soft vowel (the “a” in “drag”) punctuated by the short “u” and hard “dr” (in “dullest drives”) to both suggest the experience described and offset it with a hard stop. Chandler’s sentence accomplishes just as much as Eco’s, but in far fewer words. By contrast, Christie’s sentence straddles a position between these two extremes: hers is a sentence verging on the “merely functional,” wherein she includes more sensory detail and more mental context than Chandler offers, but less visual imagery than Eco. One might suggest, as Carroll does in his interview, that Christie’s prose is “wooden” as a result. But I don’t think that is the case: Christie’s prose is functional; it gets the job done, but in her stories she focused her attention on aspects other than the prose.

For me, there is beauty in all three approaches (and I suspect that Carroll too would recognize the beauty in Eco and Chandler at least, particularly in light of his other comments regarding Chandler). But what makes all three sentences “beautiful” is not their elegance, their fluidity, their economy, or their rhythm. Their “beauty” stems from the fact that they are effective: they produce a response in the reader, and put the reader in a certain frame of mind. And they are particularly effective, and so particularly beautiful, because their construction and the response it elicits align with the themes, characters, and plot of their respective stories.

The Right Tool for the Job

When we write, words are the chisels we use to carve our marks on the readers’ minds. In general, we would be unlikely to use a shovel to turn a screw. The craftsman and the artist must both select the tools best suited to the task at hand. If words and the style in which they get assembled into sentences and paragraphs are the tools of a writer, then they should be used as needed for a particular story. This is probably easiest to see when considering the relationship between prose style and pacing.

A complicated style, stuffed to the gills with literary allusions and luminous metaphors, might work very well in a mainstream literary novel. But by its very nature it slows the reader down: to be appreciated, it forces the reader to consider the ways in which a sentence is constructed, to savor each syllable and the way the sentence rolls off of the tongue, to luxuriate in velvety imagery like a lounging cat. There is a place for that.

But sometimes, like when a character is literally hanging over a precipice by their fingernails, the reader doesn’t want any of that artistry. They want to know: will they fall or not? They want to know what happens next, and are on the edge of their seat waiting to get it. Allusions and flowery metaphor, in such a situation, risk just getting in the way of what drives the reader’s engagement with the story (see my earlier thoughts on that score).

And this is why when we write, we need to carefully select and modulate the way in which we write to suit our needs. Because the right style for a particular passage will depend on our goals for that passage, and it will vary from story to story, or even within the same story. I am reminded here of the movie Blade Runner, which Caroll himself references elsewhere in that interview. He and I share a favorite line from that movie, apparently, namely the scene where Rutger Hauer’s character is dying and he says to Harrison Ford:

Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

For me, this is an excellent example of code-switching, of getting the audience to the right emotional point where they can experience a cathartic moment, and then to amplify that catharsis by a switching into a different style.

Prior to that scene, Blade Runner toes a fine line between a straight noir science fiction detective story, and a more poignant exploration of life and humanity. The philosophical dimensions are alluded to, suggested more by their absence from the story (and highlighted by the excellent score) than by its explicit dialog. But those allusions and tantalizing hints crystallize in that one scene, where the action of the detective story gives way to sublime beauty as voiced by the film’s ostensible villain.

That trick worked in the film because of the way the movie teetered on a point between straight detective story and philosophical conjecture. And therein, I think, lies the secret to unifying prose, theme, and character: balance.

When we write, our job is to balance the myriad devices of our fiction to achieve our artistic goals. The “right” balance will vary from story to story: one story might skew more to heart-pounding action, another might teeter in the direction of poetry, etc. But for a story’s prose to unify with its themes and narrative, we must determine where the right balance for that story can be found. Once that has been done, we must “merely” (Ha! Easier said than done!) write the text that adheres to that balance, and hope that the balance that tickled our fancy as writers will likewise resonate with our readers.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Choice of language can be a bear. Like you said, language can be used as an effect in itself, quite apart from the scene or action itself–like the background-score in a movie. In my writing, I try for a spare, clean style, except for moments that are important to the MC; then I deepen the language to try and paint a fuller, more emotional picture.

    October 16, 2012
  2. One of the primary differences between genre/popular fiction and literary fiction is the emphasis on the language. Literary fiction has the writer jumping and pointing at his beautiful turns of phrase and literary elements. In genre, the author makes himself as invisible as possible to let the story tell itself.

    After Marilyn Monroe was dressed for going out and finished with her makeup, she’d study herself in a full length mirror, then turn her back and glance back at herself. Whatever element of her makeup jumped out at her, she’d make less noticeable. She’d do this until she had a complete look.

    I’ve always thought this story is an excellent metaphor for writing genre fiction. Anything like overwriting, fancy words, and moments of being too clever need to be toned down.

    October 16, 2012
    • Much as I like that Marilyn Monroe story, I’m not sure I agree completely. There are definitely some stories for which that approach makes sense, but others where a more “literary” approach is equally valid (and actually strengthens the themes and characters of the story).

      For example, I think Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey would suffer if its Austen-esque language were reduced. But her glamour-work series remains solidly genre. John le Carré’s fiction is perfectly genre (in this case spy/thriller), but his language is rich and complex.

      I don’t think genre and elaborate “literary” constructions are mutually exclusive, but at the same time I don’t think every story needs both.

      October 17, 2012
  3. I agree with your argument, Chris, that beauty without context does not serve the story. As TNH told us at VP, writing should be done in service to the story. That being said, what I find interesting is where the author’s overarching style flavours their use of language. For example, Chandler does not write sentences like Eco and vice versa. The writer’s style does not change from story to story per se, but the degree to which they use a beautiful image or telling detail does.

    Another point I thought of was how exposition works at the sentence level to add sensory detail, reveal world, and advance the story. You allude to it above, and I think its an underused trick in the beginning writer’s toolkit. I feel like when exposition is handled poorly, what usually results is that the reader is given too much information and the pace of the story is slowed way down. Some hard SF is guilty of this, and now that I think of it, a few fantasy novels as well.

    I’ve recently learned that a lot of elements in story, including the elements mentioned above, are in the writer’s control. This has completely changed the way I approach different elements in a story and how I want to use them to direct the reader’s attention. The techniques you’ve pointed out above from the three authors also work because the reader doesn’t notice them while reading the story. I feel that, from the reader’s perspective, the technique should be invisible for them to be immersed in the story. Rothfuss’ books come to mind, for how skillfully he manipulates language for any given scene.

    Also, this essay on sentences may interest you:

    October 16, 2012
    • Absolutely! The question of whether any one author has one “style” can likely be debated ’til we’re blue in the face (I like to imagine that “style”, being a composite of things in the writer’s control, is likewise something we control, but I also recognize that plenty of really smart people disagree). Regardless of semantic discussions around style, I definitely think that authors – like Chandler, or Eco – can have an aesthetic that informs their word choice and sentence construction across multiple stories.

      And you’re absolutely right about exposition being used to slip detail and depth under the reader’s radar. It’s a great trick, and writers like Shirley Jackson or Daphne du Maurier are for me the uber-examples: they manage to build tension and a sense of utter horror without actually writing anything overtly horrific, and it is precisely through the way they build their exposition that they gradually lead the reader to their emotional destination (Shirley Jackson’s “Flower Garden” could be a master class in this technique).

      October 17, 2012

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