An unexpected outcome of my MFA experience is that it’s deepened my appreciation for voice and style in fiction writing. Not that my literary tastes were all that refined to begin with. Before joining the program, I liked stories if they were funny. Or if their story arcs featured gripping action. Or if they built vivid, captivating worlds. And that was pretty much it. Over time, however—and through a lot of reading and writing—I’ve grown to enjoy stories of all genres and forms because I’ve begun paying greater attention to voice and language, because I now recognize the weighty role these “quieter” aspects of the work play in shaping powerful stories. Not only do they make line-level reading more pleasant, I’ve learned, they form the very bedrock of the other aspects of writing. The setting falls flat without lifelike descriptions of it. Just as the plot doesn’t move without clear, captivating passages that seem to effortlessly transport the reader from Point A to Point B.
And this realization has prompted me to work on the quality of my own prose. See, I came to creative writing from the world of business blogging, so my writing style tends toward the prosaic. And I think many fiction writers would say the same thing (about the prosaic writing, not the business blogging). In many emerging authors (myself included), I see a desire to move away from a more functional writing style and towards a more poetic one, an eternal quest for the line that truly sings. But that isn’t to say that poetic is always better (spoken like a true fiction writer, am I right?). Poetic is beautiful, but it’s also, by definition, less clear. More associative. And so, the opposite problem of dry, dull prose is that of the story that’s too disparate and blurry, where it’s difficult to piece the individual, beautiful lines into a coherent narrative.
Between these two extremes is a vast middle ground containing countless ways to shape your prose, with no right answer and a lot of it depending on personal style. And, hell, it isn’t even a true spectrum because occasionally you’ll stumble on that killer line that’s both a perfect encapsulation of what you wanted to say and the most beautiful way of saying it. Writers like Karen Russell and William Gibson seem to have a preternatural gift for these constructions. But for the rest of us, finding the right balance between imagery and clarity can be a recurring struggle.
While there’s certainly no formula for achieving that balance, there are several techniques that can help a writer negotiate it. Below are five tips designed to help fiction writers improve both the beauty and clarity of their prose: surefire ways to hone the voice of your writing as you draft or revise your next piece.
Five Tips for Balancing Imagery and Clarity in Your Prose
1. Vary your sentence length and style
Remember that there’s beauty in the simple sentence. Too often, we confuse the concept of stunning, poetic language with flowery prose, but leaning too far this way can make a story seem overwrought or overwritten, especially if your paragraphs are a parade of long, flowy sentences. It’s important to remember that the term “monotonous prose” (that scourge of a label) can apply to any form of syntactical repetition (not just an overreliance on short, boring sentences). So switch it up. Punctuate a long, descriptive sentence with a short, active one. Not only do readers find this varied writing pleasing and engaging; it also presents many opportunities to heighten your clarity. Long sentences offer the chance to get precise in your descriptions, while the short ones are an opportunity to be direct in your meaning. Not that either of those constructions is necessarily limited to those roles, but it’s helpful to keep those strengths in mind as you’re constructing a story from those building blocks.
Bonus tip: Reading your work aloud is a great way to check how you’re doing on this technique. If it sounds good to you (varied, striking, etc.), it’ll read well to someone else. And if your sentences trip you up anywhere (due to ambiguous or unwieldy writing), chances are your reader will stumble over the same line you did.
2. Sometimes less is more with vivid prose
This rule goes hand in hand with the previous one, shedding a slightly different light on why, sometimes, the right move is to scale back the imagery or poeticism of a given story, scene, or paragraph.
I understand the desire to paint scenes as if they’re stunning murals, moving the reader from one arresting detail to the next, but there’s a point at which it becomes simply too much. It’s important not to describe scenes/characters/et cetera in Dickensian detail (But tell me, Charles, what about the lone candlestick sitting atop the aforementioned table in the back corner of the room? How did that look?) because you end up subverting your own prose in two crucial ways. First, you crowd out the truly beautiful lines by giving their neighbors the same weight. Second, you deprive the reader of the chance to create their own mental image of the setting/person in question by stuffing their head full of minutiae. Better to identify the best lines or most crucial details and pare back the sentences around them, letting the stunners do most of the work and letting the reader fill in the gaps as they please.
3. Beware metaphors at the beginning of stories (and in speculative worlds)
Metaphors are amazing tools for any writer. They can be succinct, beautiful, evocative… and horribly unclear if misused. One mistake I’ve made several times is to drop a careless metaphor at the beginning of a story, before the reader has found their footing in the world and therefore can’t even know if I’m speaking metaphorically or not.
As an example, let’s imagine I start a story by saying, “I’m a monster.” That’s the very first line. As a reader, you’re probably thinking, Does he mean that literally (a terrifying non-human creature) or figuratively (a loathsome human being)? And if the story doesn’t include enough grounding language around this metaphor, that single ambiguity can derail the reader’s journey into the rest of the story. To avoid that, it’s usually a good move to focus on grounding the reader at the beginning of the story and swapping out unclear metaphors for similes or good old-fashioned descriptive language. Then, once the reader’s found their feet, you can blow the barn doors off and get as metaphorical as you like.
It’s worth mentioning that the same rule applies to many speculative stories, regardless of where you are in the plot arc. Depending on what kind of speculative fiction you’re working with (fantasy? sci-fi? surrealism?), it helps to be mindful of the metaphors you’re using in order to make sure they don’t bleed into the speculative elements of your world. For instance, let’s say you’re working in a surreal world where the divide between the real and the magical is blurry. In that case, using a line such as “her face turned to stone” could be dangerous, as the reader might not be sure if that should mean “her face turned to a stoic/somber expression” or “her face literally turned into stone.” It’s especially worth searching through speculative work for lines like this and figuring out how to tighten them to avoid confusion.
4. When in doubt, write what you mean first, beautify second
Sometimes writer’s block comes from trying to do too much all at once. I’ve realized I tend to hit roadblocks when I reach a sentence that’s carrying a lot of weight, because not only am I trying to get many ideas across in a short space, but I’m also trying to write it beautifully on the first go. In situations like that, I’ve found it helpful to separate the drafting process into steps. First, I write what I’d like to communicate in the most plain, boring language possible. Once I have that down, I can focus on rewriting that sentence in a vivid, poetic, or striking way. Not only does this staged approach conserve mental resources, making both halves of the process much easier to accomplish, but it also gives me a “blueprint” of sorts to evaluate my final product against. It’s helpful to compare the beautified version to the original, plain one to make sure they’re communicating the same set of meanings. If not, I may need to tinker with my supposed “final product” to ensure it’s saying everything I intend it to say (and nothing more).
5. Read (and practice) poetry
If you’re looking to make your prose more poetic, why not dabble in actual poetry? In a recent talk, novelist Tope Folarin was asked about his interest in poetry, and in his response, he admitted that his multi-year journey reading and writing the form started as a means to an end. “I noticed a lot of my favorite writers were also poets,” he said. “I was reading Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, and I was just struck by the language in that… and I was like ‘I love the imagery in here. How do they do this?’ ” What started as a small foray into the form eventually resulted in Folarin falling “completely into the poetry hole,” as he described it.
And while there may be a risk of making your voice too poetic (as mentioned above), this sort of cross-genre study can help fiction writers find or develop more balance in their voice. Folarin, for example, noted that his practice with poetry didn’t just make his prose better; it allowed him to completely renegotiate his relationship with language. “Before, language had been something that I simply used,” he said. “But after that deep engagement with poetry… I began to inhabit language in a way that I hadn’t before.” Moving to that level of familiarity with language, where it no longer feels like a tool but more like part of your own body, does wonders for your ability to express complex ideas in ways that are simultaneously beautiful, clear, and concise.
I’ll be the first to admit that this list is hardly exhaustive, but to this point in my career as both an editor and a writer myself, these are the tips I’ve found to be most helpful. What techniques do you follow when trying to balance imagery and clarity in your writing? Share with us @PhoebeJournal. We’d love to hear your thoughts!
is phoebe’s assistant fiction editor and a second-year fiction candidate in George Mason University’s creative writing MFA program. He typically writes satire and dystopian works, but his mind’s also been known to jump to places far beyond those genres. His work is published or forthcoming in McSweeney’s, Slackjaw, Weekly Humorist, SPANK the CARP, and Points in Case. When he’s not writing, Kevin is usually guilt-tripping himself for browsing social media instead of writing.