In Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose says that by deliberate and slow “close reading” works in literature written by the masters, we become better writers. We also discover that there are no rules.
We learn something new rereading a classic, and if we dissect a story to see how it’s constructed, a kind of osmosis occurs. Our writing becomes richer, more fluent. She suggests keeping examples of craft aspects in great stories on our reference shelf. When we’re stuck writing a party scene, we can pull up James Joyce’s, The Dead, to see how he orchestrated “the voices of the party guests into a chorus from which the principal players step forward.”
Words to a writer are tools like colors to a painter. Writing depends on choosing one word over another and asking what each word is conveying. Close reading brings awareness to the words, and puts us inside the scene. We learn to write from within the scene and choose exact words to depict it.
Prose encourages writers to make an effort to learn and relearn the rules of grammar. “Mastering the logic of grammar also evokes some process of osmosis, to the logic of thought.” In revision, keep asking, is this the best word I can find? Is this sentence clear? Can a word be cut without sacrificing anything essential? Is it grammatical? A simple declarative sentence can be compelling, and clarity still is a higher ideal than grammatical correctness.
The rhythm of long and short sentences is nearly as important in writing as in poetry. Hemingway – meeting Gertrude Stein in Paris said: “She had also discovered the truths about rhythms and the use of words in repetition that were valid and valuable, and she talked well about them.” We should read our work out loud. The sentence or word we are stumbling over most likely needs reworking.
Prose contends that paragraphing is more than new thought, new paragraph. It can change the rhythm, like a flash of lightning shows the same landscape from a different aspect. Paragraphs are a form of emphasis. Beginnings and endings carry more weight than the middle. Breaking up long blocks of print helps the reader visually. Moderation and a sense of order should be primary, but too many short paragraphs aren’t good either. Decisions on paragraphing come from instinct, from the depth of personality of the writer. She cites Isaac Babel’s warning against a set of “dead rules.” The advantage of reading widely versus trying to formulate a series of general rules is that we learn there are no rules.
In narration, consider the questions of voice and POV. Often “the story is choosing the POV from which it wishes to be told.” On what occasion is the story being told, and why? Who is the audience? Envisioning that the audience helps with tone, how, and who is best to tell the story. Prose points beyond conventions instructing writers to pick a POV and stick with it; that a skilled writer can break any “rule.”
On character, she cites Heinrich von Kleist, who created his characters without physical descriptions. Kleist tells the reader some basics about his characters, then “releases them into a narrative that doesn’t stop spinning.” Their actions define them. In The Marquise of O – we know the Marquise is beautiful because of the effect her presence has on the Russian soldier who loses control.
Creating characters differs from writer to writer and book to book. Unlike Kleist, Jane Austen develops characters by telling us what they think, what they’ve done, and what they plan to do. Sometimes, telling works.
Austen also creates characters through dialogue. Pride & Prejudice, illustrates how dialogue not only establishes character but delineates the personalities of the speakers and acquaints us with the people whom they are speaking of in the conversation.
Prose warns against using dialogue as exposition and inventing stiff conversations to transmit facts between characters. Skilled writers understand that characters not only speak differently depending on whom they are talking to but also listen differently depending on who is speaking. This brings us to subtext. What’s not said is as critical as what’s being said so write from the POV of the character most likely to notice what’s happening. Listening to how people talk helps us write characters that communicate with emotions and feelings that reveal the hidden motives and agendas of real humans. Good dialogue frequently shows themes, tone, and voice.
If you want to write something memorable, says Prose, pay attention to the details. A well-chosen detail persuades the reader that someone is telling the truth and that the writer is in control. “Details aren’t only the building blocks with which a story is put together; they’re also clues to something much deeper, keys not merely to our subconscious but to our historical moment.” A spot-on detail reveals lots about a character – his social and economic status, his hopes, dreams, his vision of himself.
“Unlike dialogue, gesture can delineate character when there is only one character in the room.” We find gestures by observing people, a shortcut “circumventing brain and mouth and proceeding directly to the heart.” Gestures should mean something and best used sparingly, only if they are illuminating. “The wider and deeper your observational range, the better, the more interestingly and truthfully you will write.” When a story is well written, it is around forever.
Prose asks: “How much would have been lost if Chekhov followed the rules?”
In Chekhov’s work, there is never really “a point” – he writes without sentimentality about the death of a baby in “In the Ravine.” In other stories, he tells us that people often do terrible and irrevocable things for no reason. Our feelings as humans, can be elusive, changing, contradictory, and hidden in clever disguises. Chekhov reminds us that “most” is not all. Sometimes characters are terrible, nothing much happens, and nothing changes – if you “cut a rich woman, she bleeds just like a poor one.” Chekov breaks all of the rules and fills his letters with reflections on writing and the writer’s need for objectivity, seeing, without judgment, and the necessity to be “an unbiased observer.”
In the end, Prose emphasizes: “So let me repeat, once more: literature not only breaks the rules but makes us realize that there are none.”
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. Harper Collins, 2006.