Substance Before Style
One of my most indulgent ways to spend a Sunday afternoon is reading poetry. Poetry is beautiful.
But, a novel isn’t just about pretty words. Or, rather it isn’t only about pretty words. I’ll be the first to admit that I love exquisite descriptions and evocative prose.
Some of my favourite writers are stylists rather than storytellers. (And to get away with that, you must have a seriously good style.)
For the rest of us, overwriting or “poetic” writing should be a red flag.
While showing powerful emotion or a vivid setting on the page is never a bad ambition for a writer, it can be dangerous. And it can be dangerous for three simple reasons:
- It’s used to wallpaper over the cracks in a plot. Sometimes it’s used to disguise a lack of plot.
- It can cause a writer to lose sight of the other elements of a story, like character development, theme, dialogue, tension etc.
- It’s self-indulgent. When you “show off” with your writing, readers will be pick up on it (and put your book down).
Of course, each writer has a unique style. Some have a blunt, simple or direct style. Others write with more rhythm, colour, nuance.
Your signature style
You don’t want to bleach that out of your writing, but you don’t want style to take the place of storytelling. Remember, a painter’s signature is always a discreet squiggle in the corner of his masterpiece, it doesn’t fill the whole canvas.
Genre, too, will also often influence how much of the “poetic stuff” you can fit in. Literary or romantic fiction will have more of it, thrillers and suspense less of it.
Seeing the world through poetry
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write poetry. You should. It’s a great way to explore emotions and themes, to play with words and rhythm. It’s a great way to warm up the writing muscles before you sit down at your desk.
As Hala Alyan, author of Salt Houses, writes, “Poetry coaxes from the writer a certain attention to detail, a heightened awareness of the world around you.”
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