Flabby prose and powerful verbs (or, how C.J. Cherryh taught me about writing)

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I aim to ramble and reminisce.  You are warned.

So, occasionally I see readers who are upset with a novel because they think it has too few pages.  I’m always puzzled by that.  I’d rather read a great story in 325 pages than I would a mediocre one at 500 pages.  I am, after all, paying for the story, not the page count.

Anyway, thinking about that complaint got me to thinking about spare v. baroque prose, and from there to how some writers have what I regard as muscular prose (in that it carries a lot of narrative weight, whether it’s spare or baroque or somewhere in between), and some writers have prose that strikes me as flabby (in that it just seems to sit there on the page and do nothing).

This is all a matter of opinion, of course, but one of the thumbnail tests I use as a reader in distinguishing between the two has to do with the verb “to be” (including, obviously, “was” and “were”).   “To be” is the weakest of verbs, can barely carry its own weight, and the more often any form of it appears in prose, the more likely I am to find the prose lifeless.  Nothing bothers me more than something like “Elora was tall for a Venusian and her dress was plain.”  Drives me batty and makes Baby Jesus weep.  Just rewrite it as “Elora stood a head taller than any other girl at the dance, and she wore her plain dress with the grace of an aristocrat.”

That’s awkward, but you get the point.  The “was” construction is flat and lifeless, while the latter construction, which uses more powerful verbs, not only communicates the fact that Elora is tall and wears a plain dress, but also gives a richer, more colorful rendering of the situation.

Now don’t get me wrong.  A “was” construction is sometimes suitable, even best in certain circumstances.  But those circumstances are limited.  So when I’m writing, I consider every instance in which I use “to be” and try to rewrite the sentence with a stronger verb, to see if it’s more vibrant (and it usually is).  And when I’m reading, I wince anytime I see “was” too frequently, and I rejoice when it’s as rare in the prose as hen’s teeth.

Now, this is all basic blocking and tackling for writers, but perhaps it’ll be of some use to readers and aspiring writers, to whom it may be non-obvious.  It wasn’t always obvious to me, I can assure you.  And that brings me to C.J. Cherryh, from whom I first learned this lesson.

As all of you know, I’m a big fan of the Thieves’ World series of books.  TW is a shared setting, in which a roster of writers (which varied somewhat from book to book) wrote a short story featuring their signature character(s), with all of the stories set in the iconic city of Sanctuary.   The stories often overlapped and interrelated to some degree.  As you might imagine, the styles of the authors varied considerably from story to story.

Anyway, right after I made the decision to have a go at a professional writing career, I went back and re-read a lot of the books I loved, but tried to do so with an eye toward figuring out what worked in a given story, what didn’t, etc.  At one point, I read a short story in one of the Thieves’ World books and enjoyed it.  It didn’t wow me, but I still kinda dug it.  Then I read the next story, by C.J. Cherryh, and it struck me in an altogether different way.  The writing felt vibrant, tactile, leaping off the page in a way the writing in the other story did not.  So I went back and read both again, trying to figure out what made the prose so different.  And one of the most striking differences was (!) that Cherryh’s prose consistently used powerful verbs, rarely relying on “to be” constructions, while the other author’s writing leaned heavily on them.  From that, I took away this:  Avoid “to be” whenever possible.

So, thanks for that C.J. Cherryh (and also for your great stories).

This concludes my rambling reminiscences.  Tune in next week, when I tell you about my childhood dogs.

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4 Comments

  1. Many of my favorite sf stories are by Charles D. Simak. He rarely wrote anything over 250 pages.

    • I feel likewise about a lot of Moorcock’s work. All of the Elric stories, which I love, are very short, but they’re all great.

  2. If immersed in the story, I’m not that conscious of the sentence structure. Given your profession and education, I’m sure your more particular than most as to how a story is constructed. I do see your point about the lack of descriptive vigor.

  3. I’m in total agreement with you, Paul. As long as a book is captivating and take one on a riveting journey, it shouldn’t matter how many pages it has whether it amounts to 300 or 1,000. I have read some bad material over the 1,000 page mark. That to me is a waste of time. Give me an excellent 325 page book any day! Oh and a nice cup of coffee of course ;).

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