How Important Is Prose?

My internship has got me thinking lately about prose.

I’m a sucker for a beautiful line. Take, for example, this line from Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone: “…the wintry peace might have hailed from another time. Snow and stone and ghostlight, Karou’s own footsteps alone and adrift in mundane thoughts: school, errands. The occasional cheek-chew of bitterness when a pang of heartache intruded…”

Sigh.

Back to the internship. Being a sucker for a well-crafted line, I’ve often found myself conned by a well-constructed query letter (I’m not even talking about a beautiful query. Just a well-constructed one), only to read the attached pages and discover the story isn’t what the query made it out to be. These are disappointing moments.

As genre writers, are plot and character more important to us than prose? I don’t think so.

In popular fiction, I’ve heard the idea that prose must serve the story. That it must not stand out, or distract from the progression of plot and characters. I know that not every popular fiction writer subscribes to this school of thought. And I’m not even disagreeing with those that do. I can like a story that doesn’t have outstanding prose—and by outstanding, I mean something beyond the ordinary, whether that be beautiful, raw, stark, or literary.

On the other hand, I’m often dazzled by beautiful prose. I love it especially in third person, when the prose becomes a narrator or author’s voice. Let me just throw out a few examples: Laini Taylor and Shannon Hale. But what I’m noticing lately is how prose can distract from a weak plot or flat characters (not with the two writers I just mentioned. They have beautiful prose in addition to great characters and plot). I’m noticing, I think, because I’m now turning more of a critical eye to the things I’m reading. I’m setting aside details in favor of the big picture. I love beautiful prose, but I really do think plot and character have to come first.

Here’s the takeaway lesson, then. I’m doing NaNoWriMo, and it’s going to be really important that I don’t sweat the small stuff, like word choice, just quite yet. Not until I get a finished draft. Then I’m going to whip my characters into shape. I’m going to knead that plot until it has the exact consistency I’m looking for. And then, when the substance of the novel is sound, I’ll go through and let myself have fun dusting the manuscript with a healthy amount of beautiful prose.

 

 

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