Choppy prose can be a story killer. If the prose doesn’t flow and the action doesn’t follow a logical pattern, a story can become tiresome or even confusing. Happily, there are fiction techniques available to avoid choppy prose.
One such technique involves sentence structure. Too often writers fall in love with their favorite type of sentence—a simple sentence with a single subject and verb, perhaps, or one with a participial phrase modifying the subject.
In addition, some writers begin all sentence types with the basic subject-verb pattern. The writing, then, becomes somewhat static, with a monotonous, repetitive beat. Below is an example of this latter, “See Spot run” type of writing.
Smoke filled the sky. Brad walked outside. He looked left and right. Flames leaped upward in the distance. He raced back inside and yelled, “Fire! Everyone out.” He grabbed up his phone and car keys. He dialed 9-1-1 as he fumbled to put his key in the lock of his old SUV. His phone went dead.
There’s nothing wrong with the storyline in the above example, but each sentence starts with the subject (smoke, Brad, he, flames, he, he, he, phone) followed by the verb.
Repetitive sentence structure can be effective for short periods, especially if the author wants to create a staccato beat, but when such a pattern continues for any length of time, the choppy nature of the prose can become tiring.
The way to alleviate the problem is to do a draft revision with sentence structure in mind. For those who consider themselves grammar challenged, length of sentence is one sign to look for that your sentences are all fairly similar.
Also, if you read the manuscript aloud, you can often hear the repetition. Finally, you can break paragraphs apart and put the sentences in a list to see if they look a lot alike. Here’s what the sample above would look like in a list:
* Smoke filled the sky.
* Brad walked outside.
* He looked left and right.
* Flames leaped upward in the distance.
* He raced back inside and yelled, “Fire! Everyone out.”
* He grabbed up his phone and car keys.
* He dialed 9-1-1 as he fumbled to put his key in the lock of his old SUV.
* His phone went dead.
A second way authors can make their prose more readable is by utilizing transitions. Writers sometimes forget that they know more about their story than readers do. The writer, after all, is visualizing the place. She knows the characters. However, what seems obvious to her isn’t necessarily clear to the reader.
Transitions can go a long way in clearing up muddled prose. A simple phrase like, “When Dan arrived,” can let the reader know time has passed, who’s in the scene now, and where the scene occurs. Those specifics keep a reader from becoming confused. Notice how the absence of transitions can lead to confusion in the following example:
Sally slapped a hand on the table. “We need Dan, and that’s all there is to it.” She grabbed up her phone and punched in his phone number.
Sally picked up her revolver. “Somebody is stalking this place. I’m certain of it!” Dan placed a hand on her shoulder. “Come on, Sal. Relax. Tell me what’s been going on.”
Without a transition in the sample above the reader would have no way of knowing that Dan had arrived. As a result, after the scene break there may be a moment of confusion.
If there’s an accumulation of such omissions, readers may become discouraged because, as a general rule, they don’t want to fight confusion throughout a novel.
A third prose technique necessary for fiction has to do with cause and effect. Apart from intentional variations, a story should unfold in a logical progression. An inciting incident occurs to which the main character reacts.
His response might take the form of a decision or an action or an attitude, but regardless of its form, it in turn affects the people and circumstances around him. Their subsequent response causes the character to act again. Once more, what he does affects his world in a way that comes back on him, prompting him yet again to a response.
In that way, the story logically unfolds, one action causing a reaction which in turn leads to a new action and the subsequent reaction.
When an author writes without that natural progression, however, a reader can easily become confused. Here’s an example to illustrate how writing in isolation rather than in cause-effect connection can be unclear.
Martha hurried home. The principal said something about . . . what was it? A tragedy? No, he hadn’t sound that concerned. But he thought she should get home right away.
She pulled into her drive and couldn’t believe what she was seeing—Jefferson, crying? That hard-hearted old coot had a soft spot after all?
She strolled up the porch steps and flopped onto the swing. “I can hardly wait for summer. I want to have a party as soon as school is out.” Jefferson was the best set-up man around. She couldn’t have asked for a better gardener/handyman. He’d get the place ready and cover all the details she’d forget.
In the example above there is a disconnect between the various plot points. The only cause-effect that is apparent is that the principal told Martha she needed to go home, so she did. However, what the principal said is not connected with Jefferson crying. And his sadness is not connected with what Martha says or thinks once she gets home.
The connection could just as easily have been negative if the author wanted to show Martha as a selfish, uncaring person. But as it is, the events stand in isolation and the reader is left to guess how they are connected.
Again, if this is a pattern throughout a novel, the story can become so confusing a reader may choose to set the book aside.
Finally, a novelist can create smooth prose by avoiding abrupt point of view changes and/or an excessive number of point of view characters. Readers need to settle in and identify with the characters of a novel. When point of view changes occur too rapidly or in a chaotic manner or are too numerous, readers may disconnect.
Choppy prose can be effective occasionally, but generally it makes fiction waters hard for readers to navigate. The wise novelist will employ the necessary tools to smooth out her prose.