The End of Elegance (In Writing)

by  Christian A. Brown  |  August 3, 2014  |     4 Comments

Happy Sunday, everyone!

Today, I wanted to talk about some of the trends that I’ve noticed in modern writing. Recently, I read a book–well, part of one, I couldn’t finish it–where the entire narrative was told in an “active” voice. (For those of you who are not familiar with stylistic terms, each sentence can have one of three states of interaction between the subject and verb.) This was a highly regarded book, which was, in a word, horrific to read (passive, as I want to emphasize the horror of the reading). Every sentence became a bullet point. The sentences possessed no nuance, poetry or flow. I may as well have been reading a CNN news-feed. Ironically enough, the end result was a story that was stripped of any real punch, because every piece of prose was so mechanical. I remember an old grammar lesson about the use of exclamation marks, and how if you end every sentence with one, the emphasis loses all effect. Same result, different subject matter, in this case.

From what I have found, the trend of “killing” the passive voice began in academic and business schools of writing, where precision, and unwavering statements are needed to prove points and stress facts. However, this stylistic trend has since infected literally every form of literature. And in doing so, I think–and with fair certainty, if I simply compare the popular writings of my favorite genres from yesterday to today–that language, and story-telling has suffered all the worse for it. Tolkien, Byron, LeGuinn, Howard, all used quite grand and elaborate passive sentences in their prose. Sometimes we (the writer) want the action to be focused on something other than the object, or we want something to be purposefully vague. Historical and mythic accounts tend toward distance in their narratives; taking in broad sweeps of scenery and events.  The best advice that I have heard regarding passive voice, is that as long as you know when you are using it, then it is alright to use. One should not simply CTRL+F every instance of “was” in their manuscript and replace it with a different sentence.

Now the second trend that I have witnessed a lot in modern fantasy and urban-fantasy, is the use of first-person narratives. I know why writers use this technique; again, they are looking to draw the reader into the thick of the story, to make them feel as if they are present and experiencing what the character does. As a critical reader, I have a number of issues with this technique. First, are we to believe that every person in these stories has a writer’s aptitude for prose, carries a journal or video-camera at all times to capture the minutiae of their daily interactions, or has a photographic memory? Because those explanations are the only way to logically explain the details that this character is recording for the reader. So before reader and story-teller even being their journey together, we have one giant chasm of suspension of disbelief to cross. Also, it becomes difficult–and takes an extremely talented writer–to create enough tonality in the secondary characters of the story so that they sound unique, and are not simply reflections of the narrator’s voice/ feelings. Not only that, but the narrative as a whole risks becoming too one-note, if there is only one person to drive it forward. I can think of a few books where the writer has successfully captured a witty, believable, observant voice. However, I can think of dozens of stories where this process has been poorly executed. A better use of this technique, would be to swap first-person points of view. Otherwise the entire weight of your story rests on the strength, and appeal, of one character, which seems a frightful burden.

Anyhoo, its a cool and crisp summer morning, and I should get to starting my day. Before I head off to brunch, I wanted to say a sincere, “bottom-of-my-heart” thank you to everyone who supported me this week with the launch of Feast of Fates. I hope that you are falling in love with Morgian, the Wolf, their world, and my occasional passive and run-on sentences (intentionally stylistic; even my editors have finally come around to my madness). I cannot wait to hear what you think of your first visit to Geadhain.

All my love,

BESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswy

BESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswyBESbswy

– C

4 Comments

  1. Karen Herkes on August 6, 2014 at 9:28 am

    Thank you! What a relief to learn that I’m not the only one fighting on the side of good and right and occasionally passive.

    • Christian Brown on August 6, 2014 at 9:31 am

      I am also an advocate of the ROSSNA “Run-on-sentence Supporters of North America.” Though nothing quite as affronting as dear H.P. Lovecraft. Sometimes, I read his prose aloud and see how much I can get through before all the oxygen leaves my system!

  2. Lita Burke on August 6, 2014 at 5:54 pm

    Stopping by from IU and saying hi.

    • Christian Brown on August 6, 2014 at 6:40 pm

      Lita, thanks for stopping by. I adore your site btw. For those that haven’t seen it: http://litaburke.com

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