Many readers will reject a good story with lackluster prose. But if your readers are calling your prose bland, how do you fix it? Unfortunately, one weird trick won’t do; these problems are usually caused by a combination of factors. Let’s look at some common culprits and useful techniques for making prose more engaging.
1. Check for Too Much Summary
A common mistake is summarizing parts of the story that should be written in real time. Summary makes readers feel a step removed from events, dulling their impact. What’s more, fixing this issue requires rewriting those portions, and there’s no sense in polishing prose you’ll just rewrite. So before you do anything else, assess how much of your narration is told via summary. Summary can be pretty sneaky; you might have put it there on accident.
How do you know when you’re summarizing?
- Characters speak without every word being written inside double quotes.
- Time passes. Technically, time always passes, but if it goes faster than it would when reading a line of dialogue, that indicates summary.
- Important actions are narrated as a group rather than individually. If your character slashes at their enemy “again and again,” that’s summary, whereas if they slash at their enemy and their enemy dodges, that’s not.
- If your document is filled with lines of dialogue on every page, that might be because narration outside the dialogue is summarized, making it shorter.
The purpose of summary is to shorten sequences that are boring or unimportant. Don’t get rid of it entirely, but it’s not the right choice for events that are interesting or should have dramatic impact.
Let’s look at an example of a summarized sequence, taken from an unpublished short story.
A patrol of soldiers rounded the corner several blocks ahead. Indira pulled the president into an alley, but the motion was awkward and slow. Indira didn’t know if they’d been seen. Through the alley she saw the bloody remains of a battle. Soldiers not wearing General Lu’s standard were dead in the streets, their equipment picked clean. A small airship floundered against a damaged building, abandoned but mostly intact except for a rupture in its front lift bag.
You can tell this is summary because even though pulling the president into the alley is supposed to be slow and awkward, it is narrated as a single, quick action. Similarly, the description of the dead soldiers breezes by without going into any details about how they’re arrayed, what kinds of weapons are missing, or how many of them there are. Then, the same paragraph even manages to fit in an airship. Altogether, the story is moving too fast, making it difficult to feel anything.
In a real-time scene, an entire paragraph could easily be spent on a small portion of this. I’ve created an example of what that might look like.
Several blocks ahead, a squad of soldiers with green armbands strode onto the street and glanced around. It was one of the general’s patrols; Indira couldn’t let them spot the president. She twisted to shield the president from their gaze and searched for cover. An alley waited twenty paces away. The spattered blood near the opening wasn’t a good sign, but it would have to do.
In the previous version, a problem appeared in the first sentence (the patrol), but Indira solves that problem in the first clause of the next sentence. In the revised version, the problem takes a little time for Indira to solve. During that time, the story has a little extra tension.
2. Make the Narrator More Opinionated
Dispassionate narration makes events feel less important and the prose feel more boring. Readers are likely to notice this issue and comment that the narration feels distant, lifeless, or emotionless. So whether you’re writing with an omniscient narrator or from the perspective of a character, your narrator should be expressive.
That can include:
- Narrating the scene in a biased way based on how they are feeling.
- Using witty commentary, such as cracking jokes or pointing out the irony of a situation.
- Using cheesy idioms, pop culture references, or colorful allusions.
- Using casual language loaded with personal details.
Some writers find that switching to first person helps them add more personality. However, if you’re writing a long work like a novel, switching perspective after writing the first draft could result in inconsistent prose.
The door starts shaking. It’s a flimsy thing made of bamboo shoots held together with tattered lengths of twine. The shake is subtle and stops almost immediately. They lift their heads to listen, a fourteen-year-old boy and a fifty-year-old man, who everyone thinks is his father but who was born near a different jungle on a different planet hundreds of lightyears away. They are lying shirtless on opposite sides of the hut, a mosquito net over each cot.
The paragraph feels somewhat technical because Lore often chooses description that paints a clear but neutral picture. We know exactly how they’re lying in the hut, but nothing about it makes an impression. However, Lore still has a couple details with personality. He calls the door “flimsy” and has a nice anecdote about a character’s origins.
Below, I’ve kept the gist of the paragraph while making some alterations to reduce the clinical quality and add a little more personality.
The door’s flimsy bamboo shoots dance on their tattered lengths of twine. The shake is subtle and dies quickly, but the man and boy lying inside the hut perk up and listen like an alarm has gone off. At 50 and 14, everyone assumes they’re father and son, but that’s because Earth people have no imagination. The two were actually born on different planets hundreds of light-years apart. Brought together by disaster, they now rest on cots only a few feet apart, their bare chests tempting mosquitos into the hanging nets.
- I took the opinions and color from the second sentence – “flimsy” and “tattered” – and moved them up front. Then instead of using “shake” twice, I cut it to once so I could use the more lively “dance” instead.
- I replaced the more technical “stops almost immediately” with the quicker and more casual “dies quickly.” Similarly, I have “man and boy” plus “50 and 14” instead of saying “fourteen-year-old boy” and “fifty-year-old man.”
- Instead of accurate-but-bland descriptors like “lift their heads,” “on opposite sides of the hut,” and “a mosquito net over each cot,” I said they perk up like an alarm went off, they’re only a few feet apart, and they’re tempting the mosquitos.
- I’ve asserted that Earth people have no imagination.
3. Build Atmosphere
The next trick to reviving bland prose is to invest in your description. Great description increases immersion and creates interesting imagery for readers to enjoy. But before you write description, it’s helpful to know what impression you want to create with it. That’s where atmosphere comes in.
If your character enters a home, should it be warm and welcoming? Creepy? Posh? If your character walks into the woods, should it feel like blissful escape or hostile terrain? Should it start like a blissful escape and then become hostile terrain?
Once you’ve chosen the atmosphere, add or revise your description to show readers why the home is welcoming or the woods are hostile. You don’t need to go on that long. A single paragraph is a good length for something in your story that’s supposed to make a big impression, but it’s usually more than you need.
Let’s look at an excerpt from Tiger’s Curse. On the plus side, author Colleen Houck knows to tell us what the narrator’s bedroom looks like when she first goes in there, which is something many writers neglect. However, her description of this room could use more atmosphere.
Quietly, I climbed the stairs to my bedroom. It was small and cozy, with just a simple bed, a mirrored dresser, a desk for my computer and homework, a closet, my clothes, my books, a basket of different colored hair ribbons, and my grandmother’s quilt.
This list isn’t giving the impression that the room is small and cozy. Generally, cozy rooms are comfy and warm, with lots of personal touches. The grandmother’s quilt fits, but it isn’t enough. Since the room is small as well as cozy, we also want to give the impression that the furnishings are crowded in.
I’ve altered the contents of the room to strengthen the atmosphere Houck established.
Quietly, I climbed the stairs to my bedroom. It was small and cozy. The single bed was piled with plush animals I’d loved since I was a toddler, and my mirrored dresser had to double as a small desk for my computer and school books, though since summer started they’d been edged out by a basket of rainbow hair ribbons. My grandmother’s quilt was folded over a chair in the corner, the lively green and pink patches welcoming me back.
I reduced the number of large items in the room, emphasized how surfaces were crowded, and focused more on items that had a friendly and personal feel, such as the plushies.
4. Add Micro Arcs
You can actually apply story structure at the level of a paragraph. Like any other arc, this gives readers another reason to continue. You don’t need to go to the same level of effort you would for a larger arc; a paragraph-sized arc doesn’t need as much tension or satisfaction.
Check your prose for small questions or problems that you can bring out in your narration. If you find a question embedded in the middle of a paragraph, consider moving it up front and giving it a little more emphasis. You can also edit details to create small problems for the following sentences to address.
Then narrate a character – usually the viewpoint character, but it could be anyone – doing a little something to resolve these micro hooks. Don’t waste your energy trying to create proper turning points. Turning points at this level are subtle, and this should be a fun exercise, not a reason for stressing over every paragraph.
Let’s return to the prologue of I Am Number Four. To get a better sense of the arcs available at the paragraph level, I’ve included two paragraphs, but they’re abridged from the original.
Micro Arcs: Before
He tears into the Congo night, leaps over trees, sprints at a speed somewhere around sixty miles per hour. He dodges trees, rips through snarled vines, leaps small streams with a single step. Heavy footsteps are close behind him, getting closer every second. His pursuers also have gifts. And they have something with them, something he never believed he would see on Earth.
The crashing nears. The boy hears a low, intense roar. He knows whatever is behind him is picking up speed. He sees a break in the jungle up ahead. When he reaches it, he sees a huge ravine, three hundred feet across and three hundred feet down, with a river at the bottom. His only chance is to get across the ravine. He’ll have a short running start, and one chance. Even for him, or for any of the others on Earth like him, it’s a near impossible leap.
These paragraphs have plenty of tension coming from a larger arc about the boy being pursued. However, there are a couple additional hooks in here. First, a mystery hook about whatever mysterious object the pursuers have. That one isn’t relevant to this exercise, because it won’t be resolved in a paragraph or two and it’s not related to anything else in the passage.
In the second paragraph, Lore suggests the boy might not make the leap across the ravine. That will be resolved in the next paragraph, so it’s a micro arc – and a child arc of the pursuit.
I’ve altered the passage to add more micro arcs earlier.
Micro Arcs: After
Heavy footsteps are close behind him, getting closer every second. He pushes himself harder, sprinting at a speed somewhere around sixty miles per hour. He dodges trees, rips through snarled vines, and leaps small streams with a single step. But his pursuers also have gifts. The boy hears a low, intense roar, and the crashing nears. He realizes he can’t outrun them, not unless he turns the terrain to his advantage.
He sees a break in the jungle and veers toward it. When he reaches it, he sees a huge ravine, three hundred feet across and three hundred feet down, with a river at the bottom. His only chance is to get across the ravine. Even for him, or for any of the others on Earth like him, it’s a near-impossible leap. If he makes it to the other side, his pursuers might not follow.
In the previous version, the first part of the passage continuously shows how the boy is losing ground. In the revised version, the pursuers are gaining ground, so the boy speeds up hoping to solve that. He fails because his pursuers also have superpowers. Then the boy realizes he needs an advantage, and chooses to head to the ravine.
In the section on summarized narration, I expanded two summarized sentences into a micro arc, increasing tension. In this case, the passage already had strong tension, but the micro arcs increase movement – the sense that the story is advancing toward a conclusion. This creates a dynamic feel and encourages readers to pay attention rather than skim over a handful of sentences that communicate the same thing.
5. Trim Excess Words
Last, you can give your prose more impact by cutting the parts that are the weakest. The prose that remains will not only be stronger, but shorter. If your prose is boring readers, you at least avoid making them read a lot at once.
- Search for known clutter words in your document. Review each one to see if it’s really appropriate or if it can be cut.
- Look for repetitive sentences or phrases. You don’t need to say the same thing in two different ways. Similarly, if you narrate body language that makes a character come off as bored, you don’t need to say they’re bored.
- Skip over the trivial or mundane parts. If your character is walking down a hall and nothing happens until they reach the door at the end, just say they “went down the hall” and cut to them arriving at the door.
You don’t want lots of short sentences in a row or a bunch of one sentence paragraphs. If cutting repetition or clutter leaves you with a choppy rhythm, start combining sentences and adding a little more description to fill it out.
Let’s look at an excerpt from The Sword of Shannara. Author Terry Brooks has some nice description, but sometimes he goes on for too long and includes clutter. This dilutes the impact of his prose.
Because he had traveled this same route a hundred times, the young man noticed immediately the unusual stillness that seemed to have captivated the entire valley this evening. The familiar buzzing and chirping of insects normally present in the quiet of the night, the cries of the birds that awoke with the setting of the sun to fly in search of food — all were missing. Flick listened intently for some sound of life, but his keen ears could detect nothing. He shook his head uneasily.
To demonstrate a bigger difference, I did an aggressive edit on this. I limited myself to cutting words, not rearranging them.
Trimming: With Marks
Because he had traveled this
same route a hundred times, the young man noticed immediately the unusual stillness that seemed to have captivated the entire valley this evening. The familiar buzzing and chirping of insects normally present in the quiet of the night, the cries of the birds that awoke with the setting of the sun to fly in search of food — all were missing. Flick listened intently for some sound of life, but his keen ears could detect shook his head uneasily.
Much of what I chose to cut was repetitive, unnecessary, or offering details that weren’t as important to the paragraph. What’s left has more impact per word. Let’s see it without the marks.
Because he had traveled this route a hundred times, the young man noticed the stillness. The familiar buzzing and chirping of insects in the quiet of the night, the cries of the birds that awoke with the setting of the sun — all were missing. Flick shook his head uneasily.
If you trim a lot of words and decide the passage is moving too fast, you can always put a few back in – or take the opportunity to make what you put in better than it was.
Bland prose isn’t something you can fix overnight. Keep practicing, and over time you’ll get better at writing in whatever style you’ve chosen.
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