Bill's Blog

How to Put Some Sparkle in Your Prose

Dec 20, 2010

If you haven’t read Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, it isn’t too late to buy it for yourself as a Christmas gift. In it, he observes that he gets a lot of questions about writing. All successful writers are familiar with these questions, though I’m sure King gets more than his share because he’s such a popular author. Questions like: How much research do you do? What made you want to become a writer? How do you come up with such unique characters? Who are your favorite authors? And the ever-popular: Where do you get your story ideas?

But King says that people almost never ask him about the language. He writes (usually, anyway) fast-paced, entertaining, and engaging prose. He knows how to string together words into phrases and sentences that draw the reader into the scenes. People who are interested in how he develops story ideas and characters almost never ask him how he writes entertaining prose, however, and I suspect that most readers don’t even think about that. They either like the way a certain author writes, or they don’t.

Being creative with the language isn’t usually covered in creative writing books or classes. So that’s what I’m going to talk about today.

You don’t have to be a gifted wordsmith to write successful novels. Even if your prose is less than exciting, you can make up for it by coming up with dynamite story lines and characters. Most truly gifted wordsmiths were born with something that the rest of us just don’t have. But there are some specific things you can do to spruce up your prose. To illustrate, I’m going to borrow a page from the guidebook I use for my online Fundamentals of Novel Writing workshop.

How to Write Captivating Prose

After you’ve written a scene in your book, do the following:

    1. Underline every motion word. Just as action catches the eye of the television viewer, so it does in a book. Here’s an example:

The Corvette went out of control and ran into a brick wall.

    1. Examine each motion word. Can you make it more specific and exciting?

The Corvette spun out of control and slammed into a brick wall.

    1. Use color. Include specific colors in your scenes: a blue sedan; a yellow hair ribbon; a red sweater.
    2. Use words of size and shape. Compare the known with the unknown: a fiddler crab the size of her thumbnail; a sting ray as large as a VW wheel.
    3. Appeal to all the senses. Besides sight, your reader has four more: sound, taste, touch, and smell. Use specific nouns that suggest the sensuous: the murmur of distant voices (sound); the spice of pine after an autumn rain (smell); a velvet dress (soft, therefore, touch).
    4. Name specific objects in the setting. Characters must inhabit time and space.

Jack eyed the wall clock. In two minutes, the bell would dash all hopes of ever finishing this exam.

    1. Use body language. Do your characters use facial expressions, gestures, mannerisms? Do they interact with objects in the setting?

Marcie fingered a button at the collar of her shirt and, lips pursed, glanced at the offending book lying in plain view on the coffee table.

  1. Zap every needless is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been. Replace with action verbs. The sentence The night was cold and wet in the tall marshes, becomes The night slipped cold and wet over the tall marshes.
  2. Search and destroy passive voice verbs. Replace with active. The story was written by Carla becomes Carla wrote the story.
  3. Find adverbs. Terminate, if possible. Find a better action verb instead. Then challenge each adjective. Is it the best possible one — or would a more descriptive noun eliminate the need for the adjective?
  4. Highlight words used more than twice per page. Find synonyms for the third and fourth appearances.
  5. Correct spelling, punctuation, grammar errors. However mundane a task for you, your manuscript cannot leave home without it. Such errors will ensure its immediate return.

If you do this for a while with every scene you write, before long you’ll find yourself writing clearer, more engaging prose without even thinking about it. Your readers will love you for it.

Questions about this topic? Call me at (505) 401-1021 or send me an email at I’m in my office most weekdays from 9 to 5.

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