Most poets convey more of a message in 250 words than most prose writers do in 1,250 words. That’s because poets select words for their maximum impact.
Poets are concerned about how a word sounds; how it meets the eye when read or the ear when spoken aloud; how its rhythm assists the flow of the rest of the sentence; what its connotative as well as denotative meanings are. If you want to make your prose more vibrant and less wooden, try adapting some poetic techniques to your writing. Here are some suggestions:
1. Begin by using alliteration. By repeating a specific consonant, you can create a “sound effect” to mimic the object or scene you are describing. Without alliteration you might write, “A lot of water can hit the beach during autumn.” Notice, however, that with the repetition of eight “s” sounds in one sentence, you can actually create the sound of the ocean by writing, “The salty seas washed waves of spray onto the shores.” It’s impossible to read that sentence without hearing the whoosh and hiss of ocean waves rolling in and receding. That sound helps to put the reader into the setting.
2. Experiment with vivid word pictures. When poet Percy Shelley wrote: “I fall on the thorns of life, I bleed,” he was using graphic images to put the reader’s senses on edge. In Chapter 10 of The Red Badge of Courage, novelist Stephen Crane achieved the same effect (with prose) when he wrote, “[H]e could not keep his crime concealed in his bosom. It was sure to be brought plain by one of those arrows which cloud the air and are constantly pricking, discovering, proclaiming those things which are willed to be forever hidden.” The image of Crane’s arrows is as stark as the image of Shelley’s thorns.
3. Try using homonyms in a series. Homonyms are words that sound exactly alike when pronounced, even though they have different spellings and meanings (rein, reign, rain . . . so, sew, sow). You can have fun creating homonym-linked sentences. In one of my romance novels I once had a pirate say, “Aye, I eyed ‘em on yonder dock.” I received several letters from readers who caught that play on words and enjoyed it.
Attempt to create some words that can have two meanings in one sentence. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night one character says, “The clock hath tolled twelve.” When you hear that spoken by an actor, it can have three different meanings: (1) the clock clanged (tolled) twelve times; or (2) the clock, by chiming, “told” you it was twelve o’clock; or (3) the clock counted out twelve chimes, like a bank teller counts or “tolls” money. This gives extra mileage to the meaning of a word.
4. Make use of similes. A simile relates one thing to something else and usually uses the word “like” or “as” to compare the two. In his novel Sanctuary, William Faulkner writes in chapter 8, “Temple’s head began to move . . . like one of those papier-mâché Easter toys filled with candy.” If you’ve ever seen a Mexican piñata suspended from a string, slowly turning in a dangling twist, you immediately understand the movement Faulkner is referring to. Sentences of descriptive words could never explain that precise movement, but one comparison to the piñata enables the reader to see it right away. The next time you are at a loss for words in trying to explain something, try using a simile to liken your object to something the reader is already familiar with. It works . . . like clockwork. (See?)
Many of the world’s most popular prose writers—Edgar Allan Poe, Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, Stephen Crane, William Shakespeare, James Dickey—have also been talented poets. We can learn a lesson from them. If a prose writer can select words with the same accuracy as a poet and can make use of some of the literary devices used by the poet, prose can then be as three-dimensional and as vivid as poetry.
So, give that latest manuscript of yours a bit more revision. Add the “poet’s touch.”
Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, has been a reporter for The Muncie Star, a combat sergeant in Vietnam with the U S Army, a distinguished visiting professor at Oxford University, the keynote speaker at more than 100 writers’ conferences, and the author of 53 books, the latest of which is Jesus in the 9 to 5 (September 2013, AMG Publishers). © 2013 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.