Balancing Story and Prose

Katie Ganshert “Finding the Sweet Spot”

Guest Blogger: Katie Ganshert

Often, I’ll read a book that has an amazing story, but bland prose. Other times I’ll read a book that has breathtaking prose, but a so-so story.

If it’s the first, I swallow the book in a day, smile, and move on.

If it’s the second, I nibble the book in tiny bits, admiring the writing yet unmotivated to turn the pages.

The best kind of books—the books I remember long after finishing the last page—are the ones with both. A captivating story driven by beautiful prose.

That’s the sweet spot. Those are the books I love to read. Those are the kind of books I aspire to write.

So today, I wanted to share a 2-3 punch. Two ways we can improve our stories at the macro  level (story), and three ways we can improve our stories at the micro level (prose).

Improvements at the Macro-Level:

1. Stakes

What’s at stake for the main character? Why does it matter? And how can we make it matter more? Not just for the people in our books, but for the people reading our books.

2. Conflict

It’s what keeps people turning pages. No matter what genre, something has to get in the way. Do we have a conflict that will sustain an entire novel? Are we making this conflict as big as it can be? Is there both internal conflict (something inside the protagonist) and external conflict (circumstances beyond the protagonist’s control)?

Improvements at the Micro-Level:

1. Make every word count

This means taking time to find the right word, getting rid of the unnecessary ones (“that” is almost always disposable), and being as specific as possible (instead of your character driving a car, have him drive a Geo Metro or a Hummer).

2. Paint fresh, vivid, non-distracting pictures for the reader

Nix the clichés. But don’t be so obsessed with being fresh and clever that the writing distracts from the story. It’s a fine line, but  a good critique partner should be able to help you find it.

3. End sentences and chapters with a power word (when possible)

This was a trick I learned from Margie Lawson. She calls it backloading. According to Margie, backload is, “taking the most important word in your sentence, paragraph, scene or chapter and placing it at the end.”

So simple, but it adds a really nice punch.

I read Into the Free recently, a debut novel by Julie Cantrell. I devoured the book in two days. Couldn’t put it down. The story was captivating. The prose was stunning. Julie Cantrell hit the sweet spot. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the book made it onto several prestigious best seller lists.

Are you naturally inclined to focus more on story or prose? What tips do you have for improving at these two levels?

 

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Wildflowers from WinterKatie Ganshert is the author of the debut novel, Wildflowers from Winter, releasing from Waterbrook Multnomah this month. Katie was born and raised in the Midwest, where she writes stories about finding faith and falling in love. When she’s not busy plotting her next novel, she enjoys watching movies with her husband, playing make-believe with her wild-child, and chatting with her girlfriends over bagels. She and her husband are in the process of adopting from the Congo. You can find her online at her blog and on Facebook.

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Today on the Books & Such blog: Rachelle answers the question: Can I write books in multiple genres?

  1. Cierra Lagrone says:

    I do not know whether it’s just me or if perhaps everyone else encountering problems with your blog. It appears as though some of the text within your posts are running off the screen. Can someone else please provide feedback and let me know if this is happening to them too? This may be a problem with my web browser because I’ve had this happen previously. Thank you

  2. click here says:

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  3. Marc Jacobs says:

    It’s really a good post. I have learnt a lot from it. I will recommend it to my firends. Hope they ill like it too.

  4. MAC Makeup says:

    Thtank you for share!

  5. Katie, I appreciate the points #1 and #2 under the micro-level. One thing I noticed about beginning writers – they tend to describe everything as of to show their artisitc prowess. I agree with Amy about favoring story over prose just about every time. Do we do the same when we write? I’m wondering of writers don’t favor writing prose over story. Hmm…

  6. I’m definitely a prose person. The last workshop I was involved in, the instructor would read my stories and say, “But what’s at stake for your characters?” Now I ask myself that when I’m crafting a story. It’s been eye-opening to look at my work with that in mind.

  7. Patti Mallett says:

    Hey, Katie!! How fun to see you on here today! Great post, gonna bookmark to take notes on (when I’m not so sleepy).

    Thanks a bunch!!

  8. I’m very picky about writing, at least when it comes to someone else’s writing, but, I’ll admit that as a reader, a strong story wins over flowery prose every time. Usually, I need to read books either before bed or over the weekend, and if the story isn’t gripping enough to keep me turning the pages, I just fall asleep. In a way, I think this is good news for aspiring authors who have always felt inadequate when it comes to finding a creative turn of phrase: if you have good characters, high stakes, and an interesting story, those factors will hide a multitude of writing sins.

  9. Christie says:

    Oh my gosh, I am definitely a prose person, which is hard because if you have nothing to say, it doesn’t matter how beautifully you say it. It doesn’t come as naturally to make a profound story, and it takes more work, but it is totally worth it.

  10. Peter DeHaan says:

    Another consideration for the marco-level is to avoid being predictable. I’ve read otherwise good books where I guessed the ending only a couple of chapters into the book.

    Conversely, I recently read a book where the main character died midway through — I never saw that one coming!

  11. I really like the last suggestion – I wish I had some examples of it so I could see it in action, because I’ve never consciously found writing like this.

    My natural inclination is to focus on story… I tend to ignore prose until later. It makes for a sparse writing style. I’m going to try to fix that, though.

    • An example could be changing this:

      Darkness filled the room.

      To this:

      The room filled with darkness.

      That would be an example of backloading, since darkness is an evocative word and room isn’t.

  12. Janet says:

    Thank you for the handy tips!

    I would like to add “Try not to annoy your reader with repetitive physical description.” (I suppose that technically would fall under “Paint fresh, vivid non-distracting pictures.”)

    It drives me crazy when I’m reading and the author harps on the physical description of the characters. I would rather be told just enough to put a seed in my mind so I can imagine the rest.

    I read a book recently where every few pages the author felt it necessary to remind me that the male lead had “soda-bottle-green” eyes. After about the fourth reference, I wanted to pitch the book out the window. STOP telling me what color his eyes are and tell me what he sees with them!!!

    Sorry. That turned into a rant, didn’t it?

    • Jennifer Major says:

      A well reasoned rant, though. A description at the beginning with a few refreshers throughout the book is far more palatable than constant reminders of soda bottles.

  13. Casey says:

    I think I have a Margie Lawson angel that lives on my shoulder. I think about her comments so very often. I wanted to take this April class and couldn’t find the time for my insane schedule right now.

    GREAT post! I can completely relate to what you were writing about and hopefully I’m learning to find that sweet spot. Because writing flowerly comes *really* naturally to me, but several of those who have read my writing say I need to cut back. It’s a fine balance!

    • Did you ever take her class, Casey? It was amazing. I still haven’t read the final lecture. Life got crazy and has yet to settle down. But I shall once these rewrites are done!

      • Casey says:

        I’ve taken a couple of her classes and have one lecture I’ve bought and still need to read. I know what you mean. I’d love to find a partner to go through a lecture with me on a personal level for those months I can’t take a class. She’s amazing. Great teacher!

  14. Love how topics we discuss on the phone end up making excellent blog fodder. 😉 I also love talking books with you, Katie. It’s my love language. Can you count how many loves I used in this wee little response? So full of love I am.

    Happy Thursday that feels like a Friday, Rachelle & Katie!
    ~ Wendy

  15. Megan B. says:

    I think you are so right about the sweet spot. Too often I see writing where the prose is over-done. I was guilty of it myself for years. Too many similes or metaphores, for example, can quickly become a distraction.

    My personal rule is this: Write like a chocolate chip cookie. The whole thing is tasty, but you don’t notice the cookie part that much. The sweet chips sprinkled throughout are the special sentences or paragraphs that readers might take note of. You don’t want a cookie that’s all chip! Nor do you want one with no chips.

    • Jennifer Major says:

      Love the analogy. Simple, yet layered with great thought.

      So why do I want to confess that I’m the one nom-nom-noming through the bag of milk chocolate chips? The kids keeping weighing the bag and yelling at me.

  16. Jill says:

    Because I’m an avid nonfiction reader, I tend to prefer great prose over plot in my fiction, too. This obsession has let me down so many times, though. I’ll get hooked on the beautiful language, and then the author will completely let me down in the plot–and I feel cheated, as if I’d let a smooth-talking man deceive me.

    I want to add one to the list of language: rhythm is so important. Sometimes stripping the prose bare of excess words destroys the rhythm. Unfortunately, adverbs make for great rhythm and authors and readers alike hate on them these days. 🙁

  17. Jennifer Major says:

    Katie, I think we’ve found the pot of orange/salmon/faded ketchup at the end of the reply box.
    This has been an awesome set of replies. I love seeing and hearing how people approach the same goal, yet with such diverse views of the process. Lo and behold, many of us have been backloading , yet were unaware of our awesomeness. < See? I KNOW!

    I need less caffiene.

  18. Katie, this was a powerful reminder. I’ve been in many restaurants where the food looked blase, but tasted good. Then I ate at gourmet places where their art on a plate left me empty.
    I suppose I prefer a full plate to presentation, but getting me to eat something mysteriously brown is not an easy task. Substance (story) is where I concentrate when I write, but form (prose) is my focus on the re-writes. Cook it, place it, then finally garnish it. Man, I shouldn’t write these before lunch.

    • Yep – I totally think that’s the way to go. And interestingly enough, I sort of think we shouldn’t obsess TOO much over prose until our content/macro edits are finished. Because I’m learning that a big chunk of the micro stuff we poured over might have to go bu-bye later down the road.

  19. Thanks Katie. Your comments and question inspired me to blog about my writing process today. For me the process is at least five different steps:
    1-outline
    2-write the story
    3-rewrite for engaging characters
    4-rewrite for scene description
    5-purge weak prose

  20. Great post. I just learned the “backloading” tip a few days ago and I’m eager to try it out. Your other tips on incorporating good story are timely, as I’ve gotten great feedback on my strong prose, but I know I’m yearning for more story as I read it. Your tips apply to non-fiction (where I am the protagonist, or someone I’ve interviewed), too — so thanks for sharing!

  21. Hi, Katie! *waving* Cool to see you here!

    I was a poet first, so I think prose is easier for me and it’s tempting to focus there. It’s harder for me to form a page-turning story, but I know how important it is.

    Love the stakes idea. As readers, we have to care about what the characters care about. It’s almost like we become personally invested in their stories and feel success or defeat along with them.

  22. Keli Gwyn says:

    Great tips, Katie. I’m a detail-oriented person, so the prose side of things comes more easily to me than big picture. I work hard to get the plot in place with the needed goals, motivations, and conflicts before I begin writing a story. That way I don’t neglect them as I wordsmith.

  23. Jeanne T says:

    Katie, such great tips today. 🙂 Like others above me, the one that really caught my attention was that powerful last word. I’ve never heard that before, but I’m going to figure out how to start working it into my writing. 🙂

    As for your question, I tend to be a “prose girl.” Storyworld comes into my mind as I write a scene. The feedback I received from a contest entry last year told me I used too much description. So, I’ve been toning it down. 🙂

    I’m working on becoming a stronger story-person. Finding ways to up the stakes and increase conflict are my goals, especially after reading your post. Thanks, Katie!

  24. Thank you. How true are your observations. Sometimes I write for story. Other times, I am engrossed in my output of prose. To meld the two has always been the challenge. Thank you for making the path so clear.

  25. Brenda says:

    I am a beginning writer and there’s been this story and this character building in my head for some time now. I believe it’s a story that is meant for me to tell. My big block is that I am afraid I will get so caught up in the story that my prose will suffer.
    Any tips for getting started?

    • Josh C. says:

      Brenda, write it down. Write, write, write, and then write some more. Don’t worry if it’s bad. That’s how you get your chops. I’ve been at this a few years now and still have no publishing creds, but I write as much as possible. 90% of what I write is probably junk, but that’s 10% better than what I produced when I first started. Don’t be afraid of the blank page, it does what you tell it to do.

    • I agree with Josh, Brenda.

      The first draft is all about story. Don’t worry about your prose at all. Just get the story out. Make sure your character has a goal, make sure the stakes are as high as you can make them, and then put something in the way of that goal.

      Once it’s down, then you can go back and pay attention to the story at a micro level.

      Best of luck to you!!

  26. Janet Smart says:

    I like the suggestion to end with a power word. I’ll have to try that. Congratulations on your novel!

  27. Sharmon says:

    Great points!

    I am not sure exactly where I fit!

    Since I have no agent, no editors, am non published, and basically “green!”

    Funny thing though, I naturally search for my sweet spot!

    It is just me! Every word that I put anywhere represents me. I always make them sincere, creative and communicative!

    Happy SWEET SPOTS!!!

  28. Joe Pote says:

    Excellent advice, Katie!

    For me, first draft is all about story…just getting my thoughts on paper in some semblence of coherence…

    Then begins the editing. Editing is all about word-smithing to better draw out the story, as clearly, concisely, and captivatingly as possible.

    Since I’ve only done non-fiction, thus far, and since much of my writing is technical writing, the “captivatingly” part is usually a challenge…

    Thanks!

  29. Josh C. says:

    I tend to write best when I focus most of my attention on the story, at least in the first drafts. Once I have the story nice and tight, I’ll go back and play with the prose until I’m happy with it. If I worry too much about the prose before the story is on paper in its entirety, well, those are the ones that never get finished.

    As far as improving the prose, reading aloud helps me identify problem areas. If it doesn’t come out smooth, it will not read smooth and I know there’s work to do.

  30. Love your point about not distracting from the story in an effort to be fresh and clever. And what a great tip about a power word at the end of the sentence or chapter — thanks for passing it along!

    By the way, I just finished reading Into the Free, too, and I agree — great story and great writing.

  31. Zan Marie says:

    Thanks for sharing your lists, Katie. I find the story easily, but wonder about my prose sometimes. When they work, it’s a high that can’t be created any other way. ; )

    • I’m there with you about the high, Zan. There is something so pleasing about finding just the right way to say something.

    • Lori Benton says:

      Zan Marie, I find myself spending far more time focusing on upping those story stakes than the prose. Macro elements don’t come as easily to me as the micro stuff. I have SUCH relief when a first draft is done to my satisfaction, and I sense the story has enough high stakes and tension. Then comes the utter joy of upping the tension line by line.

  32. Daphne Delay says:

    As a non-fiction writer, I want to add that the points mentioned in this blog are just as important for me. What is my story? How will it help others? Can I engage the reader to understand the conflict within and the sometimes uncontrollable outside circumstances– and their response to either? Do you my pages and especially chapters make the reader want to turn the page and learn more?

    Yes, yes, and yes! These must be the goals! So story and prose are just as important in non-fiction as in fiction!

    Wonderful article. Thanks!

  33. Lori says:

    Thank you for this “powerful” advice. I’m creating a story in my head, and of course I want it to be easy to read and enjoyed. I will strive for the most powerful ending word. I’m about to polish my other novel, I will check for this. Agree it is a fine line, writing is certainly a learned and acquired art!

  34. Jerry says:

    I have written poetry for so long that it slips into the memoir genre that is turning my crank lately. The word verbose came up a few times recently. This post of yours is great advice. Thanks.

  35. Catherine Hudson says:

    Beautiful prose can transport you to the very scene in a great story – feel it, taste it, see it, feel it. I agree there is nothing to compare when both prose and story are present and in symmetry.
    I love those scenes that end with a ‘pop’

  36. Jennifer Major says:

    Excellent advice Katie!(I have a Katie)One of the finest authors I can think of who walks the story/prose tightrope is Jeannette Windle. Most of her books take place in South America, in the hot and treacherous jungle. She can make you sweat, crave cold water and reach for the sunscreen! She was even *interviewed* by the US Gov’t because of her technical knowledge of DEA operations. Fantastic writing! Her next book takes place in the Congo. I want to be like her when I grow up.

    There was a radio contest back in my hometown, it was called “the worst prose ever”. The winning line included a description of a sunrise. It went something like “the universe Heimliched the sun up into the sky”.

    • Shauna says:

      Jennifer,

      You are hilarious. Someday if I start a blog : ) I hope you will visit and leave witty comments. “Heimlich” in reference to sunrise? Sounds like a line from an 8th grade boy who was coerced into writing poetry.

    • Oh, wow! Who thinks of that stuff? Oh, yeah. We do! Because we’re writers and we’re obsessed with words. But heimliched the sun into the sky. That’s very…original.

      I’ve never read Jeanette Windle. I’ll have to check her out. Especially if her next book is set in the Congo!! My husband and I are in the process of adopting from there!

      • Jennifer Major says:

        One of her books was set in Bolivia, where I did a mission trip (one of 3 so far) into the Andes. I landed…okay,not *me*… the whole plane landed at Viru Viru airport in Santa Cruz, which was the airport she mentioned in the book “Crossfire”. So there I was (this is starting to sound like Marlin Perkins when he’d dream of the glory days), ahem, so there I was IN Viru Viru! After returning to South America after 23 years, AND being in a place I’d read about, I stood outside the terminal and fell apart and earned a Ph.D in “Basket Case”. I’m sure the airport security were even scared of the weeping gringa.
        The city smelled, looked and felt exactly as she described it! She has incredible sense of “the exact word”. Even the air was as heavy as I imagined.

        BTW, your blooper reel is hilarious.

        • I’m totally reading her then. Do you know when her book set in the Congo comes out?

          I think I might get a PhD in “basket case” when we get to the Congo too. This adoption stuff, it’s crazy. So much time, energy, and emotion is invested. So when we’re actually there, about to see our child…yeah, a basket case I will be.

          Glad you liked the bloopers. That is pretty much me, unedited.

          • Jennifer Major says:

            She’s done her last revision, I think, quoteth me not, and has it into our, oops, HER publisher.
            I have friends who’ve adopted kids from Ethiopia. Others who adopted from China, and Thailand, etc. I’d adopt if I could sneak a dozen or twenty Quechua kids home. The husband ? Not so much. Literally. When do you go to get your son? I can print your Ph.D on my card program. Harvard? Yale? Oxford?

          • I wonder how skinny this reply box will let us go….

            We just finished our home study so that means we wait for a referral. After the referral, it’ll still be 8-9 months before we travel.

    • Maybe the sun was choking on the regrets of yesterday? 😛 Too funny!

  37. “She calls it backloading. According to Margie, backload is, “taking the most important word in your sentence, paragraph, scene or chapter and placing it at the end.””

    Wow! What an awesome and useful tip! Thanks for sharing.

    • I know, right? Margie Lawson offers LOTS of very simple, useful tips like this in her Deep Editing course. Totally worth the money.

      • Charity says:

        Loved this post and the tip about Marjorie Lawson. Another great resource for story structure editing is a CD or MP3 from last year’s ACFW conference by Susan May Warren. It’s called All Glammed Up, but it’s about what elements your story needs to have to keep tension, have a satisfying ending, etc. I think it’s about $15 for a download, and you can listen on your iPod while you workout if you want! Here’s the link to order. http://www.acfw.com/conference/2011cdorder

      • I agree! This was advice I hadn’t heard before, and I will take it to heart. And I’ve heard a LAHTTAA writing advice. Great post, Katie.

  38. carol brill says:

    Katie, congrats and all the best on your debut…and thanks for the simple list.To me beutiful prose means poetic language that paints a picture without taking the reader out of the story.I am in awe when I find both a great story and beautiful prose…a combination that is hard to find.
    If I cannot have both, I want great story and characters, and transparent prose that carries the story without calling attention to itself.

    • You nailed it – this is totally my definition of great prose too: To me beautiful prose means poetic language that paints a picture without taking the reader out of the story.

      There was an article in Writer’s Digest recently about how beautiful writing should not distract the readers. My line editor told me that it should drive them deeper into the story, not take them out of it.

  39. Stephen says:

    Thank you Katie for some sound advice, as a new writer I will take all I can get and you give some excellent solid advice here cheers.

  40. Kara says:

    I’ve heard such great things about Into the Free – I can’t wait to read it!

    I’m definitely more of a story girl. While I love amazing prose, it still has to be taking the story somewhere 🙂

    I’ve been contest judging recently and I had one entry with some of the most wonderful prose but there was too much of it and it completely bogged down the story. It was really difficult to judge because while the person was obviously a very talented writer, they hadn’t quite got a grasp sometimes all a scene needs is “she walked to the beach” rather than two paragraphs describing the vegetation, wildlife etc that the character encountered on the way.

  41. The prose is very important to me. But also making the characters believable. They need to be realistic and not put on. I love to feel what they are feeling, and have it swim around in me. Now-a-days I do not finish a bad story. I used to finish books no matter what, now I don’t bother, I know there is a million more waiting for me to read. I just LOVE a good book!
    Jodi Aman

    • carol brill says:

      Hi Jodi, I am with you. for years I felt I owed it to the writer to finish every book I started. Now that I write, I know I had it backwards–it is my job to make the story too good to stop reading.

    • Yep, me too. I don’t finish if I’m not captivated.

      Although – there are exceptions. Like if I’m an influencer or an endorser for a book. I’ll push through.

      OR, if the book gets amazing reviews. I know I’m in the total minority on this one, but I wasn’t a huge fan of Water for Elephants (gasp, I know!). But people kept talking about how amazing it was, so I pushed through and read it. I’m glad I did. I enjoyed it. I just wasn’t IN LOVE with it like so many others.

  42. Sra says:

    Definitely story. It’s more important to me when I read. But also, it’s way too easy to write horrific prose. It’s so easy to mess up that I usually run away from it in fear.

    Speaking of fine lines, that’s another good one to think about. The line between beautiful and unnecessarily verbose.

    My favorite example is from Inheritance, by Christopher Paolini. The sun was nearly below “the terminating line of the earth.”

    It seems that he was just too good for ‘horizon’. When I read it, I laughed. Hard. It was very distracting from the story (which at that point wasn’t at its best either.)

    • Jennifer Major says:

      Hahaha! Very true! I laughed when I read “too good for horizon”. Pomposity can kill.

    • Sra – such a good point.

      We never want our prose to pull a reader out of the story, and especially not laugh! (that line would have made me laugh too)

      This is where a great editor comes in. I had two phenomenal editors help me with Wildflowers and they didn’t let me get away with stuff like that.

      Pre-editing, there were some doozies in there. 🙂

    • Jill says:

      How funny! I think that’s a great image because it creates a dividing line between light and dark. It suggests that anything can happen after dark. But I haven’t read the book, either, so it may be inappropriate for the scene.

    • Allison says:

      Paolini’s books might as well be a clinic on how to say things in too many words. Also on how to use and abuse a thesaurus. I enjoy his world and his characters, but I definitely prefer precise, elegant writing to that particular style of excessive wordiness.

  43. Donna Pyle says:

    Katie, I love, LOVE concise lists that itemize important points and break them down in one concise place of reference. Thanks so much for these great tips — I’m tagging this post for future use. Congratulations on your debut release! I can’t wait to get my copy. 🙂

  44. Beth K. Vogt says:

    Hello, dear fellow-Deb!
    Wonderfully practical post! Love each point — but the “power word” suggestion — you’ve got me thinking on that one.
    Can’t wait to read your book. (But I must, until after my deadline.)
    😉

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