“The importance of rhythm [in prose] in my estimation is a measure of the difference between a live book and a dead one.” (Nin, Novel of the Future, Chap 3, location1684)
Not long ago, I had an argument (well, more of a discussion) with another author in a Facebook group about purple prose. The writer quoted a short passage from a book she was reading and complained that the author should have been more direct and that the “purple prose” in the book had completely turned her off to the book and made her not care about the characters.
One thing I should point out is that I do not like the term “purple prose”. First of all, it makes no sense when you think about it. Why purple? Why not green or indigo or fuchsia? Why pick on purple? Also, this term, which describes lavish descriptions in prose, has derogatory connotations but descriptions (lavish or not) are necessary to make any story engaging and interesting. I prefer instead the term “poetic prose”.
I understand that many readers these days might find poetic prose a turn-off. The more highly technologized we get, the more younger generations have a lower tolerance for anything that doesn’t move at the speed of their browse button or the slider on a YouTube video. Poetic prose forces readers to slow down and pay attention to the writing. It forces their minds to engage in a way that might not be as easy processed as a fast-paced story where they can inhale the prose because it’s basically a repeat of the kind of dialogue they hear in their favorite TV show or movie. Many readers read for entertainment and escapism (which is as it should be) and it’s hard to escape into prose that forces you to really think about what it is saying beyond just the words on the page (though not all poetic prose is intended to do this – some of it is just for the beauty of the prose itself).
But poetic prose is rhythmic prose too. The idea of rhythm in prose comes from Anais Nin’s book on writing, The Novel of the Future. Nin saw reading as not just a passive activity but one that makes the reader not only think (about the words on the page, the characters and what is happening to them, what is going to happen next) but also feel and react. For her, “rhythm [creates] a contagious, engulfing atmosphere… that we ourselves have banished form our civilization … which [has] the power to move our senses and our emotions, to heighten our sense of life” (Nin, Chap 3, location 1671-1677). Rhythm, then, can jump-start prose and make it more inspiring: “Rhythm is what animates poetry, sets it in motion, gives it levitation… Rhythm is inseparable from life, from the senses, from a sensory way of perceiving and feeling life” (Nin, Chap 3, location 1677). Although Nin mentions specifically poetry here, I think this also applies to poetic prose, which, as I explained in my blog post on the subject, uses poetic tropes and conventions in prose.
Of course, rhythm in music is different than rhythm in fiction. The beat in music can play a role in prose also but there are other factors involved in writing that make rhythm more complex. For example, “[rhythm] … may be a matter of gradations of awareness, emotional fluctuations, immersions into experience and drawings away, flashbacks, and futuristic descriptions of potentials in character…” (Nin, Novel of the Future, Chap 3, location 1690-1696). The pace in which a character moves or speaks, for example, might be an obvious example of rhythm in fiction but the way a character thinks about the past, the way he or she reacts to other characters and feels about them can contribute to the rhythm of the story as well. To achieve this, descriptive prose is needed.
The author’s who complained about purple prose responded to my defense of poetic prose in a way that seems to be shared by many these days –used sparingly, purple prose can be refreshing but used more and it makes the story uninteresting, messy, and boring. When I received the feedback from the editor I worked with for my latest release, The Order of Actaeon, her general comments hinted at this very same idea.
But I believe it is exactly this smattering of poetic prose that can make a book seem awkward and artificial. Used more frequently and with some consistency, however, poetic prose can engage readers in a way that direct prose can’t. As Nin remarks,
“A constant rhythm expressed in the lyrical passages can create another kind of rhythm that asserts the power of the imagination to rescue itself from tragedy, from ugliness, from anxiety, or from the neutral becalmed regions of non-experience.” (Novel of the Future, Chap 3, location 1696; emphasis added)
It’s this idea of being constant with descriptive words and imagery that makes poetic prose and keeps it and the story alive for the reader. In that way, I think Nin’s likening poetic prose to jazz is apt:
“Jazz does not work unless it swings. The beat must be constantly tugged and pushed across the familiar line of the four-four balance until the real rhythmic message is felt more than heard.” (Nin, Chap. 7, location 3105; emphasis added and original)
I agree with Nin that the idea of rhythm changes not only from author to author but also from work to work. Nin herself admits that, in her own work, “[t]he rhythm of Seduction of the Minotaur which takes place in Mexico is slower than the rhythm of the descriptions of New York in The Diary” (Nin, Chap 3, location 1677-1684). Just for reference, here’s a passage from Nin’s Seduction of the Minotaur:
“The lagoon on the left of the road showed a silver surface which sometimes turned to sepia. It was half filled with floating lagoon flowers. Trees and bushes seemed like new vegetation, also on stilts, dipping twisted roots into the water as the reeds dipped their straight and flexible roots. Herons stood on one leg. Iguanas slithered away, and parrots became hysterically gay.” (location 7851)
To contrast, here is Nin’s observation of Paris in August 1937 from the second volume of her diaries:
“Everything seems miraculous, that the summer should be so soft, that fountains should play on the Chaps-Elysees, that men and women are walking. A city never entirely known, yet which gives you the feeling of intimacy, of possessing it intimately. A sky which changes every day and yet keeps its opaline tones.” (p. 226)
The prose in Nin’s short novel is much more poetic and the imagery much more opaque than in her diary because the rhythm is different.
I found this to be true in my own fiction as well. My latest work is the first book of the Waxwood series and takes place in a fictional town called Waxwood. It’s one of those small exclusive seaside places similar to Carmel and Monterey in Northern California and the atmosphere of leisure and serenity establishes the pace of the people visiting there. In addition, Jake Alderdice, the main character of the book, is a contemplative artist without much purpose in life because of his wealthy background and controlling and overbearing family. So the prose in the book often times goes at a slow pace that sort of rolls along. An example from the book:
“They set out into the crisp air. The morning dew speckled glaring shades of blue, green, and yellow already beginning to enhance the fantastic feeling he had gotten from Waxwood. The sea had looked to him almost balmy in the late afternoon when they had arrived but now as they crossed into the entrance of the woods, Jake glanced sideways, looking at the edge of the walkway that bordered the hotels and resorts and the water bled right into it. The emptiness of the sand and sea at that hour made his mind tranquil.”
Recently, I started reviewing a historical mystery novel I wrote for 2013’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The story takes place also in a small California town (though one that is much dustier than Waxwood) called Arrojo at the turn of the twentieth century and involves a crime-solving young woman named Adele Gossling who had moved there from San Francisco after her father dies to begin a new life as a business woman. Here’s a description of the first day Adele opens the doors to her stationary shop on the main street of Arrojo
“For the first half of the day, the main street seemed to move in slow motion. Women’s skirts trailed the muddy stones, for the day had been given to light rain that morning. She knew that she saw a few heads turn as they passed her side of the street but none stopped and eyes did not linger past the GRAND OPENING banner. Children peered through the window, polished now so that the sunshine bounced off of the bright yellow, violet, and blue paper she had displayed in the window. She saw their mouths gaping open as if they had never seen such fine colors in their lives. Some looked as if they came from homes where correspondence was a matter of course, but some were more ragged, though none were the kind of ragamuffins that she saw hounded by the police in the streets of the Barbary Coast.”
This description uses the same kind of imagery to paint a picture of the place that I use in The Order of Actaeon (because it’s my writing style) but because of the genre (mystery fiction moves at a much faster pace than literary psychological fiction), the place (a town’s central main street as opposed to the woods near a seaside resort town), and the character (Adele is a go-getting New Woman of the new century, pragmatic, determined, and purposeful), the rhythm of the prose is much different.
This does not mean that piling on adjectives and adverbs at every turn in a story makes it more emotional or engaging. Like everything else in writing, poetic prose needs to be used wisely and the language should be significant and appropriate for the story, characters, setting, and other elements of the work. But done with consideration for both the story and the reader, it can become a part of the author’s writing voice and style that sets him or her apart.
Nin, Anais. Cities of the Interior: The Authoritative Edition. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2013. Kindle digital file.
Nin, Anais. The Diary of Anais Nin: Volume Two 1934-1939. New York and London: The Swallow Press and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1967.
Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.