“By choosing an author whose style is complementary to your own you can teach yourself a great deal about sentence formation and prose rhythm…”
Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande
Becoming a Writer is an incredibly valuable little guide that I learned about in an article on creativity: It was written back in the thirties, but the techniques and exercises it offers are timeless. One of my favorite chapters, “On Imitation,” focuses on ways in which we can improve our craft by analyzing the words, rhythm, and text structure of writers that we admire. The goal isn’t to slavishly copy their style, but to understand precisely the ways in which they produce effects that we want to master.
According to Dorothea, “…technical excellences can be imitated, and with great advantage. When you have found a passage, long or short, which seems to you far better than anything of the sort you are yet able to do, sit down to learn from it.” Here’s how:
Analyze it word by word: Suppose you’re having a problem in your own story when it comes to indicating the passage of time, but the author you’re analyzing “has handled such transitions smoothly, writing just enough, but not a word too much, to convey the illusion of time’s passing between two scenes. Well, then; how does he do it? He uses – how many words?” While taking a word count sounds superficial, it can actually be very helpful, because it reveals a sense of proportion: how the author “spends the words” he or she has at her command in either a scene or a short story.
Analyze its rhythm and sentence structure: Suppose you find a passage by the author you admire that’s especially pleasing in its diversity of rhythms and sentence length – and you your own work seems monotonous in comparison. Dorothea suggest that you take the appealing passage by the author you admire as your model and reproduce it. If “…the first sentence has twelve words, you will write a twelve word sentence. It begins with two words of one syllable each, the third is a noun of two syllables, the fourth is an adjective of four syllables, the fifth an adjective of three, etc. Write one with words of the same number of syllables, noun for noun, adjective for adjective, verb for verb, being sure that the words carry their emphasis on the same syllables as those in the model.” By taking this approach occasionally, you can gain a deeper, hands-on understanding of just how a masterful author crafts his or her prose to achieve a desired effect.
I’ve just read a passage in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying that conveys a wild, swirling moment of action that’s very similar to a scene in my YA novel. I plan to use Dorothea’s technique to “deconstruct” this emotionally charged passage so that I can improve my own. I’m excited about trying this – and hope that you’ll give it a shot as well — and write on!