Readability: Get Out of the Way

Today’s guest post is by Jim Adam. It is part of a series on
storytelling and The Strengths of the Potter Series. Check out Jim’s
book, Motherless.

At
the level of the sentence and paragraph, the Potter series is eminently
readable. It resides in a happy middle ground between florid prose on
the one hand, and anorexic prose on the other. The style is direct
without being simplistic.

It gets out of the way so that readers can enjoy the story.

The strengths of Rowling’s prose read like a summary of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style:

  • varied sentences, both in length and structure
  • use of the active voice
  • limited use of “to be” verbs and related constructs (“there were,” “it was,” “she was”)
  • balanced use of rare verbs (slam, snatch, swagger) with more common ones (close, take, walk)
  • a preference for concrete nouns that appeal to the five senses
  • carefully selected modifiers
  • use
    of more specific transitional words and phrases (because, though,
    which) rather than relying entirely upon “and,” “but,” and “then”

The
Potter prose isn’t afraid to use adverbs (including adverbs in dialogue
tags), for which all writers should be grateful. The current backlash
has all but removed adverbs from the language, and we need writers like Rowling to push back against this bigotry.

Some
writers might not be comfortable using adverbs as much as Rowling does,
but that is one way writers create their own unique voice. It deserves
to remain a matter of personal preference rather than editorial fiat.

The
Potter prose also demonstrates courage by making positive statements.
Graduate school timidity (“the toe on an ape is not unlike a thumb”)
has infected a lot of writers, but not Ms. Rowling. She doesn’t tell us what something is not unlike; she tells us what it is like.

Next in series: Reader Identification

Photo credit: drinksmachine

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