For the second week of the #ReadInstead Literary Festival we had Amitabh Bagchi, author of DSC prize winning book Half The Night is Gone, give a deeply engaging and informed writing workshop on how to write literary prose apt for both fiction writers and prose readers.
Bagchi uses the example of a painting to understand how to read closely & discusses word choices as one of the constitutive elements of prose.
Ask three questions of any art form:
- What are the elements of the art form – notes music colour
- What are the effects the art form seeks to create? – typically emotional effects – identify the emotional effects that the art form seeks to create?
- How does it use those elements to create those effects?
For instance, he studies Vermeer’s painting and following were some observations:
Looking closely at Vermeer’s View of Delft painted around 1660 – we notice that about 50-60% of this painting is sky, why hasn’t the painter painted close ups of the building, why has he painted a cloud darker than the other? There are even different kinds of light on different surfaces of the painting. Looking closely at the buildings which seem to be some kind of dockside building, this building has a tiny illustration of a man standing. What does his body language tell us? The building has innumerable white dots on it catching light at different times were they originally there or has Vermeer painted these dots to create an effect of light?
(If you are interested in better understanding art criticism Bagchi recommends reading BN Goswamy.)
- Pick two or three different paintings and write out a set of questions/ thoughts they inspire – about the artistic choices made in the painting
- Pick a piece of orchestral music/ ensemble music and identify the different instruments. Try to verbalise how a particular instrument’s sounds makes you feel at a particular time.
You can also apply the same kind of approach to film, sculpture, or any other art form.
The same method can be applied to prose:
“I longed for nothing more than to behold a stormy sea, less as a mighty spectacle than as a momentary revelation of the true life of nature; or rather there were for me no mighty spectacles save those which I knew to be not artificially composed for my entertainment, but necessary and unalterable – the beauty of landscapes or of great works of art.” – Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way Tr. CK Scott
Bagchi looks closely at Proust’s choice of words –
He wonders why Proust has not used ‘yearned’ instead of ‘longed’, ‘gaze upon’ instead of ‘behold’, why has he used the word ‘mighty’ before ‘spectacle’. Is it required? Does it change the nature of the spectacle he is referring to? What does he mean by the true life of nature?
So you see how a beautiful idea which relates man to nature and which speaks to the nature of creativity and the human imagination is coded into just through the use of words. In one sentence a lot of things have been said just by the way in which different words have been chosen and applied.
Read a sentence like this and try to break it into its constituents and ask questions about why is this there? What is the purpose of this? How does this work? How does this work without it? What could I have put in its place.
Dig Deeper: Word Choice/ Diction
- How do you decide which word to use?
- What are the terms on which this decision is made?
Following are the four aspects to consider while making said choices:
- What exactly do you want to say? Compare ‘ancient’ to ‘prehistoric’ to ‘bygone’ to ‘primordial’
- The word that you use does it capture what you want to say?
- Here, by using meaning in its finest granularity we are trying to make a distinction this not that. Does your reader understand the distinction you are trying to make?
- Who is the reader? How far does the reader’s vocabulary extend? Are you willing to extend the reader’s vocabulary further?
b. The Modifier
- Is this really needed? Can we pick the perfect noun instead?
- Can we pick the perfect noun instead? Better practice is to pick the perfect noun and then use the modifier only if it really brings something to what you’re trying to do.
- Compare: “really old” to “prehistoric” to “three centuries old” to “at least three centuries old”
- If you pick the right verb you don’t need the adjective and if you pick the right verb then the right adjective with it really takes it to a different level.
- Word choice can be a short cut into a whole world, eg, “her Icarus-flight”, “the Dickensian world of carpet weavers”
- Caveat: Will the reader catch the allusion? How commonly understood is the connotation of the allusion you are working with?
- These allusions could be to anything other than literature as well, it’s a question of which linguistic world you are trying to light.
- The musical aspect of language is a critical and under-appreciated aspect of literary writing. Think of syllables as notes and consider the rhythm of the sentence.
- Compare: “the process of ratiocination had reached its conclusion” versus “the process of reaching a judgement by logical deduction had reached its conclusion” versus “ the judgement had been reached”
- A play of sounds creates a pleasant effect. Here you are working similar to the way music works and also similar to the way colour, shape and form works in visual art.
Things to always keep in mind:
Word choice forms register, eg, if a character says “bro” it suggests a particular time and sensibility. When you are writing you have to try to understand what is the register in which you’re writing to your audience and understand how word choice forms that. So make sure there are no false notes.
Word choice helps build and sustain mood, eg, light versus gloom, anticipation and suspense. Compare with keys/ragas in music.
Word choice indicates geography and class. In India there is caste as well. What is the sound of someone with refinement or power? And word choice can create these distinctions.The fineness of prose is in the creation of distinctions and word choice is the sharp tool that helps you do that.
If you read poetry you find that poets’ word selection is typically limited. They have a huge vocabulary but they carefully use a subset of that vocabulary and use and reuse that again and as they use and reuse it the effect and the weight associated with the word that they use and reuse increases with time. This is a fantastic effect.
- Read carefully and ask questions regarding the prose choice made by great writers.
- Apply an analytical approach to other art forms as well to understand how they achieve their effects. (Can you achieve something similar in yours?)
- Organise the different aspects of your prose in your mind to better understand what it is that you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it?
- Select 3 sentences that you really like from the works of other writers. Write down a line or two about why you like each sentence. Focus on the form (words, flow, etc)
- Select 1 or 2 short fragments of poetry that you really like. Write down a line or two about why you like them. Focus on the form.
- Select three sentences from your own work that you are not satisfied with. Write down a line or two about what is causing this dissatisfaction.