Cleansing the Palate With Language

Something jumped out at me from two well-known series of books. It seems that both the recently re-read Miles Vorkosigan books by Bujold and the Dresden series by Butcher use beautiful language to help the pacing. When there is a descriptive passage, that is where they pour a little extra poetry into their prose. It makes up for the lack of action and varies the flavor a bit.

It makes sense. You do not want to stop an action, sex, or fight scene to admire an especially apt simile or metaphor. Action calls for terse words and focus, musculature or sweat, fear or joy, hate or shock. Action scenes are the meat of a plot arc, if you will: the main course, the most pivotal moments.

But changes of location or travel, or changes of point of view are another matter entirely. This is where authors can place their linguistic flights of fancy. It’s texture. If an action scene is a sizzling steak, prose-poem description is like a smooth, creamy custard with luscious bits of fruit in it. And a change of pace or good scene change can cleanse the palate.

Madame Vorsoisson exited the lightflyer, and turned to take in the view to the north, out over the peopled lowlands of the Vorkosigan District. The warm air softened the furthest horizon into a magical blue haze, but the eye could still see for a hundred kilometers. Cumulus clouds puffed white and, in three widely separated arcs, towered up over silver-gray bases like rival castles.  – A CIVIL CAMPAIGN, Lois McMaster Bujold.                                                                               (Example 1)

Mort drove one of those little hybrid cars that, when not running on gasoline, was fueled by idealism. It was made out of crepe paper and duct tape and boasted a computer system that looked like it could have run the NYSE and NORAD, with enough attention left over to play tic-tac-toe. Or possibly Global Thermonuclear War. – GHOST STORY, Jim Butcher                                                                        (Example 2)

In both of the above examples, the POV character is traveling. Madame Vorvoisson’s scene happens in between some incredible sexual tension between Lord Mark Vorkosigan and Kareen, and a scene where a woman who would have been an heir to a countship (had she been male) returns from off-planet to reveal she’s just had a shocking sex-change operation. The reader needs a break in the tense pacing, and the travel scene with its similes provides it.

In the second example, in a ferocious battle scene Harry Dresden has just helped drive off an army of hungry, evil shades from the home of Mortimer Lindquist, Ectomancer, and is about to dive into a scene where he will confront his grief-mad ex-almost lover and his PTSD-mad ex-apprentice. And werewolves, and a mafioso, with a succubus – with a drive-by shooting in the mix. Heck, if Butcher didn’t write in some pacing scenes like the above example his readers would be panting with exhaustion.

Both of these examples are from novels. Now, admittedly, there are not as many opportunities to use this technique in shorter fiction, but language-as-pacing is still useful. Here’s an example from an archived Abyss & Apex story, “The Man Behind the Curtain,” by Joseph Paul Haines. ” Only four of us made it, out of eight. Half. Half her children showed up for her funeral. When I heard that she died, I imagined a rainy day. Two score or so mourners stood around her open grave all dressed in black like a coven of dark acolytes gathering round an altar, waiting to sacrifice their troubled memories into the cold earth beside her.” This was a break from a cryptic opening, before a tense scene with his sister. It does many things , among them setting tone and giving back-story. It also is the calm before a storm.

For many readers, sentence-level writing and evocative prose can be the main draw. I am not disparaging that, and we have many examples of that sort of writing in our archives, such as our Ray Bradbury homage, “The Winter Astronaut.” But for the vast majority of short fiction writers, metaphor, simile, analogy, and personification are tools in the toolbox to help—among other things—with pacing. Don’t forget to consider adding a dollop of beautiful prose when the action winds down and the reader needs a breath. Worldbuilding and shiny ideas are not the only way to provide the genre’s sense of wonder.


Wendy S. Delmater, Editor

Abyss & Apex

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