Making novels feel real


Steven Lyle JordanI recently heard from a reader who wanted me to know how much he’d enjoyed how my stories had drawn him into the narrative.  He specified Verdant Pioneers, and described a scene where one of the female characters is reunited with a beau that appeared in Verdant Skies He described the moment with a series of words from the book, which I immediately recognized, and then lamented that not only did he strongly feel that moment, but he felt bad that he’d never felt such a powerful emotion directed at himself!

(Yeah, join the club.  We have T-shirts.)

I’m not writing about this to brag, but to point out the difference between different writing styles, and how they affect readers. Every so often I come across a book that features what I call “formal dialogue,” a lot of large words and melodramatic prose clearly written to impress the reader with the author’s thesauric prowess.  Characters don’t talk; they speak, eloquently and demonstrably, as if delivering a soliloquy at every opportunity.  And indeed, many readers love exactly that kind of writing; they say it transforms them to another level, to a heightened state or a super-reality that serves to draw them into a narrative like a star draws its planets to it.

On the other hand, there are those readers for whom expansive, flowery and demonstrative prose tends to leave them cold, in fact pushes them out of the narrative, distracting them like a bad smell in a restaurant.  Some of those people react so because they may not be as familiar with words and sentences that they do not encounter “on the street”… though many more of them are very familiar with the words and sentences, but because they are not used “on the street,” they sound false and unreal.  They do not sound natural to the ear, and the mental effort of “translating” flowery prose to natural language distracts the mind from the narrative.

I’ve always been of the “straight talk” variety of reader and writer.  I prefer reading words that someone next to me might have used if I’d just asked him how to get to the corner store, or what just happened down the street where he worked.  For me, natural, colloquial speech allows me to fully immerse myself in the story, and get the most out of a dramatic or emotional moment… as my reader did reading Verdant Pioneers.

In science fiction, colloquial speech can be vital to holding an audience.  Sci-fi tends to be filled with exotic locations and concepts, scientific gadgetry and advanced engineering ideas… many readers have to struggle just to keep up with some sci-fi content.  Add to that overly-demonstrative prose, and a reader can quickly get frustrated, lost, and disinterested in the book.  Colloquial speech ensures that, whatever else you throw at your reader, they don’t have to wrestle with your words, too.

This, perhaps, is why I haven’t found myself able to fully enjoy any of the Steampunk novels I’ve so far tried.  Most SP novelists write in some semblance of the formal, flowery and verbose Victorian era prose, a great deal of which was intentionally embellished by the writers of the day—who, it should be noted, were often paid by the word by their publishers—to the extent that today’s readers believe the haute Victorians actually spoke that way all the time, and not just during special meetings and occasions.  But Victorians did not speak on a daily or regular basis in the sort of language and grammar that we find in the writings of the day, any more than we speak today in the same language and grammar we might read in today’s newspaper articles.

And though none of the words are unfamiliar to me, they still grate on my ears, distracting me to the extent that I am pulled, still sopping, from the narrative pool, and wishing I could fully immerse myself before the joy of the story was lost.  Or, to put another way—my way—over-the-top prose spoils the moment, and I can’t fully get into the story.

Now, that’s just me.  I don’t presume to tell someone which style is better, nor which they should prefer; it’s a matter of preference, and whatever works for you.  Most importantly, the reader should enjoy the story.  If they are most comfortable with demonstrative prose, great; if they prefer street talk, that’s great, too.  If they are comfortable with both, so much the better.

But I’m glad that my writing, which tends to be in the colloquial voice, works for people who value that voice and enjoy my novels because of it.

One thought on “Making novels feel real

  1. Sherri

    The “everyday reality” of your novels is one of many reasons I enjoy your work. You write about a future that is easy to understand, and easy to imagine yourself in.


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