Writing

Prose Style and Texture

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 10:44 min

Learn the difference between style and description as Margaret illustrates two different prose style extremes—baroque and plainsong.

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Margaret Atwood
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The units of language are words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, et cetera. But at the micro level, they are letters and sounds. And part of a texture is how those words sound. I think it was Robert Graves who used to say that he had an exercise called "getting the geese out," which was going through his text and removing Ses that were making a hissing sound. That's why he said getting the geese out. And for that, it's very useful to read your text out loud to see how it sounds, because a text is a score for voice. And if you're writing something that comes out sounding like simple Simon stuck a seashell on the seashore, there just may be too much of that S and "sh" kind of sound. The same goes for sounds like P if there's too much popping. If there's too much of one letter, people will think you're doing it on purpose for a reason. So if there's too much what we call "onomatopoeia," words that sound like the thing they're describing-- Tennyson's line, the murmuring of innumerable bees. He does that on purpose to sound like bees. So if you're going to have repeated sounds, make sure you're doing it on purpose. And similarly, if you're slipping into iambic pentameter, which people often do, you ought to be able to hear that. Are you intending it or not? So that's the basic thing about texture. How does it sound? How does it sound when you read it out loud? [MUSIC PLAYING] So at the extremes, you could say that there are two kinds of style. One is plainsong, in which the sentences are fairly short. They don't have a lot of adjectives and adverbs. They're fairly blunt and straightforward. The other you could call Baroque, in which the language is very ornamented. So it could have a lot of subordinate clauses. It can have a lot of adjectives and adverbs. It could have a kind of pile on of detail, a pile on of syllables. And most people are somewhere in between there. Things got a lot more plainsong with the advent of writers like Hemingway and Graham Greene. But then they got more Baroque with the advent of writers like Angela Carter, who is very Baroque indeed. There is no one good style. Some people have styles that they prefer. So it is a question of what you're using your language for, what sort of-- let us say, what sort of spell you're trying to cast or what kind of illusion you're trying to practice. [MUSIC PLAYING] Let's do Baroque first. Charles Dickens is a very Baroque writer. He piles on the detail. He piles on the adjectives. He was very fond of the theater, so he likes to-- if it were theater, you would say he was hamming it up. So what could be better than to start with "A Christmas Carol" and the description of Scrooge. "Oh, but he was a tight-fisted, hand at the grindstone Scrooge. A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner. Hard and sharp as flint from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire. Sacred and self-contained and solitary as an oyster....


The art of powerful storytelling

Called the “Prophet of Dystopia,” Margaret Atwood is one of the most influential literary voices of our generation. In her first-ever online writing class, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale teaches how she crafts compelling stories, from historical to speculative fiction, that remain timeless and relevant. Explore Margaret’s creative process for developing ideas into novels with strong structures and nuanced characters.



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I liked this class for its informative and objective value, but more so for its spirit and kind mentoring. While realistic about the proces and obstacles, it gave me a sense of being connected on the journey of learning storytelling. Thank you for this gift.

Great insight to how a writer writes, what things to look for, what questions to be asking at each stage, and much more. I feel I've learned a lot! Margaret Atwood is amazing in sharing her knowledge and experience. Highly recommended.

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Comments

Travis G.

Enraptured. That was the fastest 10 minutes and 43 seconds of my life. Addicted!

Dan U.

Excellent! This is vital! One has to present a story in an entertains, creative manner with several tools in one’s tool box and in one’s voice. This is a gift. Dicken’s just pours it on....like pulling rabbits out of his hat. The other just matter a fact....you won’t catch me in a lie or exaggerating because I don’t want to be ridiculed is the sense I get in the second reading. Great!

Carmen A.

"what sort of spell you are trying to cast"...wow, that opened up a whole new way of thinking for me in my storytelling! a new secret door...

John D.

Very insightful lesson. I will try the suggested exercise at the end and will aim to be mindful of the prose styles used in the books that I read in the future.

Sam

The examples used to differentiate plainsong and baroque were very helpful!

Suzanne B.

I'm not sure what my "style" is exactly except to say I know I like to vary my sentences relative to the moment in the narrative. I cut back a lot as I revise, but I do prefer to adjust the pace and texture based on what's happening. Is the moment tense, dangerous, funny, hectic . . . I guess that puts me squarely in the middle, doesn't it?

Sara H.

I wrote my first novel with a lot of imagery and metaphor, and the second with very little - I used my own 'dogma' rules, no adverbs, few adjectives, no 'set-ups' (preamble or explanation). It will be fun to come back to colour and play.

Caetlin W.

I studied English literature and writing in college. That is where my degree lies, so I find it odd that I have never heard of these two writing styles. After Atwood explained them, I realized I am familiar with them as concepts, but I was never taught about them. Thank you, Ms. Atwood, for filling in this gap in my writing knowledge. My personal preference is baroque, and I tend to follow that style in my own writing as well. I am looking forward to doing the sample exercise to see how my writing sounds in the plainsong style.

Bob

Good contrast of plainsong & baroque. As college editor of the Minnesota Daily, weekday morning tabloid (ave. 32 pages), we put the following day's weather forecast from the Weather Bureau at the top of p.2 in a feature called "Elmo's Weather Report". Staffers would volunteer each evening to rewrite the dry verbiage of the Weather Bureau into a know writer's style. Anything was game. I remember doing Elmo on different days as (1) Shakespeare in high-style rhyming couplets, (2) in Hemingway-esque plainsong and as baroque a Dickens style as I could conjure. Ex. 1 Yon morn will come with hint of ice, you'd lief do well to heed advice, .... Ex. 2 Cold, icy. Bring a thick coat and hat. Don't slip on the ice. Ex. 3 'Tis the best of days if you're an Emperor Penguin and the worst of days if your a California flower transplanted here for educational enrichment. You will suffer the icy blasts, the dread ad-hoc skating rinks known as sidewalks which we regulars handle with utmost aplomb. These were always done quickly and tailored in length to fit the "Elmo hole" in the day's page layout, which varied a bit. It was always fun and the student staff competed to get a shot to do Elmo.

STEVEN B.

I like how Margaret describes her examples. Unlike some masterclass teachers, she is not afraid to give new examples through her lessons and ones that aren't basic. Haven't heard about these styles before, learning some good stuff here