Monday, December 5, 2011

The Science of Powerful Prose

I read quite a bit. And with almost two hours of commuting every day, I listen to a lot of audio books. But whether I’m reading or listening, I often come across a passage so good that it stops me dead in my tracks, and while I fumble for the rewind button or take another pass with my eyes, all I can do is mutter some astonished and appreciative puff of air, and hope in vain that I can write like that someday.

But how does one write like that? There’s got to be some trick to it- some science behind the effect- whether the author masters it consciously or not.

Lots of intangibles fall into this hard-to-describe, "I know it when I see it" category: physical attraction, musical beauty, humor... We're coming to know, for example, that facial beauty has something to do with our expectations of symmetry and proportion. Musical combinations strike us as consonant or dissonant based on the intervals between the notes’ frequencies. We seem to find humor in things that violate our social norms without threatening us or our worldviews.

Scientists in various fields are delving into all of these mysteries. But I’ve never seen the study that’s tried to unravel the secret of breathtaking prose, and even Strunk & White seem to be at a loss to explain it:

“Here we leave solid ground. Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind? Who knows why certain notes in music are capable of stirring the listener deeply, though the same notes slightly rearranged are impotent?”
Who indeed.

Still, there has to be some explanation. There’s got to be some way, if not to prescribe good writing, at least to describe it when you see it.

Aristotle taught that good dramatic endings had to deliver an air of both surprise and inevitability. I think there's something to that concept that applies to memorable prose, as well.

My best guess is that for a line to really jump out at you, it has to provide a striking contrast with the lines that surround it (it has to surprise), and paint such a perfect picture, that in hindsight you can’t imagine it having been put any better way (it has to feel inevitable). Most, if not all of the jaw-dropping lines I've come across would measure up to that standard pretty comfortably.

That’s my working theory, anyway. What’s yours?


  1. Hmmmmmm . . . very intriguing.

    I don't know the answer.

  2. I subscribe to Gladwell's 10,000 hours theory for writing. The best writers are great because they do it more than anyone else. Knowing that a particular line or plot device or allusion will work is highly dependent on having read and written lower quality works.