Your prose (your writing ability, your eloquence in the written word, or in a much broader sense, your writing style) can be tailored to fit your characters rather than simply “sounding” like you always do when you write. Try reading some of your stories out loud, and you’ll hear what they “sound” like. This is your prose in the most basic sense of the word.
Many new authors make the mistake of trying to sound as “fancy” or “intelligent” as possible when writing. I’ve seen this many, many times, and unfortunately, this is a habit that’s generally picked up in a creative writing course or in education in general. This style, if not done properly, comes off as pretentious and annoying.
Another common mistake for new authors is to write how they would write in a blog. This informal style works sometimes, but ofttimes it comes off as sloppy and amateur.
So, what do you do?
It’s simple. You can tailor your prose to fit the character who is “telling” the story. In other words, your narration can “sound” like how the character thinks and talks in a real setting. The story will be told from their point of view.
The most basic example I can give is from the viewpoint of a child:
Gillian did not like the way the closet door was open a little. The door was open just a crack, but that crack was a line of black darker than any crayon she had ever used.
There was something bad behind the door, something that was not nice at all, but she was too afraid to get up out of bed to go shut her closet door. She knew it was there, but she didn’t know how it was there, but that didn’t really matter, because it was still there, and it was going to do bad things to her if she didn’t do something about it.
As you can see, the prose from a child’s viewpoint is simplistic, or in other words, without complicated words or phrasing. Gillian is clearly a little girl from the way the story “sounds,” and you can clearly reference this through the added description of “a line of black darker than any crayon she had ever used.” We can assume from these two factors that Gillian is a child and a young child at that.
Now let’s read the same passage, but we’ll tailor the prose to fit a high-school girl’s point of view:
Gillian did not like the way the closet door was slightly open. The door was open just a crack, but that crack was a line of pitch blacker than any starless night.
It was an irrational fear that grew inside her like a cancer, a fear that there was something awful behind that door, something both menacing and horrifying, and this fear was, in fact, thoroughly irrational for a junior in high school, but she was still too afraid to get up out of bed to go shut her closet door.
She simply knew it was there, and she didn’t know how something like that could possibly be in there, but that was irrelevant, because it was still there in her closet, waiting, and it was going to show itself soon, very soon, and she was not going to like it when it did.
She had to do something about this, but she did not know exactly what that “something” was going to be.
Our example passage is significantly different when told from a high-school girl’s point of view. The prose is more complex with longer sentences for better thought construction. Gillian is older now, so what’s going on in her head has to follow suit with her age.
Finally, let’s read this same passage from middle-aged Gillian’s point of view:
Gillian tried to shrug off the rise of unease that grew inside her over the fact that her closet door was slightly ajar. The door was open just a crack, but that crack was a line of pure and unnatural obsidian depth, a cold strip of ebony that defied any common sense.
It was an irrational fear that grew inside her like a cancer, a shuffling discomfort in paranoia that there was something terrible and supernatural behind that door, something both menacing and horrifying that defied logic and reason. This fear was, in fact, thoroughly irrational for someone in her late forties, but she was still too wary to just get up out of bed to go shut her closet door.
She somehow and in some way knew it was there, but how she could perceive this, she did not know. However, her rationality over the existence of such a thing was irrelevant at the moment, because this unnamed thing was still in her closet, waiting, timing its moment for the perfect debut. It was going to show itself soon, very soon, and she did not relish the thought of it coming out into full view.
Her natural danger sense was reacting in all its glory; she could feel the fine hairs on her body standing on end. It was these primal red flags that kept wise people alive, and those flags were waving in her face, screaming at her to do something, but she had no idea what that “something” was going to be.
As we can see from this last example, middle-aged Gillian’s passage is longer than high-school Gillian’s passage. Her sentences are more concise and not as jumbled together, and she has more complex words and phrases than high-school Gillian.
Note: When writing in a third-person omniscient point of view, your prose should be uniform throughout the entire story as a “one size fits all” style. You should only tailor your prose when writing in first and second points of view, or when writing in third-person limited as shown in the examples above. When writing in fourth person, such as using “we” and “our” for everything, your prose should be uniform as it is in third-person omniscient.
You can also tailor your prose to sound like the style of other writers such as H.P. Lovecraft (minus the racism). Lovecraft is famous for the creation of the subgenre of cosmic/eldritch horror, so we’ll try to sound like Lovecraft to give a closing example of how to tailor your prose to fit the narrative you’re going for.
Now, I’m only using Lovecraft as an example. Feel free to fit your prose to any narrative you wish. Do you want to sound like a character out of the Middle-Ages? Do some research and fit your prose to sound like a character out of the Middle-Ages. Do you want to sound like you’re from the far future? Use your imagination and do it. Point being, tailor your prose to your desired effect.
Now, let’s write our passage in the Lovecraftian style of prose:
The malignant source of Gillian’s nocturnal unease emanated from behind the black walnut wood of her wardrobe door. The door in question was unhinged due to a feckless lack of closure, an error in judgment that Gillian was now questioning in its authenticity. Perhaps she had left the door ajar, or perhaps it was something else, something terribly unexplainable that had pushed forth the wooden barrier, but that open crack, that virgule of ebon, was a stygian line of umbral darkness that stoked a nameless fear within her quiet breast.
A terror settled upon her as a stifling cloud of hysteria formed in her psyche, a powerful fear that there was a nefandous ghoul behind that door, a rendition of Fuseli with Gillian’s own profile in chiaroscuro, some indescribable, cacodaemoniacal thing lying in wait. This nameless fear was, in fact, unbecoming of a woman her age, but she could no more gather any courage to withdraw from bed and shut the wardrobe than she could explain the growing horror clutching at her fluttering heart.
Its existence of being was indelible in her mind, though she could not fathom how such a thing had come to be. Such a strange ponderance was irrational at the present moment, of course, because she knew perforce that it existed somehow, and its presence would show beneath the gambrel roofs of this woodland town soon, very soon, and the horror it would unleash would be devastating.
There was an extra-sensory emergence of urgency that unsettled her; a calling of primal warning that compelled her to act before it was too late, but what could be done over this otherworldly quandary, she did not know.
Now, I’ve laid it on thick in the passage above as an example of “Lovecraft speak,” though Lovecraft, for the most part, was easier to understand than what I’ve written above. Simply put, the point of that passage was to show how tailoring your prose isn’t limited to just suiting it to your characters and their points-of-view.
Remember, tailoring your prose helps in more ways than one. It suits a character’s age and/or adds to the overall mood and atmosphere of what you’re going for, and this is especially important when writing short horror, though you can do this with any genre of fiction.
In closing, I hope this information helps you on your writing journey, and my advice is and always has been: keep putting out those stories. There is no shortage of fans of short horror out there.
How to Write Short Horror #2: Tailoring Your Prose Copyright © 2023 Matthew L. Marlott