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Monday, September 19, 2011

Strategy for Beauty

(As first seen on the Seekerville Blog)

Long before I became a novelist, I was a published poet. I love creating art with words, molding them like a sculptor shapes clay to form a work of beauty that stirs the soul. So when I sat down to pen my first novel, painting pretty pictures with words and creating melodious sounds came easy. As one fellow author, Christine Lindsay put it, “It was like reading light rippling across water.” 

Of course in the first version of Dance of the Dandelion, my descriptions were way too long, my plot was paced all wrong, and my dialogue read like a radio script. I had a lot to learn about crafting a novel before my book reached publication. 

Over time I’ve come to understand that crafting a story is like creating a framework. It’s the carpentry of the book. Imagine a couch with a wooden skeleton. Without the proper structure, the couch…or novel will quickly fall apart. Artistry is merely the decorative touch.

But oh—what a difference that decorative touch can make!

How many of us purchase couches based on the sturdiness of a frame we can’t even see? No, we choose based on the colors, shapes, patterns, and textures. The appeal to our senses. Do we want novels that are merely functional or novels that are pure bliss? Artistry in writing can make the difference between a book people read once and enjoy, and a book people remember for a lifetime. 

Even more importantly, artistry is a significant way that we as Christians can reach out to today’s postmodern world. Our current generation raised on television and video games craves imagery and beauty. Ever wonder why passing out tracts has been replaced with flash mob praise dances? People today need to see the beauty of God, and through that beauty find relationship with him. 

So today I’d like to share some poetic secrets to help you heighten the level of beauty in your novels. Poetry gives careful attention to each word’s sounds, connotations, and multiple meanings. It calls for exquisite crafting of every line to find the ultimate potential hidden within the words. These are great skills for any writer to possess, and they go a long way in strengthening that elusive quality called voice.

1) Imagery – All writers know that it’s important to appeal to the senses in our novels. However, what if we take this one step further? Just like it’s important in life to stop from our busy schedules and enjoy a drop of rain on a pink, silken rose petal or the fluttering journey of a butterfly dancing on the breeze, take time in your writing to explore the beauty of the setting. Give thought to those special moments when you can pause from the busyness of your story and allow your characters to explore the wonder of the world around them.

In an action-packed thriller novel, a panoramic sunset can instill hope and create a memorable moment. In a science fiction story, the alien landscape might provide a sensory feast. In a work of speculative fiction, a bizarre occurrence can create a sense of beauty through the perception of the point of view character as they draw insight from often overlooked details.

2) Symbol – Symbol is an extension of imagery. When an image becomes larger than itself and begins to take on universal significance, you might have a symbol. As Christians we should be well-accustomed to symbols. The Bible is full of them. The cross, the dove, the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit. The river of life, the lion, the lamb, the lily of the valley. Since symbols should be organic and not tacked on, look for opportunities in your fiction to develop symbols through images already in place. 

For example, I noticed that bees showed up several times in my novel. With a few observations in the internal monologue, the bee took on greater significance and became a symbol for how the character viewed her circumstances. Animals, flowers, trees, colors, mementos, gifts, jewels, clothing, and homes are just some of the objects that make for great symbols in addition to action oriented symbols like sports and the arts. 

3) Metaphor and Simile – I’ve heard writers say that metaphor and simile are “against the rules” of good novel writing, but I don’t buy it. Metaphor and simile are simply quick versions of symbolism. While it’s all too easy to use trite or cliché metaphors and similes, these can also provide a powerful way to evoke images in your writing through comparison. When they are unique and creative, they amplify the power of your writing. 

I heard a great example on the radio a few minutes ago. “You’re gonna catch a cold from the ice down in your soul.” Now instead of merely knowing the guy is “cold-hearted,” I can actually feel the cold and the pain it will cause through the power of metaphor.

4) Sound – True poetry does not focus on rhyming like Dr. Seuss, but rather on the beauty of sound. Rhyming means matching sounds. There are many ways to do this. You can match beginning sounds (alliteration), middle sounds (consonance, assonance), or ending sounds. You can match perfectly or you can slant your rhyme. You can hide matching sounds in the middle of sentences to create a lovely feel without being obvious. Try choosing your sounds based on the tone or mood you wish to create. 

Here’s an example. “Ocean breezes speak to me with whispering words of love.” See how the repeated “s” sounds and soft consonants create a breeze like effect. Hard, sharp words create an intense staccato sound. Experiment with sound. Read your writing out loud and see what you can create. 

5) Rhythm – Another important element of sound is rhythm. I love to play with rhythm in my writing. In my historical novel, I use iambic rhythms, which bring to mind Shakespeare and King James. The rich, rocking meter creates a classical feel. Often, I lull you into a rhythm and snap you out of it to bring attention to a specific detail. In my contemporary novel, I use crisper rhythms and shorter sentences. I have the most fun with rhythm in my narrative nonfiction. I can use rhythm in my own voice to create emotion and give you a sense of rambling or chatting. Then switch to a feel of smacking you. Quick, hard hitting points. Fun, fun, fun.

If you recall your high school English classes, you might remember that there are iambs and trochees, dactyls and anapests, all in various metered feet. And most of you are probably experiencing traumatic flashbacks right about now. Don’t worry about all of that. My favorite rhythms are the natural ones used by poets like Langston Hughes to create the sounds of music. Let the words guide you. Follow the flow and let it lead the way. 

I hope you enjoyed this brief foray into the world of poetry, and I hope it has given you some new ideas about how to instill beauty in your writing. But as the famous poet John Keats once wrote, Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all.” So above all else, be true to your own style, your own voice, and the unique calling God has placed upon your heart. Let his truth and beauty shine through your words, and you can never go wrong.

How do you instill beauty in your writing? Can you share a favorite line of poetry with us? Maybe a beautiful passage from your own writing or a book you love? Whose writing do you think embodies beauty?


  1. Dina,

    Being a musician, I absolutely love the rhythm and cadence of words. In writing novels, I had to learn that, as you say, the framework must come first: a novel of harmony with no unifying melody just won't work.

    I just read "Havah" by Tosca Lee and her prose blew me away. My friend Rosslyn Elliott also writes with great beauty, and my CP Anita Draper has the best way of coming up with brand new similies and metaphors for everyday experiences.

    Thanks for sharing this great topic! I'd love to learn more about your dancing--my daughter is an avid, and beautiful, dancer. Not that I'm biased or anything. ;)

  2. Hi Gwen. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I've actually written some music, and I imagine musicians would be awesome at the cadence of writing.

    If you'd like to see a little more about my dancing, you can check out my dance link. My daughter is a dancer too. I personally have never really gotten past advanced intermediate, and now with my body slowly deteriorating...

    But, so far I have included dancers and or dance themes in all of my books.

    In fact, now I'm working on a sequel to my medieval, and I didn't think there would be any dance other than maybe some courtly dances, but guess what, seems like God wants my want-to-be-nun to learn to enjoy life and dance too :)