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Prose Forensics

Although not as obvious as poetry, prosody has an important role in making prose enjoyable to read. Chances are a piece of writing you like involves a deliberate and conscious application of rhythm and sound to achieve a certain effect. Sometimes these effects are obvious (Livia Llewellyn comes to mind) and sometimes the effects are vestigial (almost non-existant), such as a writer like Andrew Weir.

Personally I like either type of writing. There are times what I want is simple: writing that gets the job done. Other times I want to wallow in words, savor them, reveling in the heady brew of challenging diction and intricate rhythms.

A handful of works I’ve read recently use prosody to achieve a specific effect within writing that’s not typically thought of requiring close reading. As luck would have it, three of these examples even revolve around a common theme - forensic science. Relatively unadorned style is doubly effective because it goes by unnoticed by readers. Authors able to employ such tricks have a powerful hold on the reader, conjuring reactions and emotions from unknown places. Even when unable to describe why, a reader might single out a passage that affected them, seized their imaginations.

John Scalzi, whose “Lock In” novel I reviewed earlier this year, writes in a subtle but effective register. The craft Scalzi employs is clear from the very beginning. He chooses clean and active verbs to shuttle between scenes of dialogue, never burdening his plot with gobs of exposition. Yet, if you unfold his prose, a surprising amount of poetry appears. The following excerpt appears in an early chapter of Lock In, when the cybernetic protagonist Chris Shane first arrives at the scene of a murder.


There was a dead body in the room, on the floor, facedown in the carpet, throat cut. The carpet was soaked in blood. There were sprays of blood on the walls, on the bed, and on the remaining seat in the room. A breeze turned in the room, provided by the gaping hole in the wall-length window that the love seat had gone through.


There are four sentences here and three of them employ a state-of-being verb, one of those hobgoblins of creative writing courses. And yet, this passage doesn’t stick on the ‘was’s and ‘were’s, each jagged sentence fitting together in a smooth, clinical voice. That first sentence in particular could have been written many different ways, but its staccato, strobe-like pulse, each participle drawing closer to the source of the murder, works. The body is in the room, then he’s on the floor, then pressed against a carpet and finally dead of a slashed throat. One can almost hear David Caruso saying, enhance, enhance, ENHANCE! 

Notice too how the passage gains momentum towards the end. A dead body is as still as still can be, but Scalzi introduces a spreading pool of blood, then sprays of blood, walls streaked with blood and finally the turbulence in the room’s air created by hole in the wall. The final sentence uses the only active verb, again creating a sense of forward momentum, a sense of violence only moments old.

Sometimes it’s helpful to contrast two works to see how different writers do their thing. I finished the first Dresden File book recently, after considerable urging from friends. And I have to say, for the most part, I enjoyed Jim Butcher's “Storm Front." It reads quickly, introduces its world with a minimum of exposition before getting into the plot. However, for all of the hard-boiled noir affectations of Jim Butcher’s writing, the man can pile on the modifiers.


I stepped closer to the bed and walked around it. The carpet squelched as I did. The little screaming part of my brain, safely locked up behind doors of self-control and strict training, continued gibbering. I tried to ignore it. Really I did. But if I didn’t get out of that room in a hurry, I was going to start crying like a little girl.
I’m leaving out the section before and after this paragraph that go into more detail on a pair of lovers murdered in their bed by some unknown assailant. For our purposes this paragraph will suffice. First of all, both of these books are first person narratives, and yet only in the second paragraph do we get that claustrophobic pulse of the character’s interior monologue. Lock-in treats us to a very spare, almost inhuman description of the crime scene. Butcher, in contrast, wants us to feel Dresden’s discomfort with the situation. For some one having under gone ‘strict training,’ he seems pretty freaked out. The relatively uncomplicated sentences reinforce the idea of Dresden as being somewhat out of his depth here. The paragraph does use more active verbs than Scalzi but padded by dids and didn’ts, continueds and going tos.

Finally, let’s take a look at passage early in Michael Swanwick's wonderful short story from last year, “Passage of Earth.” A science fiction story, a forensic investigator is presented with a unique challenge, to dissect the body of a alien killed in a crash landing. Most of the story is in effect a description of that autopsy, the details recorded by the investigator later flipped around at the ending. But first, there is a short passage where Hank confronts the body of the alien.


It was a Worm. 
Hank found himself leaning low over the heavy, swollen body, breathing deep of its heady alien smell, suggestive of wet earth and truffles with sharp hints of ammonia. He thought of the ships in orbit, blind locomotives ten miles long. The photographs of these creatures didn’t do them justice. His hands itched to open this one up.


This passage is somewhat more opulent in description, but still tightly coiled, spare. The proportion of active to static verbs is almost exactly opposite from Lock In, and the tone is more fraught. The narrator paws the ground to get started, already surprised by how eager he is to open up the alien corpse and discover what it had concealed. The rhythm is insistent, a series of trochee adjectives (HEAV-y, SWOL-len)  sagging into messier meters. This creates an interesting cross-current within this paragraph: the first long sentence loping forward on a simple, nursery rhyme beat, while the brief final sentence embraces an anapestic stutter.

A reader might not consciously pick up on any of this, but some portion of his brain will. A truly talented writer like Swanwick bends the infinitely flexible segments of the English language into intricate shapes that can only be read in one fashion. It's the hidden patterns that seize, ensure, and ultimately, create meaning.

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