Saturday, August 09, 2008

What is Lean Prose?

My comment on a Crimespace discussion started by John Dishon:

My idea of lean prose is writing that does its job most efficiently—the way a lean athlete moves gracefully—affecting the audience more immediately and in exactly the way the writer intends. I don't link it any specific syntax. It depends on what the writer wants to accomplish.

Lean prose isn't necessarily specific to any writer, either. I've seen many writers use it as a means of characterization. Westlake writes leanly as Richard Stark because master thief Parker is coldly efficient. Westlake's other books are more meandering. The same can be said about Block's Matt Scudder series versus his other books.

One would think lean prose would be useful to thriller writers, to keep readers turning pages, but thrillers are often huge tomes, not fast reads.


Bill Cameron said...

I think that's a good, clean statement. Lean, one might say.

In a larger sense, while I definitely appreciate lean prose, sometimes I worry that it's become a kind of Holy Grail, rather than simply one of many valuable tool a writer can use. As a term in criticism, it can sometimes be used as a rather blunt weapon, a way to attack work as if writing in a lean way is the only method allowed.

Lean writing can be very effective, but so can florid prose. Because the narrative style is just one aspect of a piece of writing, I think it's crucial to judge work as a whole. Voice, plot, character, prose style all work together.

Gerald So said...

I agree, Bill. Every technique has its place. For example, if a character were a blabber, I would expect his narrative to be garrulous, not lean.

Dave White said...

I think you both make excellent points here. I love my prose lean, usually, but I'm finding myself pulled into Dennis Lehane's The Given Day, which is both beautifully written and probably wouldn't be called lean.