Brandon Sanderson Lecture 10: Orwellian Prose


I try very hard to do Orwellian prose. We talked about this, didn’t we? Man I didn’t talk about this either? I swear I talked about this. Stop me if I’m wrong. Some of you are shaking your head, other ones seem to be not shaking their head So There is a famous essay by George Orwell (you can look it up if you want, Orwell and Window Pane) Where he describes what he tries to do is writing a story so the prose is like a pane of glass And that you see right through it to the story happening on the other side (You know those are people yaaaay) So the glass is not there to obscure, and in that he tries to make every–the words as undistracting, as translucent as humanly possible. Other types of prose are described like stained glass windows Where there’s this gorgeous beautiful prose that you are looking through and you can still see the story on the other side But the stained glass window is coloring this story in very interesting ways and changing your interpretation. A lot of literary fiction will try. Not all. This is basically the concept of poetry. You look through a gorgeous stained glass window at a concept which then changes the way you view that concept. And some literary fiction tries to do this as well. I try for this [window pane prose]. It’s much more of a craftsman style than an artist style of writing. I prefer it, but I like reading both of them. They can both be very good to read, I pick this one. There are those who advocate a sort of uber prose (Dave talks about this) which is a melding of the two that is invisible when you read it and gorgeous when you pay attention to it. Tolkien is usually the one mentioned as being able to do this to an extent. I don’t know if I can give you advice on how to do this because you basically have to master both of them, And they both take a lifetime to master, and then combine them somehow. There are people who are very good at this. I stick to trying this [window pane prose]. Though I will sometimes do a little “more flowery” start to a chapter, where my description, I’ll allow a little bit of stained glass into my description to set that particular chapter, and then I go window pane. You’ll see this used very often in genre fiction. You’ll see this used poorly also where, this is where we get into what we call purple prose, where it’s over-described. It’s someone who is not good at description. Because remember, good poetry is not about flowery language, it’s about precise language used correctly. And you can use some of these more conceptual–flowery is the wrong term–beauty, awe-inspiring language (some of you are actually quite good at this) right at the beginning and then I will transition into window pane. Robert Jordan did this too. Student: If you’re trying to go for a mood of wonder, like with your magic system, your world etc, do you probably want to go with more beautiful prose? Brandon: You can certainly add a little bit. You can say there’s a whole continuum between here. And certainly you could go that direction if you wanted to. The worry is that both of them are hard to do, and so mixing them is even harder. But if you’re naturally good at it or you do this consciously and say, “Here’s what I’m gonna try and do, I’m gonna go toward more flowery.” And I will see this sometimes. They’ll do things like they’ll have a flowery narrator–flowery is the wrong term– They’ll have a little bit of a stained glass narrator, and then they’ll try for window pane in all the action, dialogue, and storytelling. And so they have this narrator who kinda comes in occasionally. You guys play the game Bastion? The game Bastion tries this a little bit and does it somewhat successfully. It has a narrator on top of the game who’s speaking in these, this very colorful, dialect-filled language. It’s not really this [window pane prose] because what that’s doing is it’s giving it a really strong voice, but I could see you giving a strong voice to a narrator who speaks in this sort of way [stained glass prose], and then tells a story in this sort of way [window pane prose]. But I think it’s something to be aware of and to experiment with, honestly. If you’re naturally good at descriptions that are beautiful, good metaphors, and your sense of poetic styling You can use words with the right sounds to them in the right places. It’d have the right rhythm to them, then you may want to move somewhere along toward this side. It can work. Alright? Let’s talk about business. Once again as I’m erasing this stuff, experiment with this. Learn it for yourself, practice it, pay attention to it in writers you read, and see which ones are writing prose and where prose draws attention to itself versus those who try to write in a way where prose does not draw attention to itself and see which styles you like better and which ones work for which stories. There is no “right” on that continuum, there is just how good you are at what you’re trying to do. Subtitles by the Amara.org community

7 thoughts on “Brandon Sanderson Lecture 10: Orwellian Prose

  1. Thank you so much for uploading these videos.
    They are very rich, especially the way Brandon entwines other mediums of storytelling in his examples (like mentioning bastion on this lecture).
    Even though I live in Portugal I can still learn this much from Mistborn's father is… Magical.
    So thank you once again and to Brandon for sharing all this precious knowledge.

  2. who can we contact for questions? I would like to know about using simple nouns as names for unique objects or events.

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