Did you ever wonder how much you should polish your prose? How many fresh lines you should write and how many rhetorical devices and power words you should use?
Did you ever wonder how hard successful authors work on their lines and how their writing compares to yours?
I wondered about that. For that reason, I read five short stories and one novella and came up with prose statistics.
I tracked the following:
I analyzed the following stories:
Let’s begin with a classic: "The Happy Prince" by Oscar Wilde. "The Happy Prince" reads like a children’s story and its prose is rather simple. You can read it for free here.
"The Happy Prince" is 3,500 words long. I counted six rhetorical devices, one asyndeton, and five similes.
I encountered three instances of fresh writing, which were not that impressive. See for yourself:
So he flew round and round her, touching the water with his wings, and making silver ripples.
His hair is brown and crisp, and his lips are red as a pomegranate, and he has large and dreamy eyes.
Here is a fresh sentence with a simile and alliteration:
The streets looked as if they were made of silver, they were so bright and glistening; long icicles like crystal daggers hung down from the eaves of the houses, everybody went about in furs, and the little boys wore scarlet caps and skated on the ice.
In respect to fresh writing, "The Happy Prince" pales a little in comparison to the contemporary stories I analyzed. I conclude that nowadays, writers need to work harder to make a dent in the literary world.
I counted forty-three instances of backloading. This is a lot, but mind that the paragraphs are rather short.
The story contains no instances of showing what’s not there, neither creative sentence structures nor punctuations.
Oscar deployed a few idioms and cliches, but the cliches may have not been cliches at his time yet. Example: Her little boy who was crying for the moon.
Normally, rhetorical devices like anaphora and alliteration rely on two repetitions (three in total). The following alliteration has only one repetition: The little boys wore scarlet caps and skated on the ice. Maybe, at Oscar’s time, this counted as an alliteration. Anyway, rhetorical devices need to be deliberate, and scarlet and skated sound deliberate. What do you think?
Let’s look at one more classic short story before we move to contemporary prose. "The Tell-Tale Heart" has an interesting and important theme: intelligence does not prevent madness. The protagonist is a madman who tells the reader how he murdered his landlord. You can read it for free here.
"The Tell-Tale Heart" is 2,150 words long. I counted fifteen rhetorical devices and one rhetorical device combo — an epizeuxis-anaphora:
And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously — oh, so cautiously — cautiously (for the hinges creaked) — I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye.
The anaphora has only one repetition — like Oscar Wilde’s alliteration.
I counted five instances of fresh writing, which were on the same level as "The Happy Prince." Example:
And now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror.
The story has fifteen accounts of backloading. That’s a bit on the low end, but the paragraphs are much longer than those of "The Happy Prince."
There are no instances of showing what’s not there. But Edgar got quite creative with sentence structure and punctuation: I counted forty-five em dashes and forty-one exclamation marks in eighteen paragraphs. This is 2.5 em dashes (single or double) and 2.3 exclamation marks per paragraph. Thirteen exclamation marks followed by em dashes, like Ha! —
Here is the climax:
Oh God! what could I do? I foamed — I raved — I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder — louder — louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! — no, no! They heard! — they suspected! — they knew! — they were making a mockery of my horror! — this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! — and now — again! — hark! louder! louder! louder! louder! —
“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! — here, here! — it is the beating of his hideous heart!”
It’s advisable to be careful with punctuation, in particular exclamation marks, but in this case, the sentence structure and punctuation support the narrative voice. Remember that a madman tells the story? I suppose Edgar believed there are a lot of em dashes and exclamation marks in the mind of a madman. Last but not least, going overboard with punctuations may have been a new thing at Edgar’s time.
You can find lots of word repetitions in this story that don’t count as rhetorical devices. Example: …you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily… I suppose Edgar did this to support the narrative voice too.
Edgar italicized important words in the narrative, which were not instances of indirect speech. I counted twenty of those.
Let’s compare "The Happy Prince" and "The Tell-Tale Heart":
"The Tell-Tale Heart" scores better, probably because "The Happy Prince" reads like a children’s story. In children’s stories, clarity trumps sophistication. More about this in the next analysis.
I read Coraline with great expectations and was a little disappointed (at first). Coraline’s prose is not awe-inspiring. But then, I realized why: It’s a children’s book.
One of the first rules aspiring writers learn is show, don’t tell. The thing is, show, don’t tell is a rule for beginning writers. Intermediate and advanced writers balance showing and telling. Show too much and readers struggle to understand what’s going on. Tell too much and your story gets boring.
How to balance showing and telling depends on many factors. Children’s books need clarity, hence they are more on the telling side. Adults appreciate sophisticated prose, hence books for grown-up audiences need to be more on the showing side. Margie agrees that clarity rules and advises to always dig for the truth in your writing.
Neil said that he wrote Coraline very slowly, a word at a time, making, unintentionally, something that left no room for cuts and elisions. I suppose Neil worried about yielding to the temptation of polishing Coraline’s prose too much and losing the children’s-book voice.
Coraline is around forty-eight thousand words long. I counted sixty-four rhetorical devices and five rhetorical device combos. Here is the break-down:
Neil’s rhetorical device combos:
The three-simile combo:
Then she pushed her hand into the sticky, clinging whiteness of the stuff on the wall. It crackled softly, like a tiny fire, as she pushed, and it clung to her skin and clothes like a spiderweb clings, like white cotton candy.
I counted nine instances of fresh writing, e.g. facial expressions, freshened cliches, and descriptions. My favorite: They weren’t making much sense; she decided they were having an argument as old and comfortable as an armchair, the kind of argument that no one ever really wins or loses but which can go on forever, if both parties are willing. What a beautiful amplification and simile.
Here is a fresh sentence that summons the senses: It was colder in the corridor, like stepping down into a cellar on a warm day. You can feel that, can’t you?
Surely, you can feel this too: This time what she touched felt hot and wet, as if she had put her hand in somebody’s mouth, and she pulled it back with a small wail.
In the case of Coraline, I did not track backloading.
I found six instances of showing what’s not there. Example: Other than that, the room was empty: there were no knickknacks on the mantelpiece, no statues or clocks; nothing that made it feel comfortable or lived-in.
In the following instance, Neil did not show an emotion: And she took an apple from her dressing-gown pocket, then bit into it with relish and an enthusiasm that she did not really feel.
In Coraline, Neil got quite creative with sentence structure and punctuation. Almost every page has an em dash. He italicizes too — mostly to indicate thoughts (indirect speech) but also to indicate inflections in dialogue. Example: “Now, Miriam, we agreed,” said Miss Spink.
Neil even uses brackets and colons, which are rather uncommon in fiction. Example: She counted everything blue (153). She counted the windows (21). She counted the doors (14).
And he didn’t shy away from deploying exclamation marks: Astounding! was followed by a theatrical and then triumph!!!
A couple of times, Neil uses three or four adjectives in a row. Example: She sorted through them carefully, and selected the oldest, biggest, blackest, rustiest key.
According to Noah Lukeman, we should use modifiers sparingly to stay out of the rejection pile, but I suppose a writer can get away with this in a children’s book. Having said that, the above example has the ring of an asyndeton to it, something to keep in mind.
I counted four visceral responses, none of which are fresh:
Her heart pounded in her chest.
Coraline could feel her heart pounding against her ribs.
Her heart beat so hard and so loudly she was scared it would burst out of her chest.
The hairs on the back of Coraline’s neck prickled.
Statistically, "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Happy Prince" are leading, but Coraline is a much longer work and a children’s book. Also, Neil’s fresh writing and rhetorical devices are fresher.
Since Coraline is a children’s book, I also analyzed Neil’s short story "The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains." You can read it for free here.
"The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains" is 10,500 words long. I counted forty-six rhetorical devices and six rhetorical device combos. Here is the breakdown (in alphabetical order):
Neil’s rhetorical device combos:
Here is the juicy double polysyndeton with double assonance:
The rocks were black and slippery: we walked, and climbed and clambered and clung, we slipped and slid and stumbled and staggered, and even in the mist, Calum knew where he was going, and I followed him.
And here is the personification-polysyndeton-simile:
She paused, there in the highest of the high lands, where the summer winds have winter on their breath, where they howl and whip and slash the air like knives.
I counted thirteen examples of fresh writing. Two facial expressions, two descriptions of voice, two internalizations, one character description, and six descriptions of settings. My favorites:
The winds are bitter in the high lands, and they would whip the words from a man’s lips.
… the red that ringed her mother’s eyes.
From out of the shadows it came, and it stared down at me with empty sockets, smiled at me with wind-weathered ivory teeth.
I counted ninety-one instances of backloading.
Also in "The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains," Neil liked to show what's not there. He did so four times. This example includes a simile: I heard no birds: only the wind that called and gusted about the peaks like a mother seeking her babe.
My favorite: I closed my eyes but the world became no darker.
And an internalization during free-fall: There was no time and no space to be afraid in, no space in my mind and no space in my heart.
Creative sentence structure seems to be one of Neil’s signature moves. In "The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains," he used twenty-eight colons, sometimes two in one paragraph. Check out this asyndeton sentence without verb: A taste of heart, a lick and a nibble of their fine consciences, a sliver of soul. It has even a ring of zeugma to it.
A single-word sentence: I would head for there. Yes.
And an asyndetonish paragraph with shortening sentences: Something, a finger I thought, touched my hand: it was not bony and hard. It was soft, and humanlike, but too cold. He sleeps.
And two minimalist sentences with a (dual) anaphora: Only shadows. Only rock.
As expected, "The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains" outranks Coraline in prose quality.
Polysyndeton seems to be Neil’s favorite rhetorical device. In the case of "The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains," polysyndetons outrank the other rhetorical devices. In the case of Coraline, similes lead. I suppose similes do well in children’s books.
"The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains" has 4.5 times more rhetorical devices, but Coraline has more similes.
Coraline has seven onomatopoeia, while the short story has none, likely because onomatopoeia do well in children’s books.
"Brokeback Mountain" by Annie Proulx is a great example of exceptional contemporary prose. Annie has worked so hard on her story, one can smell her sweat between the lines. And hard she did work: she wrote "Brokeback Mountain" over a period of six months and went through more than sixty drafts. You can read it for free here.
"Brokeback Mountain" is 11,000 words long — five hundred words longer than "The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains." I counted seventy rhetorical devices and one rhetorical device combo — a double anadiplosis with a touch of zeugma: And he would wake sometimes in grief, sometimes with the old sense of joy and release; the pillow sometimes wet, sometimes the sheets.
The breakdown in alphabetical order:
"Brokeback Mountain" has thirty-seven asyndeton. I believe this was a style choice. Long asyndeton paragraphs set the mood of the story world: 1963 Wyoming, one of these places where days can be a blur. Her asyndeton paragraphs even include dialogue: Jack tried a Carl Perkins song, bawling “What I say-ay-ay,” but he favored a sad hymn, “Water-Walking Jesus,” learned from his mother, who believed in the Pentecost, and that he sang at dirge slowness, setting off distant coyote yips.
"Brokeback Mountain" is one of the freshest short stories ever written. There is hardly a line that is not fresh. For this reason, I limited my count to paragraphs that were exceptionally fresh. I came up with forty-one fresh paragraphs, of which four are fresh visceral responses.
I found eighty-two instances of backloading. It seems to be a bit on the low end, but "Brokeback Mountains" has long paragraphs, even longer than "The Tell-Tale Heart." The backloading is fresh and solid, except — for some odd reason — the story’s final paragraph.
Bumping down the washboard road Ennis passed the country cemetery fenced with sagging sheep wire, a tiny fenced square on the welling prairie, a few graves bright with plastic flowers, and didn’t want to know Jack was going in there, to be buried on the grieving plain.
"Brokeback Mountain" contains one instance of showing what’s not there: But there was no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Mountain of which nothing was left but what he held in his hands.
Anne is less creative with sentence structure and punctuation than Neil, apart from her long asyndeton paragraphs and sporadic uses of em dashes.
Ann backloaded the opening with a punch sentence, what Margie calls a SAP—a short and powerful sentence: Pair of deuces going nowhere.
I found one hyphenated run-on: Joe Aguirre’s sleep-with-the-sheep-and-no-fire order, though he saddled the bay mare in the dark morning without saying much.
While the number of rhetorical devices in "Brokeback Mountain" is about the same as in "The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains," Neil trumps with rhetorical device combos, creative sentence structure, and showing what’s not there. Ann trumps with fresh writing.
"Brokeback Mountain" has fewer instances of backloading than "The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains," due to long paragraphs and because it has more dialogue. But Annie's backloading appears fresher and more strategic than Neil’s.
"Lusus Naturae" is a short story from the short story collection Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood. You can read it for free here.
The story is 2,500 words long. I counted thirty-three rhetorical devices and one combo, a double simile: I’ll fall from the burning rooftop like a comet, I’ll blaze like a bonfire.
Margaret plays with rhetorical devices. In the case of the hypophora, Margaret raises the question in the narrative, but a story character answers it:
What had she done wrong?
“Maybe it’s a curse,” said my grandmother.
Here is an asyndeton that feels like a zeugma:
I was put on display in a very deep coffin in a very dark room, in a white dress with a lot of white veiling over me, fitting for a virgin and useful in concealing my whiskers.
The following line, the narrator compares herself to an item, which is the opposite of a personification, a de-personification: It saddened her to have given birth to an item such as myself: it was like a reproach, a judgment.
This line includes a rhetorical device with a twist: At night, I had the run of the house, and then the run of the yard, and after that the run of the forest.
The paragraph has the structure of an epistrophe — the run of […] — whereby Margaret backloads them with three different words that convey increasing space: house → yard → forest.
I counted eleven instances of fresh writing. Margaret likes to play with cliches. Two of my favorites:
My coffin was a rung on her ladder — a fresh cliche deployed as a metaphor. And: Without me, her coast would be clear.
My favorite fresh paragraph: There’s only so long you can feel sorry for a person before you come to feel that their affliction is an act of malice committed by them against you.
I counted twenty-one instances of backloading. I felt it could have been more.
No showing what's not there and no experimental sentence structure.
Margaret used commas for some of her polysyndetons: I learned about blighted love, and defiance, and the sweetness of death. I guess that’s grammatically correct, but it reads better without commas: I learned about blighted love and defiance and the sweetness of death. Polysyndetons pick up speed.
Statistically, "Lusus Naturae" scores highest, but mind "Lusus Naturae" is just 2,550 words long, one third of "The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains" and one fifth of "Brokeback Mountain."
I hope you enjoyed this article about prose statistics and had some interesting insights.
Please mind that the statistics in this article are somewhat subjective. I only tracked the most common rhetorical devices, and of those I may have overlooked some. Of course, assessing fresh writing is also somewhat subjective.
I’m planning to make use of the statistics when I write my next story. I came up with the following target:
Once in a while, I shall get creative with sentence structure, and, backload whenever possible.
What about setting targets for yourself?
Stefan writes inspirational non-fiction, visionary fiction, and runs an online enlightenment workshop. Enlightenment and storytelling have interesting parallels, which enticed Stefan to write a book about storytelling - The Eight Crafts of Writing. Stefan was born in Germany and, after graduating, enjoyed two years backpacking in Australia, New Zealand, and South-East Asia. Back home, he studied general electro-technology and pursued a career as a sales and business development manager in Europe, Middle East, and Asia. Semis-retired now, he lives with his son in the Philippines.
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