Cheer down: How to create drama in your prose without shouting.

There’s nothing wrong with dramatic nonfiction prose. But you don’t create it by SHOUTING.

When novice nonfiction writers want to show how excited they are, they write prose that baldly and obviously declares its excitement. For example, their text is littered with:

  • Exclamation points! Wow, this is a really exciting sentence!!
  • ALL CAPS. I REALLY WANT YOU TO UNDERSTAND HOW COOL THIS IS.
  • Bold. This word is clearly an important word so look at how it stands out.
  • Underlined text. Read this. No really, read this and this. Because understanding them is crucial.
  • Italics. And with a single word, Shazam, the genie drew all attention to himself.
  • Color. If you really want people to notice a word, make it red.
  • Capitalized words. Now I want to tell you about the patented, trademarked, Without Bullshit® Prose Coaching Method, which in case you didn’t figure it out, is proprietary to me and I invented it. Now even better, featuring super-duper Passive Voice, Weasel Words, and Meaningless Drivel.
  • Profanities. I am so fucking, fucking, excited about the excitement in this fucking sentence. Holy sh-wow!

The more you write stuff like this, the more the reader resists. The more excited you are, the less we want to believe you.

Stop using all caps, bold (in running text), colored text, and underlines. They don’t belong in professional writing. And reduce your use of exclamation points, italics, and profanities. They’re like pepper — a little adds spice, any more and your writing becomes unpalatable.

How to add drama like a professional: with rhythm and cadence

If you deliver powerful concepts with straightforward prose, your reader will get excited. And that’s a whole lot better than you getting excited and them resisting.

Look at it this way. A good standup comic, like say George Carlin or Jerry Seinfeld, isn’t up there laughing at everything they say. They deliver it with a straight face — it’s far funnier that way.

Still, you can signal what’s important in other ways. Short sentences and one-sentence paragraphs work.

Read these passages and see how the author uses rhythm and cadence, not histrionics, to signal what’s important and dramatic.

For starters, you can have an honest conversation with yourself about who you are when you are at your best. Being someone else’s idea of success only makes you a lesser version of yourself. Striving to fulfill your own definition, on the other hand, will compel you to be more than you ever expected.

Given the choice between lesser and more, I pick more every time.

Limitless, by Laura Gassner Otting

Tony Dungy had waiting an eternity for this job. For seventeen years, he had prowled the sidelines as an assistant coach, first at the University of Minnesota, then with the Pittsburgh Steelers, then the Kansas City Chiefs, and then back to Minnesota with the Vikings. Four times in the past decade, he had been invited to interview for head coaching positions with NFL teams.

All four times, the interviews hadn’t gone well.

The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg

Marketers tell us they define and manage brands. Some spend millions, or hundreds of millions, of dollars on advertising. They carefully extend brand names, putting Scope on a tube of toothpaste to see what happens. We bought this brand, they say. We spent on it. We own it.

Bull.

Your brand is whatever your customers say it is. And in the groundswell where they communicate with each other, they decide.

Groundswell, by me and Charlene Li

You are signaling what you think is important without hitting people over the had with it. It’s like body language for prose.

This is not the only way to spice up prose and draw attention to specific elements. But all the ways that make sense eschew typographical pepper like exclamation points. Instead, you make it more dramatic to read what you wrote by drawing attention to what matters with the rhythm that the reader hears in their mind’s ear.

Go ahead. Prove me wrong.

But leave the exclamation points and the all caps out of it, okay?

3 responses to “Cheer down: How to create drama in your prose without shouting.

  1. As a rule, yes. But political columnist Greg Sargent uses italics almost daily to highlight a contrast—for example, a contrast between what was said and what was meant, between a claim and a fact, between what a politician said when the other side was in power and what they say now, or between old circumstances and new:
    “All this opens the door to justifying extraordinary measures in response. And at bottom, the “regime” chatter is really central to that final move.”
    I don’t find Sargent’s italics districting or unprofessional.

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