Every once in a while I’m forcible reminded in my reading that I prefer lush prose with at least a hint of the exotic over sparse prose that reveals the mundane. The exotic settings is one of the reasons why I love fantasy, and I often find a similar sense of the exotic in historical fiction. I’m also realizing, however, that part of the exotic feel that I look for can be created with lush prose that immerses me in the sensory world of the story.
Consider the book I’m reading now, Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe’s Tiger, which is set in India in 1799. The book is well written and the events are interesting. I’m following the story fine, although it is a bit slow so far. But while I was expecting to really immerse myself in the exotic sights and smells of old India, I’m actually finding the prose to be rather flat at times. I’m going to give an example below. These two brief descriptions feature tigers in a scene where an Indian Sultan is about to have two men executed for treason. One of the two will be fed to the tigers afterward.
“The six tigers, restless because they had been denied their midday meal of freshly slaughtered goat meat, glared with yellow eyes from the courtyard’s edges.” And: “One of the six chained tigers stirred at the smell of blood and padded forward until its chain stretched to its full length and so held it back. The beast growled, then settled down to watch the second man die.”
There’s nothing wrong with these descriptions. They adequately place us in the scene. They are perfectly well written. The problem, for me, is that they 1) don’t “immerse” me in the exotic sensory world where these tigers live, and 2) don’t convince me that the tigers are intensely dangerous predators. I want the author to give me that sensory experience. The beasts are “restless,” the author says. Are they prowling about? Do the chains clink and rattle as they stalk? How do their hides ripple with muscle? How do their growls rumble? Do we see their fangs? And I want to feel as if those chains are only “barely” adequate to hold them. I want to feel their threat.
As bizarre as it is for a complete unknown such as myself to dare rewrite the prose of the hugely successful Bernard Cornwell, I’m going to do so simply to illustrate what “I” want from my reading.
Six tigers in gleaming chains, denied their midday meal of freshly slaughtered goat, rose restlessly to their feet at the courtyard’s edges. Muscles rippled under the striped hides and low growls rumbled the hot, still air. Yellow eyes glared as they stalked toward the line of watchers. The chain links rattled, tautened, strained, and only at the moment when the metal seemed destined to fail did the beasts turn away from the men.
One tiger snarled at the smell of blood, its lips curling back over the white glisten of its incisors. It tested its chains, set the steel to clanking, then slowly settled onto its belly to watch the second man die.
Writing fiction is such an art rather than a science. If you strive for a high level of intensity, some readers will call you “over the top” and reject you. And you certainly can’t make every scene in a story equally intense or the reader won’t be able to stay with you. Bernard Cornwell is a very well known writer and I’m not claiming in any way that I’m better than he is. For all I know, he consciously made a decision to understate the tiger scene, perhaps to contrast with something that comes later, or perhaps just because he felt his readers would prefer it. I’m not one of his readers; this is the first work I’ve read by him. “This” reader, though, was hoping for a little more lushness and exotica. Hey, it's "tigers" for goodness sake. I'd like to think they might eat me.