I don’t remember if this was a comparison I developed, or if I read it somewhere and expanded upon it, but I’ve taken to using windows to explain different styles of writing to others. What I do remember is that it’s based on Brandon Sanderson describing his prose as “transparent.” This made perfect sense to me, but when I mentioned it to others, they were confused by the idea, and ever since I’ve been trying to come up with a better way of explaining this metaphor. In other words, I hope that this post is going to make sense to you.
When Sanderson describes his prose as “transparent,” what he’s trying to say is that he wants the words to be invisible to the reader. They should provide a clear window on the action and scenery of the story, rather than getting in the way or even being visible as entities independent of the story. It can also be described as direct prose. In the window metaphor, transparent prose represents the perfectly clear, perfectly clean picture windows that are so clear they might as well not be there. It shows the events occurring on the other side of the glass without distortion or any impediment to viewing, and the action occurring must stand on its own.
Alternatively, there’s prose that almost smacks of poetry – the Lymond Chronicles are a great example of this, as is Patrick Rothfuss’s writing. These authors write prose that has an almost lyrical quality. It communicates the story, just as transparent prose does, but it has a substance of its own, and identity separate from the story itself. The words themselves are a work of art distinct from the art that is the story. This is what I call the stained glass window style of writing. Stained glass windows are beautiful works of art, quite separate from whatever is being viewed through them, and while you can view action through a stained glass window, the action will be distorted and tinted by the colorings and patterns of the window. The same is true for this style of writing.
Neither of these styles is better than the other, though they are suited to different situations and, to be honest, to different types of readers. Works written in transparent prose tend to be more approachable, although there are plenty of examples of approachable “stained glass” works of literature. Stained glass works will often bear re-reading better than transparently written stories, since there are so many more facets and intricacies that you notice something different every time you read through them, but there are plenty of transparent works that I’ve read many times and will read many more times. A lot of it comes down to individual author, and the intent of the piece.
The type of prose can also change over time. Like a window that takes on prismatic qualities and distortions over time, prose that is transparent today may not be transparent twenty years from now. Transparent prose is transparent because it uses language and sentence structures that are common to normal speech, so they seem to disappear to the normal reader, who instead receives the knowledge from the words without much time caught up in the words. Think about it: you don’t probably spend a lot of time thinking about the words and sentence structures people are using when you converse with them (although if you’re an author, you might be – it’s a useful exercise to make your dialogue more realistic). Speech patterns change significantly with time, however. Agatha Christie originally wrote transparent prose, but most people find her writing closer to the stained glass approach now, simply because of how much speech patterns have changed since she was writting.
There’s no deep takeaway from this: it’s just a way of interacting with text and being able to better communicate with other people about what kind of writing is being used. Whether you’re talking about books as a reader or an author, this can be a useful way of expressing different thoughts and intentions around what you’re reading or what you’re writing. Personally, my prose tends to lean towards transparent (which is common for third person limited, which is how most of my writing is structured), but I do occasionally slip in some stained glass prose (what can I say: I have a bit of a peculiar love affair with the English language).
Please note that stained glass prose does not mean purple prose. I suppose you could say the purple prose is like if a deranged iguana tried to put together a stained glass window – it’s a misapplication of the techniques and characteristics of stained glass writing. Purple prose is a more commonly known concept, and apparently the phrase has its roots in Roman times, but perhaps I’ll write a post about that soon. For now, I hope that you found this interesting, and perhaps useful.