Windowpane vs. Stained Glass Prose
Submitted by MRW Member Amber A. Logan
Imagine for a moment a spectrum of windows, ranging from a crystal-clear pane of transparent glass to an elaborate, multi-colored stained glass panel. Now imagine that these windows represent the spectrum of prose style from invisible to nearly opaque, and that all works of writing fall somewhere on this continuum.
The idea of windowpane prose is often attributed to George Orwell, who declared that “Good prose is like a windowpane,” suggesting that good writing should be invisible, not interfering with the reader’s experience of the story. Writers of windowpane prose (such as self-proclaimed “windowpane writer” Brandon Sanderson) are known for their ability to tell a compelling story without the reader being conscious of the language being employed to do it; they are experiencing the story through a transparent lens.
On the other hand, we have writers of stained glass prose (such as Patrick Rothfuss, to continue our fantasy author motif). Imagine a reader looking through a window made of beautiful stained glass; the story is still visible on the other side, but the reader’s experience is colored (pun intended) by the beautiful writing. The prose itself is designed to stand out and be appreciated alongside the story.
While windowpane writing is generally seen as more commercial or mainstream writing and stained glass writing is seen as belonging to the realm of literary fiction, these categories aren’t necessarily hard and fast. One can easily apply stained glass writing to genre fiction (as with Patrick Rothfuss) and write a literary fantasy or literary sci fi novel, etc.
Both extremes of the spectrum have their dangers, however. At the far end of the stained glass side of the spectrum, the prose can turn purple, be overly florid and convoluted to the point of obscuring the meaning altogether. On the opposite side of the spectrum (the completely transparent windowpane) lies the danger of overly simplistic language that challenges no one, reminiscent of Dick and Jane with its monotonous repetition and simplicity:
Jane said, “Look at Spot. Look at Spot run. Funny Spot.”
So…are you a windowpane writer or a stained glass writer?
Questions to ask yourself: What type of stories do you enjoy reading when you read for pleasure? Do your favorite books have quotable lines that stick with you long after you’ve finished reading, or passages that make you pause and stare off into space just to digest? Then you might lean toward reading stained glass prose. Or do you prefer books which don’t let the individual words and turns of phrase distract from the reading experience, preferring instead to be so immersed in the story itself that you hardly realize you are reading at all? Then you might prefer windowpane prose.
Of course, what you read may not reflect the style of prose you like to write, but determining what you enjoy as a reader is a good place to start.
Most writers will have a tendency toward one side of the spectrum or the other. This isn’t to say that an author can only write either windowpane or stained glass prose; it can certainly differ, depending on the piece of work. But understanding where you tend to fall on the windowpane/stained glass spectrum can help you better understand your target audience as well as avoid the pitfalls at each of the spectrum’s extremes.