What do people mean when they say prose or dialogue is sometimes clunky? No, stop, think. What do they really mean?
There are so many books, written by wonderful writers who have been lavished with accolades, that have received a critical reaction from some readers/casual reviewers. And these reactions nearly always suggest that the dialogue / prose was clunky. Clunky, clunky, clunky. It’s the same word used again and again, thrown about the blogosphere and forums.
But think about it, and the use of the word on its own doesn’t really mean anything.
What are readers actually describing here? It’s not that any one bit of dialogue is objectively clunky (how can it be if some also think it’s good dialogue?) but that the reader undergoes a personal reaction to something within the rhythm of the writing. Is it something that isn’t consistent with characters? Because, you know, people are of course always consistent in real life and never do or say anything unusual…
Do people stop others in mid-conversation to inform them that what they are saying is clunky? I doubt it. So what is it that people mean when they use the c-word? Is it that the words they see on paper don’t pass through their mental filters, the ones calibrated by their own everyday conversations? Is it a reluctance to process words outside of their comfort zone?
And what about prose – if it’s about rhythm, why not say so? If it’s that you felt sentences were too short, too long, too baroque, why not explore that instead of saying the c-word?
I marvel that American lit-god Don DeLillo’s dialogue is sometimes described as clunky, whereas I personally adore it for being so, so realistic; though I’ll admit, at first, you have to take your time to understand what’s fully going on, and read out the dialogue in your head. And once you do, clunky is the last word I’d use to describe his writing.