A Matter of Style

Attractive surprised young woman wearing sunglassesLast week I tackled the slithery little element of fiction writing called voice, which inadvertently led me into the equally slippery area of style. And don’t get me started on tone. I’m not sure that even warrants a discussion.

When I consider style, my thoughts immediately go to fashion. I’ve often been told I’m a stylishly dressed and coiffed woman, much to my delight, and if I was fifty years younger and born in more modern times I’d seriously consider a career in fashion, decorating, or even the film industry rather than being the math and science nerd I truly am. In my day, going to college was the be-all and end-all for many of us first-generationers and the careers du jour were: nurse, teacher, or some low level business job. Never did we consider becoming the CEO, and many careers that my mythical daughter might have chosen didn’t even exist back then.

If you consider fashion styles: dressy, either formal or informal, shabby chic, preppy, grunge, punk, etc., you can think of writing style as the clothing you put on your voice. Style describes the way you use your words, how you dress them up or keep them tight and trim. I consider your voice to be akin to your body: skeleton, muscles, skin, the true YOU, like the way you look when you come out of the shower. However you can disguise or enhance yourself with make-up, a hair-do, and clothing, to present something a little more interesting, more beguiling. In writing, you dress up your voice through the choice of words: the syntax/sentence structure, rhythm, diction, and literary devices such as imagery, symbolism, allegory, personification, and other figurative language. They present your story with a certain je ne sais quoi. And it can vary in each novel you write. Often, it has a lot to do with description, something I personally struggle with on a daily basis.

I’m not big on description as either a reader or a writer. As my first novel was a fantasy, description was vital, and I had to learn how to bring my reader into an entire new world without bogging her down with endless pages of info-dumping. Novels that rely heavily on description often bore me. I once read a manuscript that the author claimed was a “literary thriller”. Before I even read a single word I knew I was in trouble. In my estimation, thrillers, like YA novels, need to be action packed, page-turners, and not bogged down by flowery or poetic language. I know, I know. I’m as bad as our current generation of teens. I crave action, intensity, drama…endless description puts me into snooze mode.

As I mentioned last week, Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy had distinctive styles, relying on short punchy sentences, and prone to breaking many of the rules of the trade at that time. Daniel Defoe, in Robinson Crusoe, loves his run-on sentences, others write in local dialect, like Mark Twain and Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help. George Orwell, on the other hand, used long sentences and more complex diction.

The style an author uses is the way we perceive the factual points of the plot as well as the emotions of the characters. It’s understood that we carefully craft the dialogue, inner monologue, and body language for each character, giving the reader unique insights into the that character’s personality.

Consider the following and how each gives a different feel to how a character might state a fact:

He passed away.

He died.

He’s sleeping with the fishes.

He’s gone to meet his Maker.

He kicked the bucket.

The style and content of dialogue gives each character their distinctive persona. If you’re writing an older mentor-type character you will most likely use more formal language. It you’re writing a child or a teen the obvious differences make for more relaxed speech patterns and perhaps some form of slang. Because it is not only what we say (voice) but how we say it (style). We reveal quirky traits such as biases and values through the style of our words as our characters come to life on the page.

My research discovered four basic literary styles used in writing. These styles distinguish the work of different authors from one another.

  1. Expository or Argumentative style is a subject-oriented style. The focus of the writer is to tell the readers about a specific subject or topic and in the end the author leaves out his own opinion about that topic.
  2. Descriptive style is where the author focuses on describing an event, a character or a place in detail. Sometimes, descriptive writing style is poetic in nature in, where the author specifies an event, an object or a thing rather than merely giving information about an event that has happened. Usually the description incorporates sensory details.
  3. Persuasive style is a category of writing in which the writer tries to give reasons and justification to make the readers believe his point of view. The persuasive style aims to persuade and convince the readers.
  4. Narrative style is a type of writing where the writer tells a story to the reader. It includes short stories, novels, novellas, biographies and poetry.

I believe that the writer’s voice is her view of the world: beliefs, opinions, values, and personal experiences. Everything she embodies and puts into use to write the story. How she does it reverts to her style and in that regard each voice is unique because we all bring different viewpoints to the written word. The writer’s style is based on many choices and habits and is often what makes it so difficult to be a crit partner. I’ve had the same experience that Kathy laments, editors putting their words in your mouth. It’s something we all struggle with as newbie writers.

And I say, when that happens, well…just spit them back out.





Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

2 thoughts on “A Matter of Style”

  1. As an expository writer trying to break out of the box and into fiction, I say Thank You! I studied math and science in school, and have a scientist son to show I didn’t deviate very far in adulthood. I’ve been employing a “just do it” style, then self editing and rearranging to make it flow. That’s the same style I’ve used in my more technical writing “career.” Reading your blog is helping me fill a gap in my education and providing much appreciated insight into the art of writing. Thanks again.

    1. I’m so happy to share as I’ve learned pretty much everything from my new-found writing friends and crit partners. I could have saved a lot of time if I’d had somewhere like this to go when I started.
      Go for it!

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