Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Gondolier’s What I Learnt in Riting Skool

Bella’s Got Style

How to make your narrator sparkly

Oh dear TLYDF readers, I have done you a great service. Have you heard the term “style” bandied about in literary circles and nodded along, pretending to know what the heck was being discussed? Has anyone asked you how you chose a writing style for a particular story, and you cobbled out a response that sounded sort-of smart? Well, loverlies, I am hear to play Higgins to your Eliza and help you conquer the English language. In three-thousand words or less, here’s the breakdown on Style. *breaks-it-down*

A writer’s style is the literary manner in which a story is written (not to be confused with tone, which is the emotional manner). According to Stephen Minot, the author of “Three Genres” (which endlessly plagued me in grad school) there are six factors which determine style: diction, syntax, density, narrative modes, tense, and point-of-view.

Did your eyes just glaze over? Yeah, those blah words make me check out too. But stick with me and you might find the fun stuff behind the icky terms.

1. Diction

“Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words!” said Eliza Doolittle when trying to master proper English. Anyone who has struggled to learn English as a second language (or even a first) can relate to this sentiment. A blessing and curse of English is that we have a veritable cornucopia of words at our disposal. It’s cobbled together from Norse and Germanic heritage, Latin and Greek, French, Anglo-Saxon. And we’ve pinched from the Chinese (gong), Indian (khaki), and even Eskimo (kayak).

Because of these various word sources, the English language has a lot of duplication. Though the words have the same meaning, each has a distinctive overtone. For example, you could write that “Carlisle had a sleek car—a black Mercedes Benz.” But we’re talking expensive here, so the better word choice would be “automobile” or “motor car,” because they recall luxury.

So how is word choice important in the style of your fiction? First, whipping out a thesaurus makes your prose more interesting, plain and simple. Second, diction is a major factor in characterization, as well as theme.

Let’s say that your first-person narrator is, oh I don’t know, a seventeen-year-old, small-town girl in the Pacific Northwest. Is she going to speak like an Oxford scholar? Perhaps, but most likely, no. Her narrative style should be intelligent, playful, with a touch of naiveté. Depending on what has happened in her life, she may be more jaded or coarse. Now let’s pretend that she falls in love with a hundred-year-old vampire trapped in a seventeen-year-old body. Is this vampire going to speak a little more formally? Yup.

Each character, whether narrating or speaking in dialogue, is going to have a slightly different diction based on their age, education, personality, and background.

Pitfalls to avoid with diction:

  • Extreme diction.
    Does your character have a raging southern accent? Don’t write the full-out, raging southern accent—hint at it. Sprinkle in a word here, a contraction there, a turn-of-phrase that adds sparkle to the character, but doesn’t overpower the writing.

  • Out-of-character diction.
    While you may be attached to the phrase “le mot juste, ” your average Iowa farmer (no matter how hardworking and intelligent) would not realistically use it. Don’t spoil the realism of a story for the sake of indulgent prose.

2. Syntax

Syntax is sentence structure. Sounds hi-tech, but it’s not. In nonfiction, we use grammatically-proper syntax to clearly convey ideas. In fiction, however, grammatical rules are often bent to show the mood of the speaker—narrator or otherwise. A frustrated speaker’s grammar may break down as they continue speaking. A happy speaker may use light-sounding phrasing. Run-on sentences, incomplete sentences, who cares? Chuck your APA Style Manual, turn off MS grammar check, and rely solely on your ear. Read passages out loud and decide what creates the effect you want.

A common misnomer is that run-on sentences slow the pace of a story. Not so. The rhythm is what controls the pace, not where the period is placed. For example, listen to the manic mood of the narrator in this excerpt from “Gotta Dance” by Jackson Daviss:

Quick taps and slow rolling, jazz it, swing it, on the beat, off the beat, out of one tune right into the next and I never took one break. It was a chill of a night, but didn’t I sweat, didn’t that jacket just have to come off. Didn’t I feel the solid jar to the backbone from the heavy heel steps, and the pump of my heart on the beat on the beat on the beat.

While the author uses long sentences, the rhythm and repetition echoes the rhythm of the narrator’s dancing.

In contrast, if the above paragraph were written as short sentences it would be drawn out, each period packing meaning but losing the rhythm:

Quick taps and slow rolling. Jazz it. Swing it on the beat, off the beat. Out of one tune right into the next…and I never took one break. It was a chill of a night, but didn’t I sweat. Didn’t that jacket just have to come off. Didn’t I feel the solid jar to the backbone from the heavy heel steps? The pump of my heart, on the beat. On the beat. On the beat.

Pitfalls to avoid with syntax:

  • Overuse.
    Standard syntax—sentences with subjects, verbs, and varying length for variety—still needs to be used as a foundation for a piece that isn’t poetic prose. For novel-length works, experimental syntax will become weary and gimmicky. By all means, use it in certain passages to spice up your writing, but don’t bludgeon readers with it.

  • Overwriting.
    If you try to impress readers with long, complex sentences packed with words you found in a thesaurus, you are indulging in what is known as overwriting, aka, the dreaded purple prose. This type of writing comes off as artificial and affected.

3. Density

The level of density in your story style really depends upon the depth of characterization and theme. Low-density stories aren’t badly written—we often describe them as fun, entertaining, or clever. They are quick-reads that, while enjoyable, don’t need to be read twice.

Density is achieved:

      1. when a story develops one or more characters in some detail
      2. when the theme has complexity and insight
      3. or when figurative language and symbolic suggestion are heavily used.

If you feel the style of your story is lighter or more insubstantial than what you desire, here’s a trick. Try developing a character’s conflicting feelings toward an issue. Or take a look at your secondary characters and reveal more about them. Do you have a single theme that can be expanded to include a cluster of themes?

For example, let’s say your seventeen-year-old girl in the Pacific Northwest is involved in an underage drunk driving accident. What sort of sub-themes can you draw from it? Perhaps her Chief of Police father goes on a crusade to clean up the kids in the town. Maybe her vampire boyfriend decides to exact revenge on the driver. Or her school could have a special assembly on the dangers of drinking and driving. In short, consider secondary avenues to bring depth to your story, while still operating within the main theme.

On the flip-side, Maybe you find that your story is too dense. You have so many characters and so many threads, your style becomes cluttered and heavy. If this is the case, kill an off-shoot sub-plot or two. Another fix is to develop a humorous aspect to the chaos and clutter.

Your seventeen-year-old narrator who has been in a drunk-driving accident will have many heavy struggles to face. Medical treatment, counseling, lifestyle alterations. Then you factor in court cases, medical bills and financial issues, and conflicts with friends, and BOOM. You have an overly-dense story. But what if her crusading father bans her from all social activities except for chess club? Balancing a dense story with humor or satire naturally lightens complex plots.

4. Narrative Modes

The five basic tools of fiction, the bricks that build your story, are the “modes”: dialogue, thoughts, actions, description, and exposition (transitions, info between scenes). Your writing style is greatly influenced by how you decide to balance these five modes. They develop character depth. The modes also control the pace of your story.

Balancing the narrative modes doesn’t necessarily mean you must have five equal parts of each. Some styles are more dialogue-heavy, while others are thought-heavy. What it means is finding the perfect narrative flow for the story you are telling. I like to equate writing to driving a car. The narrative modes are your gears:

If your story is…

  • Stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle:
    add dialogue and action. Giving characters a chance to talk and move boosts energy and reduces boggy introspection.

  • A zoom through southern Nebraska:
    reduce trivial dialogue and actions, and replace them with thoughts and description. Give your story scenery and depth to slow it down.

  • Lacking purpose in road-tripping:
    include exposition. Give us more background info for context. But be careful not to become too exposition-heavy, or your story will read like an essay.

Pitfalls to avoid with narrative mode:

Don’t be overly concerned with finding a mode balance when writing your first draft—just write. Save tinkering with modes for revisions and rewrites when you want to get your pace just right.

5. Tense

While a lot of writers make a big deal over choosing past or present tense for their story, let’s be honest. If a story is good, readers will be sucked in within the first few paragraphs and won’t notice whether it’s past or present tense.

There’s really only one good technical reason for using present tense over past tense, and that’s flashbacks. If you plan to write a story with numerous flashbacks, you have two options:

     1. Past tense for the majority of the narrative (“he purchased an engagement ring”) and past-perfect for flashbacks (“he had purchased an engagement ring the night of…”).
     2. Present tense for the majority of the narrative (“he purchases and engagement ring”) and past tense for flashbacks (“he purchased an engagement ring the night of…”)

As you can see, option #2 would definitely be easy-peasy to write if you have a lot of flashbacks.

Other than flashbacks, the chosen tense’s effect on your story is almost negligible past the first page. I’d recommend writing a half-page of your opening, first in past tense, then in present and decide which seems better. You can come up with a clever-sounding reason later.

6. Point of View

The most effective Points of View (POV) for fiction are:

  • First Person
    : “I.” Typically the easiest way to keep the point-of-view from hopping between characters. First Person narratives are usually told by the main character, which means that they are not able to know what the thoughts, feelings, or experiences of the other characters are. They can, however, speculate—which adds a layer of suspense and mystery. (Elsa Neal, “”)

  • Third Person limited
    : “He/She”. Third person limited is the most common way of writing fiction. The story is narrated, but the narrator is invisible, playing no part in the story. However, the perspective of one or more characters is used to draw the reader into the story and develop empathy for the characters. Whatever the length of your story, if you can keep your viewpoint characters down to one or two, you will have a far stronger story and a bigger impact on your readers. When you choose just one main character’s perspective it also makes it easier for you as the writer to stay in their “head”. (Neal)

  • Third Person omniscient
    : “He/She.” This is a very clunky style to read, but is also becoming popular because it resembles a movie, but includes thoughts and feelings. The narration takes a full view of the book, knowing at all times what each character is thinking, presenting all viewpoints at all times, and moving from character to character, and also scene to scene, showing a snapshot of their life and environment. It allows almost no empathy to develop as the reader is shifted along from character to character. (Neal)

  • Second Person
    : “You.” Second person used to be very popular for children’s “solve it yourself” mystery and adventure books: “You are walking down the street and witness a crime. Turn to page 20 if you call the police, turn to page 40 if you run away…” Outside that type of book, second person is hardly ever used, except for an interesting, experimental read. (Neal)

Selecting the viewpoint that best tells a story can be the answer to overcoming writer’s block and fixing problematic stories. For example, let’s say you’ve chosen to write a story in first person, but as you write, you struggle to convey necessary details your narrator isn’t privy to. You may want to switch to third-person omniscient. If you are unsure which POV to use, try writing the same paragraph with different narrator Person, and see which fits best.

[And now a digression…

Okay, I know that a lot of fanfiction writers like to use the “BPOV/EPOV/APOV” method, aka, using First Person in multiple views. I’ve even enjoyed quite a few stories that do this. If you choose to do this, however, you should be aware of several things:

  • When in first person, switching points-of-view is a big no-no because it’s jarring to the reader, interrupts the flow of the narration, confuses the reader because they lose track of whose head they are in, and defeats the purpose of first person narration (keeping other characters’ thoughts a mystery, thus enhancing the suspense and conflict of a story).

  • In the publishing industry, you just can’t do the First Person switching thing. So if you have aspirations to publish someday, it’s good practice not to rely on the First Person switching crutch, even if it’s “just fanfiction.”

  • Third Person omniscient accomplishes the same thing, with benefits. You have no narrative interruptions, less chance of redundancy (because your story is still using only one narrator—the all-powerful Omniscient), and are forced to write those viewpoint transitions instead of just slapping a “POV” heading on a scene.

If you can write your way around the above and still create an effective story using multiple first-person narrators, then go for it. Who am I to stand in the way of innovative fiction?]

So, this article isn’t as interesting to read about as love triangles, but hopefully you gleaned some helpful, foundational stuff. Now break out the thesauruses, listen to Matthew McConaughey’s speech patterns, and play with those modes *cough*. Happy writing!

Gondolier is officially sticking it to the MAN by sharing her wealth of wordcraft knowledge with the likes of fandom. She demonstrates her tremendous skills with every chapter she posts of her wondrous story, Hydraulic Level 5. Bitch Leah anyone?


  1. Terrific article-thanks for sharing the wealth! The only exception I have is to the tense issue. Reading a story in present tense usually just ticks me off enough that I walk away from it. I think very, very few writers can pull off the present tense effectively and I counsel those I beta for to think it over very carefully before coninuing in present tense. But other than that note, lovely article. Great insights!

  2. Just read your post and loved the way your broke it down. There is nothing more frustrating than a good/great story line getting fogged up with clunky dialogue or vague narrative.

    I'm an editor, not a writer and have loads and loads of respect and admiration for all you creative writers out there. Often, however, I want to gently suggest that a writer look into taking a creative writing class at her local community college. the ideas are there, but the mechanics need some serious work. I compare it to a flashy sports car without an engine. At first glance it may be pretty to look at, but when you lift the hood you realize that you aren't going to go anywhere.

  3. I don't comment enough but I wanted to let you know that I read each and every single one of your articles and it has helped me in my writing tremendously. Thank you!

  4. You. Rock. So hard. Trying to develop the writing skillz of the Twific community is a noble goal, worthy of commendation akin to sainthood, in my humble opinion.

    For anyone interested in seeing a superb example of the many ways tense and POV can be used to develop your story, the utterly excellent Ars Moriendi by vanilladoubleshot accomplishes all that (and more!) in one story.

    THANK YOU for addressing the EPOV/BPOV madness. Writers: If you're going to do the first-person switch, for the love of Edward, don't use the lamesauce POV header to indicate when you've switched. If you've developed your characters well and uniquely, it should be apparent who's speaking from the content alone.

  5. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    One of my favorite ff's is full of head-hopping and it's driving me up the freaking wall. I PM'd the author to ask whether it was intentional and received a kind, yet somewhat condescending reply. d'oh.

    Now the author thinks I'm a maroon and all I was trying to do was politely point out that the head hopping (edward thought this, wait, no, bella thought that!) was a sucking me out of the fictive dream.

    thank you. and...thank you.

  6. I read and re-read all of your posts, they're so helpful. THank you for taking the time to do this

    Chris (aka wonkeygirl)


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