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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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
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.
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
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, “HearWriteNow.com”)
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?