Greetings, novelists! We continue our discussion of technique this week with one of the more elusive writing concepts: style.
As with structure, we could very easily apply the idea of style to several parts of your novel’s construction. However, today we will consider style specifically through the execution of your prose. And although you likely have a distinctive style all your own, we’ll think about how style might necessarily change from project to project.
Minimalism vs. Lyricism
I find it most helpful to consider style as a spectrum rather than a series of discreet categories. On the one end, we have the sparser, often more utilitarian approach of minimalism. Most commonly associated with writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver, minimalism can also be described as the “less is more” approach. It can be a powerful way to write a novel or story, especially when we consider lines like this from Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” —
The light was draining out of the room, going back through the window where it had come from.
Nothing complicated in the syntax or the vocabulary and yet the atmosphere of the story changes.
At the other end, we find lyricism, which is easily recognizable for its long, lush sentences and full descriptions. Among lyricists, you would find the likes of Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez. You will often see lyricism associated with a more poetic aesthetic–however, if we consider the wide variety of poetic styles and forms, we can imagine that’s somewhat of a reductive way of defining it. Obviously, poetry can be minimal and minimalism can be poetic. But the distinction becomes much clearer if we compare the above quote from Carver to the following from Allende’s novel The House of Spirits:
She was one of those people who was born for the greatness of a single love, for exaggerated hatred, for apocalyptic vengeance, and for the most sublime forms of heroism but she was unable to shape her fate to the dimensions of her amorous vocation, so it was lived out as something flat and gray trapped between her mother’s sickroom walls, wretched tenements, and the tortured confessions with which this large, opulent, hot-blooded woman made for maternity, abundance, action, and ardor- was consuming herself.”
So we have these two extremes. Naturally, most contemporary fiction falls between them and there are any number of variations. Cormac McCarthy’s sentences are terse, but you can hardly call his word choice simplistic. Toni Morrison’s prose is often grand in scale, but can also be devastatingly to the point. Much of mainstream fiction uses the more utilitarian approach of minimalism, as Stephen King advocates in On Writing, but it also relies on the power of detailed description to transport us into fantastic and unfamiliar situations.
Choosing a Style for Your Novel
As noted, you likely already have a way of writing that could be identified as “your style.” If you’re like me, it’s a hodgepodge of your own way of thinking and talking with the style of authors you admire most. (It’s okay–all writers are magpies, especially when it comes to prose). Maybe Carver is your writing guru or you aspire to Nabokovian richness. And perhaps the idea of writing your novel in a different style from your usual is rather daunting. Consider, however, that you likely don’t need to revert into either extreme to choose an effective style for your novel. Yes, you may need to shift slightly from lyricism or minimalism to tell your story most effectively. But it’s unlikely you have to change everything about the way you right.
How do we determine the proper style? I find it’s often the product of character and circumstance. One of the reasons McCarthy writes the way he does is to mirror the landscape and ideology of his characters. His novels are often dark, violent and the men who inhabit them are more so. Conversely, the violence in Morrison’s worlds are startling interruptions, often of more spiritual or philosophical matters. The style isn’t just the mode by which we receive the story, then, it is an active part of the experience–another means by which the author makes her point.
Is your novel a tender examination of a family’s grief? A wild alt history romp through the California gold rush? A chilling murder mystery set in futuristic Johannesburg? Consider which style you would match to each story and set of characters. And don’t be afraid to defy expectations if it suits you best.
- Reread the above sentences from “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and The House of Spirits. Rewrite each in the opposite style.
- Choose five of your favorite novels. Identify the style of each and determine how it serves the story.
- Write your grocery list or other common household reading (classifieds, etc.) in the most lyrical prose you can manage.
- Write your favorite poem in the clearest, most minimalistic way possible.
- Write a paragraph about two characters who can’t say what they mean to each other. Rewrite it using two more distinct styles from the novels you examined earlier.
How do you define your style? What are the challenges in writing outside of it?