OTHER WORKSHOPS IN THIS SERIES
This Workshop has inspired similar Workshops focusing on other aspects of the writing craft. These are:
- Good advice costs nothing, and it’s worth the price
- -- novelty songwriter Allan Sherman, from his song, “Good Advice”
- Good advice costs nothing, and it’s worth the price
In the wake of the critical acclaim for my short story, Legacy, some of my new cyberfriends have asked me for tips on writing style. Having long loved to play Professor—even as a teen, my store of arcane knowledge was broader than Harold’s—I am happy to oblige.
It doesn’t surprise me that my writing style is very different from what the teens and tweens on this wiki are used to. It’s probably unusual even for my own generation, at least among people who don’t write for a living. Gigi has called my style “19th Century”, and I’m not sure she’s far wrong.
DISCLAIMER: I claim no special expertise in the field of writing. I have never written professionally, nor aspired to, and I’m no English teacher. So, just because my writing style has impressed you and I happen to be your elder by many years, you shouldn’t accept what I say as the Word of the Risen Christ merely because I was the one who said it. The opinions I express here are just that, so I may not be the right person to ask if you want to know what you may be doing “wrong”.
This post will deal mainly with the more subjective elements of our writing styles. For the more objective “nuts and bolts” of the matter (e.g. rules of grammar and punctuation), the Strunk & White book, The Elements of Style, is widely regarded as the definitive text in the field, although it is not without its critics.
When we go to discussion, it is my hope that several people will offer pointers, because writing style is not a “one size fits all” proposition. (If you don’t feel comfortable advising people how to write, you can tell them what you like to see as a reader.) I intend for the following commentary to be a springboard for that discussion—a “keynote speech”, if you will.
First, I would like to touch on several major stylistic alternatives. Consider, for example, the choice between present tense and past tense. I have noticed that present tense (e.g. “Duncan goes”) is very popular on this wiki, but past tense (“Duncan went”) is usually better for narrative. The competition story, where both tenses work well, is a major exception. In a competition story, present tense can give the narrative the feel of a sportscaster’s play-by-play. Once you have chosen past tense or present tense for the narrative elements, though, stick with it. Mixing tenses in the narrative is graceless.
Past participle (e.g. “Duncan had gone”) is generally the choice when describing events in a character’s past via narrative reminiscence (as opposed to flashback or dialogue), or at least for introducing such a reminiscence. In Legacy, I use past participle extensively in Chapter 4, when Duncan and Heather are talking about what their former campmates have been up to in the 10 years since their summer in the sun.
For flashbacks, use past tense, just as with normal narrative. Just tell the reader, in whatever way seems best, that the character is flashing back. Past tense is likewise the choice for dialogue-based reminiscence. Avoid present tense in flashbacks or reminiscences, as it is likely to confuse the reader.
Narrative format usually works best for stories. Script format is generally best avoided, and seems to be unpopular on this site in any case, but is not without merit. Script format tends to make for a choppy read, especially if the story has substantial descriptive detail, but it does have the advantage that the reader always knows in advance who is saying what. The more dialogue and less description a story is to have, therefore, the more viable script format becomes.
Furthermore, some writers find that they can’t write anything but dialogue well; and for them, script format may be the best choice. In general, though, it is best left to aspiring playwrights and screenwriters. When writing in script format, I suggest writing any descriptive detail in present tense, to give such description the feel of a play’s stage directions.
If a narrative-format story has little description—very common among inexperienced writers—and has most sentences beginning with dialogue, it can degenerate to resemble script format, especially if the characters are speaking mainly in short, declarative sentences or if the narrative elements are written in present tense. One way to alleviate this degeneration (assuming the writer doesn’t actually want a scriptlike feel) is by showing how a character is reacting, instead of having the character merely “say the line”.
For example, Kenzen’s story, "The Life of Love - 4 Couples", which has a scriptlike feel, has a scene where Izzy sees that Katie is pregnant (and near her time, as ensuing events reveal). The sentence, “’OMG!’ Izzy said, seeing that Katie was pregnant” tells the reader what he needs to know, but has little descriptive color. To paint this scene in richer colors, try something like, “Izzy’s eyes widened in surprise when she saw that Katie was very pregnant. ‘OMG!’ she cried in delight.”
It scarcely need be said that this kind of detail can be overdone, but it can also turn a good story into a great one. Take, for examples, my own story, Legacy, and Gigi’s story, Life After Lies, both of which seem to be regarded on this wiki as the best things since sliced bread. What do they have in common that sets them apart? Not the plots; both stories have plots that are engaging, but not really exceptional. LAL started as a straightforward “crisis of conscience” story, although it is now turning into something else, and Legacy is mainly a reminiscence/"slice of life" story. What makes these stories special is the style in which their plots unfold. Both paint their scenes with rich and—no less importantly—natural-sounding descriptive detail, and both feature complex and natural-sounding dialogue (although Legacy doesn’t have all that much dialogue, complex or otherwise).
Another major stylistic decision is whether to tell the story from a first-person perspective or a third-person perspective. Third-person is more common, but I have noticed that first-person is fairly popular on this site, and either can work well. Just don’t mix them.
First-person perspective works best when a single character tells the entire story, as with Heather in Gigi’s seminal Life After Lies, or Geoff in TDIRM’s acclaimed Violet Hill. Changing the storytelling character midstream is not recommended, because the transition, even if clearly identified, can be jarring to the reader. This maxim does not apply to an unrelated or loosely related series of vignettes, such as the Fake Souls anthology, where each vignette is meant to stand alone.
The main limitation of first-person perspective is the need to write the descriptive elements in the sort of language that the storyteller would use when speaking. This is important because a writer who has the storyteller think and speak in substantially different styles runs the risk of presenting a confused characterization.
(Mark Twain described a similar problem, among others, in his humorous short, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”. Whatever you may think of Cooper’s work, if you are familiar with it at all, I can’t recommend Twain’s piece highly enough. It’s hilarious.)
One major stylistic choice I made in Legacy and elsewhere is that I don’t like to repeat names too heavily, so I often substitute descriptive phrases in situations where it is clear whom I am talking about. Thus, I identify Gwen as “the Goth” (or, later in the story, “the late Goth”) in several places, especially when she has been identified by name earlier in the same paragraph. Likewise, Heather and Duncan are variously “the onetime rivals”, “the former reality show stars”, and so on.
In my crossover, Total Drama Island, by Gilbert and Sullivan (TDI-G&S), I use this technique extensively. Some descriptions are straightforward (e.g. “the demented redhead”, “the surfer girl”, etc.), while others are more colorful. Thus, Lindsay is “the uberbimbo”; Eva is “the steel maiden”; Izzy is “Weird Red”; Owen is “the man-mountain” or “the gregarious gargantua”; Heather is “the Dark Queen” or “the Princess of Darkness”; and Courtney, after her corruption by Duncan, is “Darth Moll”. (For those who don’t know the term, a “moll” is a gangster’s girlfriend.)
Descriptive phrases such as these can do more than merely add color. By reinforcing major character traits, they can be a tremendous aid to the reader in the early stages of an original-character competition story, where the reader is trying to keep straight a (sometimes literal) boatload of new characters. Consider an example from Spenny’s story, Total Drama Infinity.
In that story, the first challenge is to climb a tree. Gabriella (described as “the graceful girl”) and Quentin (described as “the prankster” and sporting a fiery red super Mohawk) are the last two contestants on the course. For the race’s climax, Spenny wrote:
- In that moment, Quentin grabbed Gabriella by the back of her shirt and threw her off of the tree. By the time she hit the ground, Quentin was already on his team’s branch.
In this scene, character traits could be reinforced with something like,
- In that moment, Quentin grabbed Gabriella by the back of her shirt and threw [properly, “pulled”] her off of the tree. By the time she hit the ground, with far less than her accustomed grace [alternately, “lit upon the ground with catlike agility”], the flame-crested prankster was already on his team's branch.''
Of all the pointers I offer here, this is the one I would most like to see adopted widely, precisely because it makes competition stories easier to read.
This device can be taken to an extreme. Heavy repetition of certain phrases, as if to make the story easier to remember, can give a story the feel of something that has been handed down through an oral tradition.
INFLUENCES ON MY STYLE
I find it difficult to describe my own style in general terms, because so much of it is (or has become) second nature to me and I haven’t had all that much formal education in the field. I had two composition classes in high school, two specialized writing classes (technical writing and business report writing) in college, and the usual English (a.k.a. Language Arts) classes in earlier years, but none of these classes specifically dealt with writing fiction. Here, though, are factors that I think have influenced my style:
- I have had a book in my hands ever since I learned how to read, which has given me an exceptional vocabulary and had exposed me to plenty of literary metaphors. A large vocabulary makes it easier to find just the shade of meaning you want, or to find a synonym that merely sounds better to the ear. Knowing when and how to use metaphors is a major part of having a style that is elegant as opposed to merely functional. That said, there is nothing inherently wrong with a “just the facts” style. I’ll take an engaging story with a bare-bones style over a boring story with an elegant style, any day. (An accomplished style can turn a good story into a great one, or a poor story into a passable one, but usually can’t turn a bad story into a good one.)
- I grew up in the pre-Internet, pre-cable TV era. This is related to the point above, as we had fewer options for passive entertainment.
- Mythology and the heroic epic are my favorite literary genres. These genres, like my own writing, tend to be heavy on narrative description, with relatively little dialogue. Note that I don’t consciously seek to emulate the epic style; I’m just more comfortable writing description than dialogue.
- I am something of an Anglophile, and I am a particular fan of the Gilbert & Sullivan series of comic operas, as anyone who has seen my User page and my earlier blog posts has probably guessed. A consequence of this is that I have picked up some chiefly British (and, in some cases, possibly dated) turns of phrase. “By the by” instead of “by the way”, “stop him” instead of “prevent him from”, and “for the nonce” instead of “for the time being”, for examples, are chiefly British turns of phrase that I use routinely, even in casual conversation. The G&S plays are mid- to late Victorian, so there’s a period influence, as well.
- Even compared to my own generation, I have long used language more formally than most people. Those of you who have seen my blog comments and talk page messages have ample evidence of this. It’s simply the way I am. Indeed, I have been told that I talk the way most people write.
- I have a dry, observer-type sense of humor, which undoubtedly influences my comic relief. (Comic relief may be scarce in “Legacy”, but it is definitely present. TDI-G&S naturally has a great deal of comic content, since TDI itself is a comedy, as are most of the G&S plays.)
A few general points of advice for those wanting to develop an “elegant” writing style:
- When you find an unfamiliar figure of speech that you like, whether a turn of phrase, a poetic-sounding metaphor, or merely a description that pleases you, remember it. Write it down, if you have to, and try it yourself in situations that seem good to you. (But not if the description is too long—that’s plagiarism.) There is an axiom that “what you hear, you forget; what you see, you remember; and what you do, you learn.”
- Do a lot of reading, and not just brain candy (although brain candy certainly has its place).
- Accept that it will take time. The vocabulary and the stockpile of literary metaphors that largely drive my writing style are the products of decades of acquisition. That’s not to say that it will take you decades, but you shouldn’t expect to achieve it in a few months, either.
There is also a philosophical point that I recommend you take to heart: if it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing well. The quality of the stories on this wiki varies wildly, from excellent to why-did-they-bother dreadful. The latter are typically short pieces (sometime very short) that the writer either didn’t know how to or didn’t bother to develop properly. (I’ve seen competition stories that, if I didn’t know better, I would have taken for a synopsis of the story, or for a trailer.) You don’t really need the level of attention that I typically display—those of you whom I have conversed with have seen that I devote more thought to some of my talk page posts than some people devote to their one-shots—but story development is very important. Of course, the type of writer who would take the time to read this blog post probably requires little persuasion on that point.
The other type of dreadful story I have encountered on this wiki is the “I hate Courtney” oeuvre. Not only do these stories tend to be underdeveloped, but they can also be downright vicious. Indeed, the lamentable quality of these stories was my main motivation for writing Courtney and the Violin of Despair. The purpose of this story is to show the Courtney haters and their ilk that they can beat on their favorite punching bags (if they must) without sacrificing story quality.
Before we go to discussion, I will offer a few specific examples. The first comes from Gigi’s signature piece, Life After Lies.
In the crying scene, Heather narrates for the reader, “At first, each tear I cried had to fight for its right to escape.” This is a nice, poetic metaphor, but it can be improved for greater impact. Saying, instead, “each tear had to fight to escape” is more concise, and therefore more emphatic, without diminishing the poetic quality. If you want something more poetic still, you could say, “each tear had to fight for its freedom”.
Turning a phrase like this can enhance humor as well as pathos. Everyone probably remembers the incident in TDDDDI where Izzy eats one marshmallow too many (97 in all), realizes that she can’t keep them down, and subsequently pukes on the grill. In TDI-G&S, I describe the incident thusly: “Izzy is soon distracted by her digestive system’s call to arms. She dashes off, but gets only as far as the grill before the 97 captives gain their freedom.” In this case, the benefit of poetic metaphor is that the narrative hints instead of telling, giving readers the satisfaction of figuring out the joke for themselves.
I have a cousin who used to read trashy novels. There was one called Chuck’s Ravishing Roommates (or something like that) which several of us opened out of curiosity but quickly decided wasn’t worth our time. In one scene, as best I can remember (this was before most of you were born, after all), the author describes some hot & loose chick as “wearing a bikini that she might as well not have been wearing.” Compare this to the late James Blish’s description (again, as best I can remember) of a scantily clad knockout in his adaptations of the original Star Trek series:
- Her body, too, was the stuff of dreams. Nor was it hidden. The scant garments she wore seemed to serve no purpose but to hint at beauty too overwhelming for complete revelation.
With that, let us go to discussion. It is not my intention to simply hold court, although I can do so if that’s what people want. It is my hope, rather, that several people will offer pointers, and that most questions will generate multiple responses, because (as I noted previously) writing style is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. I do ask, however, that we keep the discussion reasonably on-topic, since this discussion could easily become a sort of reference work that people continue to consult from time to time.
Once again, if you don’t feel comfortable advising people how to write, you can tell us what you like to see as a reader—that information also has value to a writer.
The floor is now open. Let the games begin.