The Art of Storytelling, Part 5

I realize today I have a little more to say about fiction techniques. In a recent Writer’s Digest, Mort Castle wrote an article about mimicking other writers, entitled “Write like Poe.” In the section “The Elements of Style,” Castle said this:

Authors’ styles grow from all the basic elements of prose: vocabulary, sentence length, structure, rhythm, narrative point of view, imagery, figures of speech and lots more. Style reflects a writer’s line-by-line, moment-by-moment decisions about what to leave in and what to leave out, what tone to adopt and what mood to induce in the reader. Style is the summation of “how” a story is presented … Many popular writers aren’t considered stylists, and they seek what’s termed a “transparent style” that focuses exclusively on plot.

It is this “transparent style”—really a whitewashing of style—I referred to as “stilted writing, robotic fiction, cloned storytelling.”

For much of the history of fiction, authors wrote in such unique manners that readers could tell who created the work without seeing a name affixed to it. In contrast, I won’t say that today such individuality is frowned upon. Rather, style is rarely discussed.

In numerous writing conferences, writing books, writing discussions, fiction techniques come across like how-to components—there is a right way that editors and agents are looking for, and other ways lead authors to the unpublished ranks. This impression feeds into the tender author psyches (like mine was) that suspect there is a secret to grasp which will lead to the promised land of publication.

Understandably, authors scramble to put their story into the “right” style, much as they do to put their writing into the required format, and the result is the equivalent of white bread.

Do publishers want this type of writing? Castle said “many popular writers” seek a “transparent style.” After all, rye bread has a distinct flavor, and not everyone likes it. Won’t a “transparent style” appeal to the widest possible audience?

I suspect that is the thinking, but millions read Tolkien and millions read Lewis, though neither of those authors wrote in a “transparent style.” The argument, of course, is that those writers would never be published today. And that could be true.

But my point is, they’re being read today. In other words, a transparent style is not requisite for a work to be well liked, even loved. Granted, I have heard some people (certainly not everyone) complain about Tolkien’s style, even admit that they skip parts. I’m not advocating a return to a style of yesteryear.

I am suggesting, however, that readers have a far greater tolerance for varied styles than what many in the business give them credit for. Frequently here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, I say that story trumps all, and I believe that completely. Style, on the other hand, can be transparent (stand out of the way), be opaque (get in the way), or highlight (add and enhance).

If we writers keep learning, I think it’s within our grasp to do more than learn to get out of the way.

Published in: on January 13, 2009 at 3:47 pm  Comments (7)  
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  1. “I am suggesting, however, that readers have a far greater tolerance for varied styles than what many in the business give them credit for.”

    I absolutely agree with this, Becky. They also have a far greater tolerance/preference for varieties of story/book lengths and genres within the framework of CBA. You know this firsthand with all your personal efforts (and those of others) on behalf of fantasy fiction. The audience IS out there, but they’ve been neglected or ignored for so long, they don’t come looking in the CBA for their preferences anymore.


  2. It seems to me commercial fiction often uses the “transparent” style, whereas, literary fiction is allowed, even expected/required to take more liberties with style. I am one for an author developing their own style. However, in order to do that, an author must have an abundance of time, or resign themselves to never making any sort of living off of writing due to the time it takes to write just one novel. I could write a novel like I write a poem, lingering on one line for five minutes or more to make sure it is right and is stylistically pleasing. And while I tend to be quite slow and picky when I write a novel, I just can’t devote as much time to each and every line if I ever hope to finish the novel in this lifetime while also holding down a full time job. So, for me, there has to be some compromise.

    Also, regarding style, I like to fine tune it based on the main character. If my main character is a downer, I might use a more minimal style. If they are vibrant and talkative, I might use more flowery and flowing narration. That’s the goal that I work towards, anyway. Overall I do prefer a minimalist style…but that’s just me.


  3. (Okay, five minutes per line on a poem is an understatement.)


  4. You know this firsthand with all your personal efforts (and those of others) on behalf of fantasy fiction. The audience IS out there, but they’ve been neglected or ignored for so long, Whoo-hoo! When we get non-fantasy readers taking up the cause, well, it feels like a real victory! 🙂

    Thanks, Nicole.



  5. Jessica, I understand what you’re saying. In poetry you pour over every word. The thing is, I find the more I write fiction, the more I am pouring over every word.

    Years ago, I read a Writer’s Digest article that said as much—an author has to pay attention to word choice and syntax and rhythm and ad infinitum. I didn’t think it was possible. I didn’t think it was realistic. I didn’t think authors really did it.

    But here I am … and that’s exactly what my revision process includes. The thing I didn’t get all those years back was that I didn’t need to do it all in the first draft.

    I also have to say, the computer age has made this attention to each word a lot more possible, which is why it is so surprising that style seems to be neglected by so many writers.

    Of course, the time thing does come into play. For you, it is a day job. For published writers it might be another book due in six months and marking and promotion responsibilities along the way.

    I’m suggesting this stuff from an ideal position—of writing full time with no deadline, and I still have a hard time getting it done.



  6. Rebecca, I hear what you are saying, and I am very much that way with my writing. Very picky. However, in a poem I may spend an afternoon deciding whether to add an “a” or a “the”. lol. And there’s just no way I’m willing to do that in a novel. I care about the flow of the language, and rhythm and pacing, etc., but if I was as picky as I was about my poetry I’d lose my mind. I do think it is possible to be that picky, and to write a novel that is linguistically beautiful line by line, but, I would think that’s gotta be one dedicated artiste (not just a writer, an artiste!).


  7. This is suggestive and I think it’s on the right track. I’ve been reading some other blogs lately that skirt in the same direction. The recent interest in The Shack and Twilight seem to highlight this phenomenon. Both have their faults – The Shack was apparently poorly edited and Twilight has flat characters – but both also excelled at something – Twilight captures perfectly the feeling and emotional punch of falling in love for the first time.

    Now, I haven’t read either book so don’t fault too strongly if you disagree, but I think these viewpoints are widely accepted as true. And that, I think, supports the points made here. That grammar isn’t the defining component of a good, well-received book. That there’s something more. Furthermore, that books might even be a little bit popular precisely because they don’t sound like everything else on the market. Hence, style.


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