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like how-to components—there is a right way that editors and agents are looking for, and other ways lead authors to the unpublished ranks.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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Scene vs. Narrative

Brandilyn Collins, as gracious as she is talented, left a comment to yesterday’s post in which she remarked about the change in her style of writing since she was first published:

I like the books I write today, but they are different from Eyes of Elisha and Dread Champion. Those books were each about 120,000 words. Way too long for today’s standards and for what my publisher wants. The longer word count allows for multiple storylines and subplots. Can’t do that in the current word count.

However, if you’re referring to “leaner” as a style of writing, that’s a different thing. My style IS leaner today. That is, every word counts, whereas in EOE and DC I had longer paragraphs and was more wordy in general.

The thing is Eyes of Elisha came out in 2001, with Dread Champion following in 2002, so this change we’re talking about happened over the last six or so years.

By the way, this span of time has been the height of the Harry Potter craze, with books five through seven weighing in at 500 pages or more.

Is it genre then, that has created a distinct style?

I know people often talk about writing for the MTV generations, implying that these readers need things with graphics, written in sound bites, including sidebars, without depth. Thus, shorter books.

Of course, part of the “shorter book” concept might just be the economics of it. I mean, it’s what the candy company and the canned soup people did. Don’t raise the price; shrink the product.

Could publishers be taking that route? With the exception of those who have a blockbuster hit on their hands. Those books can come in at 600, 700 pages and the publisher will still clear a tidy profit. (Is that understated sufficiently, do you think? 😉 )

So, what does this have to do with “scene vs. narrative”? I suggest scene is leaner. Narrative tends to be wordy.

Here’s an example from the book I’m currently reading, Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb (Bantam Books, 1995):

That afternoon I was back with Hod, practicing until I was sure my stave had mysteriously doubled its weight. Then food, and bed, and up again in the morning and back to Burrich’s tutelage. My learning filled my days, and any spare time I found was swallowed up with the chores associated with my learning, whether it was tack care for Burrich, or sweeping the armory and putting it back in order for Hod. In due time I found not one, or even two, but three entire sets of clothing, including stockings, set out one afternoon on my bed. Two were of fairly ordinary stuff, in a familiar brown that most of the children my age seemed to wear, but one was of thin blue cloth, and on the breast was a buck’s head, done in silver thread. Burrich and the other men-at-arms wore a leaping buck as their emblem. I had only seen the buck’s head on the jerkins of Regal and Verity. So I looked at it and wondered, but wondered, too, at the slash of red stitching that cut it diagonally, marching right over the design.

So ends one paragraph from pp. 68-69, followed by a scene (and I wonder how many of you managed to read the entire paragraph. 😮 Is blog reading affecting the way we want our fiction?). I opened the book at random to find that section of narrative, which, by the way, was preceded by several similar pages, and I feel confident I could find an example nearly every time I randomly selected a page.

The question I’m pondering is this: Rather than balancing scene and narrative, does the contemporary style of fiction shun narrative as a necessary evil to be avoided whenever possible? And the correlaries: Is fiction mirroring television, and should it? Are only certain genres, like suspense, pulled into a faster-paced style?

OR, is an overbalance of scene a result of “rules” enforced because new writers have a propensity to tell too much and tell poorly? In other words, are we Browne-and-King-ing narrative right out of our stories? Is this a tendency in Christian fiction alone, or are writers in the general market also writing less narrative?

Your thoughts on any of these questions?

Published in: on April 10, 2008 at 11:40 am  Comments (13)  
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The Place of Art in Fiction, Part 1

If story trumps all, why should an author bother with anything else?

I hope I’ve built a good case for the importance of well-developed characters, a textured setting, and a definite theme to go along with a fast-paced, conflict-filled plot. If all of the elements of fiction enhance all the others, then the story becomes captivating, not just “a page turner.”

But one of the articles I read years ago when I was first starting to write fiction—an article in Writers Digest—made the case for the writer paying attention to varied sentence structure, the tone and mood of the work, voice, word choice, etc. Poppy-cock, I thought. No writer could possibly pay attention to ALL those things; they’d be at it for ages.

Now, after working as a writer full time for five years, I decry prose that has little sentence variation, relies on repeated verbs, gives scant attention to word choice, and so on. What’s changed?

For one thing, I’ve read more fiction. I can see how some stories impact me and how others pass me by in a rush, without making a ripple in my emotions, let alone in my thought patterns. Further, I’ve seen my own writing change as I’ve spent time with it. I can see the difference in the prose I wrote that was stocked with adjectives and the prose I work to hammer out now.

One writing instructor, Lauren Kessler makes a case for writing with clarity and precision:

Writing with clarity means using language precisely, succinctly and logically. It means simplicity, order and clear-headedness. It means prose that is easily understood, writing that connects with readers effortlessly—that is, it requires little effort from the reader because it has required much effort from the writer.

Interesting side issue: Should fiction require little effort from the reader?

Kessler goes on to say that writing should also be with style.

Style is the product of purposeful choices, the culmination of many things done well, the result of sheer hard work.

She proceeds to say that style is made up of liveliness, detail, and originality.

Liveliness would be the opposite of “clutter, murky construction and faulty presentation.”

By detail, she means “the controlled, creative use of vivid specifics.”

Originality? She promised another entire article dedicated to the subject.

I suppose the easiest way is to show the difference, though this is, quite frankly, terrifying for me. What if people like the serviceable prose better than the reworked version? YIKES!

Nevertheless, here it is—the opening paragraphs of Return to Efrathah, 2001:

In reality Jim heard the earth give way before he felt anything. It was a ripping, then a rumble, louder than the ocean roar from below. The dirt and rock gathered speed. Spurred by instinct he turned away from the lonely cliff at the first indication of danger. But it was too late. The earth melted beneath him, and he experienced an eerie, roller-coaster-dropping sensation as he began falling. The searing thought flashed across his mind, “I’m gonna die!”

In a frantic effort to catch himself, he grabbed at everything within reach, but his grasp closed only on brittle, mottled shale that pierced him and tore at his flesh. In seconds his large, normally strong, hands were raw and bleeding.

How could he stop his fall toward death? In desperation he tried to dig the toe of his good leg into the side of the cliff. Summoning all his strength, he pressed his foot against the jagged, stony precipice. He ignored the sharp rock that bit into his black high-top athletic shoe and pierced his foot; he disregarded the violent snap of his ankle. He knew only that he was still falling.

That beginning is now several pages into the story and looks like this:

A low rumble reverberated from below. His eyes widened.

The ground quivered. He hobbled back a step.

The vibrations increased. Thunder swelled around him. He pivoted from the edge of the cliff. But the earth crumbled away.

He slid downward. His stomach vaulted into his throat.

Rocks and dirt tumbled past him toward the waves.

He flailed at anything within reach. His fingers closed on brittle shale. The rock tore at his flesh, then splintered from the cliff.

He dug the toe of his good leg into the side of the bluff. The shale bit into his black high-top. His ankle snapped. And he was still falling.

Not the best example of varied sentence structure because this is an action scene. But there’s a point right there. Now in my writing, action scenes have a distinctive feel, unlike other types of scenes.

Whether or not I achieved “style” is a moot point, however. What I’m getting at is, should “style” be what writers aim for? Does art in fiction matter, since story trumps all? And if so, why?

Published in: on August 7, 2007 at 1:28 pm  Comments (13)  
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