A few weeks ago, I wrote a post introducing the idea of writing style/voice. It’s a difficult thing to define, and it’s even more difficult to try to label your own style. The basic definition I came up with is:
Style is the use of language, tone, and punctuation in writing, and voice is how those aspects of style coalesce to create the author’s unique sound.
For simplicity’s sake, I’ll be using the terms “style” and “voice” interchangeably. Truly, you can’t have one without the other.
Now then, onward in exploring this amorphous topic. Today, it’s back to basics. I’m going to take you through a few of the fundamental aspects of writing, because they all add up to contribute to a writer’s voice. It’s time to revisit creative writing 101 and those crucial ideas of setting, dialogue, and the like. These elements and how they can be utilized in regard to style must be understood before we can get down to the real nitty gritty of language and how it can be manipulated to form your unique voice.
I realize that the use of these elements varies not only from writer to writer, but even from book to book. Writers experiment all the time, and their works are certainly not all identical in their use of basic story-telling elements. But if we’re being honest, writers have a “default” style that they often revert to. That’s what I’m talking about here—a writer’s typical use of these elements that contributes to their personal style.
It’s worth noting that, in general, this series on style is written primarily for writers of fiction and creative nonfiction. Aspects of this series are certainly applicable to poets and technical writers, but probably not the series in its entirety. Additionally, I’m not saying one style is better than another. It’s truly a subjective thing. My goal is simply to tell you the various parts of style out there so that, hopefully, you’ll be able to say “Ah ha! Yes! That’s my style!”
Everyone on the same page? Good. Hopefully we stay that way as we navigate this subjective, temperamental, indescribable aspect of writing.
Setting—Is your work setting heavy? Do you describe the world in glorious detail, giving its history, popular religions, political atmosphere, and more? Do you describe every bit of physical space your character inhabits? Do you make sure to always note the time of day—maybe even the exact hour—as your story progresses? (E.g., Most high fantasy, lots of sci-fi, and nearly all historical fiction).
Or are your readers more or less shuffling along in the dark, filling the gaps in world context and physical space with assumptions and their own imagination? (E.g., The Fault in Our Stars)
Character—Do you have a ton or just a few? Certain genres invite a large cast of characters, such as high fantasy. And some writers just love creating characters so much they pop ‘em out by the dozen (Game of Thrones, anyone?). Do you have a huge cast?
Or do you have just a small central cast, then utilize stock/flat characters when absolutely necessary? (E.g., Your hero goes to the gas station and buys cigarettes, but you never give the name of the cashier, nor any special description of him at all.)
Dialogue—Are you dialogue heavy? Are there pages and pages of single sentence paragraphs of dialogue? Do you tell every word of every conversation, even just the filler bits? (E.g., The majority of “teen” fiction.)
Or are you less generous with dialogue, dosing it out like icing on a cake—not too much, and only when something really needs to be said? (E.g., A lot of Stephen King’s books.)
Or even more extreme, do you have no dialogue at all? (E.g., Books written as letters or journal entries often don’t have any dialogue—think The Screwtape Letters.)
POV—Do you write in 1st or 3rd, generally? What’s your preferred perspective to write from—I went or he/she went? Or do you really like to challenge yourself and write in 2nd person—you went?
First person is just what it sounds like—a firsthand telling of a story by the main character. It tends to read like the main character is telling the story to the reader directly, as opposed to third person limited which is just telling the story (more on this below). Do you prefer to write in first person, telling the story to your reader as though she’s sitting down to coffee with your main character? (First person can be seen in the classic To Kill A Mockingbird, or the uh…less classic…Twilight series)
Third person has a bit more freedom and tends to be more formal than first person. If you write in third person, do you write omniscient or limited? Not sure?
Third person omniscient is when the narrator can head hop whenever they please (even several times within a single scene), provide anybody’s backstory at any time, and even divulge information that the characters don’t know themselves. The narrator can choose to take on a persona of his own, going so far as to give his opinion of characters and happenings. Really, almost anything goes in third person omniscient, and folks use this power in varying degrees. (E.g., Pride and Prejudice is written in third person omniscient, not limited to Elizabeth as some people tend to think.)
Third person limited, on the other hand, typically follows only one character, diving into only her thoughts, emotions, etc. The narrator doesn’t have a presence. It’s similar to first person in that it encourages the reader to bond with one main character. (E.g., The Harry Potter series is limited to Harry’s POV.)
It’s worth noting that there are styles that combine omniscient and limited. In my current series, I head hop at scene changes, but that’s as far as my “omniscience” goes. Everything else is limited. What’s your preferred POV?
Exposition—Ah, exposition. The prime example of “telling” instead of “showing.” It’s the not so subtle art of divulging backstory and providing context, or otherwise shoving information plainly at your reader. E.g., She refused the drink because she was a recovering alcoholic who had been on the wagon for nearly two years. Do you resort to exposition often? In other words, are you telling your reader everything rather than showing them the same information in less obvious ways?
Or do you use it less often/with more subtlety? Sometimes, information has to be said plain as day, but do you only do so as a last resort? Instead of the above example, would you write something like the following: She refused the drink, difficult as it was. Even after two years without a taste, the thought of tequila still made her taste buds slick with anticipation.
Description—While tied to “setting,” description goes beyond just the world. It also applies to your characters, their physical actions, etc. For example, if your character is sitting down to a formal dinner, do you describe everything on the table, as well as what everyone is wearing, who they sit by, what their coat of arms has on it, yadda yadda yadda (I’m looking at YOU again, George R.R. Martin).
Or do you give the bare minimum, making sure the reader knows when your character is sitting as opposed to standing, and maybe a quick mention of what he’s eating and what the room looks like (E.g., The Hunger Games)?
Type of conflict—Do you write more internal or external conflict? Does stuff always happen to your characters? (E.g., The Odyssey) Monsters attack and your hero is just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The prime minister is being targeted and your hero has to stop the attack.
Or is the struggle primarily internal? (E.g., The Silver Linings Playbook) Your hero is trying to discover who he really is deep down and goes on a solo road trip across the country. Due to her crazy family, your leading lady is conflicted about whether to stick with them or abandon ship. Your hero gets himself into trouble over and over again because he’s been sent by God to rid the world of diet soda—or is he just crazy?
Or do you make it a point to utilize both internal and external conflict? (E.g., The Lord of the Rings) Your hero struggles to be “good,” but being bad just comes more naturally, especially when it helps her get through battles against space pirates and the crooked loan sharks on her tail. When a cop has to find a killer and discovers it’s his son, he has to decide if honor or family is more important, all the while fending off his tough-as-nails captain and straight-laced partner.
Theme—Are you heavy into threading theme/the deeper meaning through your writing or is it not that important to you? Themes can be moral, emotional, political, and more. Some folks seem to write solely for the purpose of delivering a “bigger message” as opposed to entertaining the reader. Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm are examples of heavy-handed theme—the message is the centerpiece of these books, holding it all together, driving the work forward and giving it purpose.
On the other hand, some folks just want to tell a fun story that keeps their reader turning pages. If someone finds a deeper, overarching meaning, great, but that’s not the point. Are you the type who just wants to keep your reader entertained for the simple pleasure of it? (E.g., The vast majority of romance novels don’t set out to deliver a “message.”)
Next time, we’ll dive further into how language can be manipulated to form your writing style. In part 1 of this series, we were looking at the whole forest. Here in part 2, we’re looking at the trees. In part 3, we’ll examine the leaves. I hope that your style is beginning to take shape, your understanding of it turning from a blur to a more focused picture. Remember, style is subjective–I’m not here to tell you which stylistic choices are right and which are wrong. My goal is to help you understand the different parts and pieces of style so that you’ll be able to describe your own and maybe even begin to play with style a bit. I’m trying to teach you to read the language of the matrix so that writing style looks less like equations and symbols and more like the pictures they stand for.
By Madeleine Mozley