If you missed the previous parts of this series, you can read part one and part two first. If voice is the unique sound produced by a writer, then style is the instruments used to produce it. The aspects I’ll be outlining today are the notes. They all add up to make a style, which forms a voice that’s unique to you. Heads-up—I believe the best way to understand style is to see it, to stick your arms in elbow-deep and swirl them around to see how it feels. Definitions are all well and good, but without examples, they fall short to make style real. So I’ll be using lots of examples.
In this post, I’ll be focusing on language. Specifically, the way a writer manipulates words and phrases. There are tons of things that fall under the massive umbrella of language, but I’ll just touch on some biggies today.
Literal vs. Metaphorical
Are you literal in your language or do you prefer to utilize metaphor, simile, and the like?
Literal: She’d lived years of her adolescence in total rebellion, drinking and being with older men she had no business being with.
Metaphorical: She’d lived years of her adolescence rebelling, as if she were a veteran rock star trapped in a skinny, hormone-riddled frame dotted with acne hidden beneath shovelfuls of makeup. Alcohol was the smack of the ruler that made the young girl within sit in the corner and hush, older men the faceless princes she used to keep her there.
Most likely, neither sounds exactly like you. But you get the idea. The first is no nonsense, literal, here’s-what-happened language. She rebelled in her adolescence with alcohol and men. Period. The second utilizes metaphor. The use of images like “veteran rock star” and equating alcohol with the “smack of the ruler” are meant to add layers of depth to the words, to empower them to take different forms and evoke more feelings than if no metaphor were used at all.
Benefits of a literal style:
No unwanted comparisons in the mind of the reader.
No risk of confusion or getting lost in the weeds of language.
Keeps the story moving quickly and efficiently.
More appropriate for certain kinds of writing than metaphor (e.g., within the context of nonfiction, etc.).
Can actually be more powerful than metaphor because it’s straight and to the point, almost punching the reader in the face on occasion.
How NOT to use a literal style:
No matter what you do, don’t be so literal that you end up sounding like an instruction manual for a VCR from 1989. It can be powerful, but if you use it exclusively, you run the risk of sounding robotic. “This happened. Then he said this. She said this back. They walked off together.” Blah blah yawn. If your readers are falling asleep, your style could use some work.
Benefits of a metaphorical style:
Adds depth to your writing, evoking emotions from your reader and making the story come alive.
Used to create subtext through the use of imagery/repeating imagery.
Utilizes the various senses in your reader to make them feel as though they’re there.
Allows the use of images that stick with your reader for a long time.
How to NOT use metaphor:
Constantly and randomly. Pick the times you use metaphor wisely. Using a “like” or “as if” in every sentence starts to make simile and metaphor lose their magic. It can become plain irritating. Additionally, pick the specific metaphors you use wisely. They should be appropriate for your story and add depth, rather than be random and distracting. E.g., In her adolescence, she drank like a shopaholic buying shoes at an outlet mall. …random much? This image doesn’t add, it takes from the story. It does far more damage than it does good.
Neither literal nor metaphorical style is superior. It’s truly a matter of taste, as are all stylistic choices. And most likely, your writing isn’t strictly one or the other, but some combination of both. If it’s not—say you use a metaphor to describe everything, drowning your reader in “it was like”—then I suggest trying to change it up a bit. Experiment with imagery, and likewise, experiment with the art of being literal.
Poetic vs. Bare Bones
Literary vs. genre is another way to think of this, but that’s certainly not always the case. Generally, literary fiction focuses a great deal on language. It’s as much about the sound, flow, and depth of the words chosen as it is about plot. Genre fiction tends to be less worried about how fancy the language is and more concerned with what’s happening, what’s being said, and where we are in the story arc. Is this a huge generalization? Absolutely. Check out our podcast for more detailed discussion on literary vs. genre fiction.
“Poetic” can mean full of metaphor, but it’s more than that. Think flowery—meandering vines with delicate flowers, perhaps an occasional thorn. Think of a sentence wearing a sparkly evening gown and bold makeup, its hair in a complicated updo that defies gravity.
Poetic: She refused to acknowledge those years, the three years of her adolescence fueled by hormones and wild honey Smirnoff. Too wet kisses behind ears swimming with shots of Fireball and lemon juice. Walking on the edge of imagined invulnerability while whistling. It was in those years that a temporary metamorphosis would take her over, change her into something she’d never really chosen to be. Instead, she’d somehow just slid into it one evening with a musty inhale in a dive bar on 43rd street.
Don’t you just feel like you’re walking through closely spaced aisles of a variety of fabrics rubbing up against your arms? Silk on your left, velvet on your right, basic cotton surprising your cheek. When I read (or write) poetic language, I always feel as though I’m walking slowly, meandering a bit but with a purpose, sauntering almost. Slow jazz plays from some invisible speaker and a sweet whiff of clove cigarette smoke tickles my nose. It can be dizzying.
Bare bones: Nothing was as great a source of shame for her as her teen years spent partying, years when she drank too much and loved without standards, only to wind up as someone she didn’t recognize.
OR, if you want to be even more bare:
She partied a lot as a teenager, and as much as she wished she could take back the binges of shitty vodka and shittier sex, she couldn’t.
OR more bare:
She was embarrassed by her rebellious teenage years.
The same point comes across, but it does so without hesitation. The language doesn’t wander and sightsee, doesn’t share more than it has to. There’s little to no frou frou, just truth.
Benefits of a poetic style:
The language almost becomes another character, a feature in the story worth taking in all on its own.
Poetic language is a conduit for emotion, making the reader feel things with finesse.
Can get your story across with more power and impact than constant bare bones language.
Benefits of a bare bones style:
There’s no nonsense that could inhibit the truth you’re telling.
It can feel more honest than overly poetic language.
Sometimes, being blunt creates more impact than being flowery.
As with literal vs. metaphorical language, poetic and bare bones language both have their places in writing, and using both can often create more impact than using just one or the other all the time.
One more part in this series to come. Feeling any clearer about style/voice yet?
By Madeleine Mozley