Style is purely subjective -- unless you are a writer.
|(Nota Bene: This is an unfinished piece, a work in progress. The bottom half is as much notes-to-self as it is an effort to share my methods.
These are my tools.
So you have read, re-read and read your draft some more. Happy, are you? Go on, turn the page.
I write to those of you who remain here on the same page with me. You who must, as I must, write.
Writing is easy enough, sure. Start with an idea. The first few characters come almost of their own will. The plot develops as each interacts with some or all of the others. Conflicts emerge. Tension rises. It all comes to a head, with a bang. Then it's time to just bed the whole thing down with a few choice words, conventional and sure as the dawn.
A writer is born. Gold star. That pesky proof-and-edit haunts the back of the mind, but, manana. The next idea has already popped at the head of the queue. Idea-characters-plot-narrative-repeat.
If that is your process, I can save you a burst, a long hot grind, of annoyance. In the best of faith, I admit frankly that I have nothing to offer to the story processor. I cannot even keep pace with a concept Cuisinart. Finally, I do not hesitate to encourage you to go to Hollywood, where your leonine storytelling heart may win you a place in the very pride of MGM.
That should have freed some elbow room in the virtual habitat. I am of an elephantine storytelling mind. Lions don't hang around in a herd. End of bridge metaphor.
Begin overall metaphor. Where were we? Look with your mind's eye to the rear view. Ignore, for the time being, that blue button set into the bottom of the frame. Style will only clutter copy that is not as clean as new glass.
Read your copy for proof. Clean up your typos. Get square with spellcheck. Smooth your grammar. Count quotation marks and don't rest on an odd number. Rid up after your flaky CAPS key. Interrogate your punctuation, rigorously. Take a good last scan. Freshen your coffee.
Last of all, reach down and ease back your seat. Now, press the blue ONStyle button.
ON the Willing Suspension of Disbelief:
The reader's will to believe is fundamental. As a matter of style, it is the upper limit on any device you bend to your narrative. Story first.
Given the phrase medias res as a search term, Google pops the following:
A narrative work beginning in medias res opens in the midst of the plot. Often, exposition is bypassed and filled in gradually, either through dialogue, flashbacks or description of past events. Hamlet begins after the death of Hamlet's father. Wikipedia
Your fundamental Show-Not-Tell.
We learn young how to walk into a new situation. We learn a skill set that includes laying back, keeping quiet, gathering information, sorting through it, devising questions, deciding which to ask and which to stash ... This is sophisticated socialization, and it is human nature that we pride ourselves on knowing more than we admit.
Give your reader this environment and he will be intrigued. He will nod to himself as he gathers the pieces and puts them into place. He will plunge ahead, sure in the certainty that he knows even elements of the story that you forego to document. He will engage, persevering even when the action slows and the exposition mounts. Do this well and you have sold him your next book, as well.
Variety: Read back over the previous nine paragraphs. No two begin with the same word. Only two begin with the same letter. This technique lends drive to your text;
Specific meaning: "decimate" versus "devastate";
Synonym: Get yourself a big bag of synonyms. These invaluable "free" puzzle pieces of the language allow you to set sentence length and narrative tone with precision and at will. Often, you can choose among connotations, shades of meaning, as a painter the greys of clouds.
Frequency: Do not use a specific word twice in a paragraph without weighing alternatives;
I broke this rule with calculated intent in my story "Ladysmith" :
She takes two steps. She takes me in a quick, supportive embrace ...
I did this because the word "takes" changes its object with the successive use, from referencing the viewed character to referencing the narrator. I wanted to draw the two closer both in action and in language.
Of course, the repetition got me gigged by a reviewer who missed the change of object. You can only show. Telling ruins the effect.
obscurities in context (ref. Brin):
The Lost Distinctions: American English, in its heedless rush to evolve, constantly sheds fine distinctions in the public speech. These are, to my ear, the most objectionable.
Comparison -- degree v kind: "Different" is a term of kind. "Than" is a term of degree. "From/to" is a term of kind. "Lesser/greater" is a term of degree. Mixing degree and kind is laziness. Leave it to newscasters and politicians.
Statement -- Fact v Claim:
Noun-ification -- Gender v Sex: When the question is "Sex?", the answer is ... usually a lie. Pick "Yes" or "No". My answer, buddy, is "Nunya". Unfortunately, the form always truncates it to an "N".
Sexual behavior varies radically by gender. When you don't make the distinction, you cannot make the argument.
word placement and flow
ON the Zipf Line:
ON Relief: Relief is a device used to vary the tone of your plot. Comic relief in a drama or adventure is so common that it is almost synonymous with the concept. I say "relief", you say "comic", and repeat.
A comic tone that goes unrelieved soon becomes monotonous. This is where tragic relief is of use. You might show that, for one character in one situation, the stakes are large and the cost of failure is high.
You might show some inescapable absurdity underlying the challenge to your characters. Absurd relief works differently in comedy versus drama. Closely tailored to the story, it can be just as effective in either.
Idyllic relief is an opportunity to illustrate character under unstressed circumstances. These are your characters in "normal" life. He may show signs of past stress. She may anticipate the dangers to come. Or, perhaps they can put everything to the side for a while and just live. Show the life to which he
hopes to win through. Show the loss she will suffer in failure.
The more common term for this technique is, of course, the "idyllic interlude". This form of relief expressly does not advance the plot. The storm is over the horizon, for the moment.
ON the Lift:
The lift is a minimal inline quote that delivers a specific implication. Write "Use the Force!" and you tap into a reservoir of familiar, even hackneyed, implications and connotations. This use is inept.
Write that your antagonist has "nursed the pinion which impelled the steel" and you conjure the shade of Lord Byron, eloquent of desserts ironic whether or not just. This use is penetrating.
Write "The strength of the drink is the liquor and the strength of the liquor is the mixer" and you gift a pack of fraternity boys with a syntax of Kipling. This use is no better than sarcasm.
Use footnotes only in non-fiction. Don't worry, after you've done your best, that the reader of your fiction will "get it". If he does, all to the good. If not, let him slide.
ON Advance the Plot:
ON Getting "Cute": Don't. Certainly, don't get caught. Wordplay is show-off writing. Showing off violates the willing suspension of disbelief.
That said, consider creating your own magic words. I used "sorcel" in a sentence -- alii
Easy onomatopoesy: "Don't praggle me ...
Alliteration: Mister Rogers always had to leave when the river crested over the dike -- Fred frequently fled flooded flats.
To write is to play "a Fender guitar with a heart of gold and a voice like a horny angel!"1
Finally, the lightning of climax sears the oeuvre and devastates the personae. The aftermath washes over the survivors.
A writer is made by his own hand.
1. J. Steinman, Love and Death and an American Guitar, Album "Bat Out of Hell", CBS, 1977