The Art of Storytelling, Part 3

In a Writer’s Digest some time ago, 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’ve 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like how-to components—there is a right way that editors and agents are looking for, and other ways lead authors to the unpublished ranks.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 they skip parts.

Please understand, 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—more so than what many in the business give them credit.

Frequently I say that story trumps all in fiction, and I believe that completely.

Style, on the other hand, can vary in its importance, depending on the approach an author takes. His style can be transparent (move out of the way) or opaque (get in the way), or he can use it to highlight (add and enhance).

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

First posted at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, January 2009.



Filed under Writing Style

3 responses to “The Art of Storytelling, Part 3

  1. duke1959

    I am so glad I found your blog. It is so helpful.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Duke. I’m happy you’re stopping by.


  3. I agree with your premise that “readers have a far greater tolerance for varied styles – more so than what many in the business give them credit.” But I would say that not only do readers have a tolerance, but a welcoming hand for any given style so long as the style facilitates the drawing of the reader into the story imaginatively. Make the reader feel like he’s there in the thick of it and you’ve written well and won a supporter of your writing.

    I think the ‘style’ (“the summation of ‘how’ a story is presented) cannot be separated from the basics of writing: diction, rhythm, voice, grammar, syntax, etc. The two are inseparable and influence each other. That suggests that there is no writer who writes in a ‘transparent style’ (I take this to mean that there is no detectable style in the writing). Even prosaic prose is a style in itself, albeit a rather repugnant one. I think another corollary would be that a good writer is in fact a good story teller, holding the attention of the reader and drawing him in, in a way that only the writer can do because of his style.

    Not so sure that story trumps all in fiction. For me, I would rather read a so-so story in a prose that draws me imaginatively in, than a breath-taking story in a prose that keeps me standing on the outside trying to find a way in.

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