Style in fiction is the distinctive music created by the way an author handles words. Many readers put Style last on their list of things to notice when reading a fictional narrative. But that’s a mistake, in my view, because when reading literature, HOW something is said is just as important as WHAT is said. Style in fiction is more than just decoration. Indeed, relishing a great writer’s style is one of the finest pleasures of reading, since it is through a writer’s style that we are brought into direct communication with that writer’s mind and personality, with his or her unique way of seeing the world. Even more, through great style, readers are set awash in a distinctive kind of beauty that flows from the sound and sense of language well-handled.
What is Style?
Technically, STYLE refers to any elements of writing that create an author’s writerly personality, that author’s unique writing voice, regardless of what he or she is writing about. Style is something different from plot, characters, conflict, scene, symbol, or theme. Style has more to do with the type of language writers choose, with the rhythms and length and construction of their sentences, and with the way they handle imagery and figures of speech.
Style Makes It Literature
It is Style more than any other element of fiction that defines a piece of writing as “literature.” That’s because, as linguists tell us, literary texts use certain kinds of words and grammatical structures more than other types of writing do. For one thing, literature features “foregrounding” in the way it is written. Foregrounding refers to any way of writing something that calls attention to HOW something is said, not just to WHAT is said. Foregrounding includes such devices as using an unusual word order, very rhythmic sentences, parallel structures, a unique or vivid vocabulary, and figures of speech.
Exploring Style: Start Here
Because Style is one of Fiction’s most overlooked, yet most important, elements, I am beginning my series of posts on “How to Read Fiction” here. Let’s begin our exploration of Style with these three brief passages from famous works written by three American authors.
Take a minute to read Passages A, B, and C, below. What is different about each one? I don’t mean what’s different about the subject matter or themes. Instead, take a minute to notice how each one is written differently:
A. “She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him.”
B. “The fiesta was really started. It kept up day and night for seven days. The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on. The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences.”
C. “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.”
In Passage A, we encounter the famous complex, winding, layered style of one of my personal favorite authors, Henry James, published in Wings of the Dove in 1902. The ending of a Jamesian sentence seems always to be put off forever, as if the writer enjoys interrupting himself to avoid finishing. This style conveys a sense of slow consideration of rich detail, with plenty of time for readers to take in all the information, actions, and mental processes of the character, all jammed between the sentence’s first capital letter and its long-delayed period.
As for Passage B, how different in style! Short punchy simple sentences, repeated words and grammatical structures, few adjectives or subordinate clauses convey a sense of stolidity, accuracy, simplicity, and strength—a very different rhythm for a reader’s ear from James’s long-spun, halting music. Only Ernest Hemingway could have written this passage from The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926.
Finally, Passage C is the famous first line of John Updike’s wonderful 1961 short story “A & P.” In this sample sentence, Updike is using his main character Sammy to narrate the tale and is speaking in his voice. The rhythmic style of the passage tells us as much about the character and the era as the definitions of the words do. Catching our ear with colloquial irreverence but also adolescent wonder, we hear the unmistakable voice of a young man who is a good observer with a great story to tell.
Cheap or Excellent Wine? You Can Choose
If, as a reader, all you want is to plunge madly into a fiction, racing to uncover and consume character, conflict, and plot until you gulp down the resolution, there are many, many books with a flat and simple style that can provide you an enjoyable read. Deft writers can craft fresh characters, design interesting plots, choose interesting settings, and so on, all while using an indistinct, common, clichéd, or even an awkward, graceless writing style.
However, guzzling Boone’s Farm and Two Buck Chuck is one thing, while sipping and savoring Chateau Margaux is another. Want to try a little more of the really good stuff? Let’s explore a little further among great writers known for complex and wonderful styles.
Excellent Style: A Little Casebook
In his day, Charles Dickens was attacked by some critics for his unlearned (non-private-school educated) style. To my ear, however, and to many others from his day down to ours, Dickens is a word master. His writing is rhythmic, strong, warm, vivid, and sweetly personable. Consider, for example, the opening paragraph of his own favorite novel (and one of mine), David Copperfield:
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously. –from David Copperfield
How often has Dickens’s following paragraph, the opening of The Tale of Two Cities, been quoted? People value it not just as an introduction to an interesting novel, but for the lyrical and powerful expression of a theme: confusion, violence, and radical change throughout an entire historical era:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. –from Tale of Two Cities
Quite a few years later, we come to one of Dickens’s well-known countrywomen. Virginia Woolf is famous for her glimmering, ever-shifting style that piles fragments upon phrases while she follows the inner stream of consciousness of her characters. This quotation is from the opening paragraph in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, wherein 53- year-old Clarissa Dalloway steps out of her front door on a beautiful June morning and begins to remember stepping out of her father’s house, Bourton, one morning way back when she was 18:
What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among the vegetables?”–was that it?–“I prefer men to cauliflowers”–was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace–Peter Walsh. –from Mrs. Dalloway
Closer to our own time, we find the incomparable, thrilling, ear-tingling breakneck style of Vladimir Nabokov, poured out through the mouth of his famously questionable character Humbert Humbert, pedant, pedophile, and protagonist of the novel Lolita, published in 1955:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. –from Lolita
Going back in time a little to American writer Stephen Crane, here is a powerful impressionistic description of a violent fist fight held in the middle of a wild snowstorm, taken from the naturalistic tale “The Blue Hotel,” 1898:
For a time the encounter in the darkness was such a perplexity of flying arms that it presented no more detail than would a swiftly-revolving wheel. Occasionally a face, as if illumined by a flash of light, would shine out, ghastly and marked with pink spots. A moment later, the men might have been known as shadows, if it were not for the involuntary utterance of oaths that came from them in whispers.
–from “The Blue Hotel”
You Saw the Movie; Here’s Why You Should Read the Book
Finally, in this little casebook of great and distinctive writing style, let’s look at one of my favorite passages from a book most of us have read, or at least seen in one of the movie versions: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, published in 1925. If you know the story only from film, I hope this passage will give an inkling of what you may have missed by not reading the book. As thoughtful and powerful as Fitzgerald’s characters, themes, and story lines are, it’s his lyrical dream-like yet subtly satiric style that puts him in my book of truly first-class writers.
In this passage near the beginning of Gatsby, Nick Carraway, the narrator, is paying his first visit to his rich cousin Daisy Buchanan. Here he records his impression of Daisy and her friend Jordan sitting on a sofa in a room swept by a breeze coming in from the window:
The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor. –from The Great Gatsby
Nick’s observations are beautifully, lyrically described. But also, as Fitzgerald portrays that sudden closing of the window, which makes all the floating fabrics deflate, he captures through his style one major theme of the book: Nick’s coming disillusion with these shallow rich folk. At first, Nick is captivated and baffled by their seeming magic, but before the book ends, his illusions about these people will evaporate, just as the curtains sink to the floor when Tom Buchanan slams down the window. Fitzgerald’s remarkable style conveys Nick’s momentary fascination but also embeds a subtle, wry irony that undercuts it, especially when readers come across those startling, unexpected words, “Then there was a boom. . . and the caught wind died out about the room. . ..”
Glancing back at this collection of passages from different authors, it’s very easy to see—and hear—how unique is each writer’s distinctive voice. And yet we have toured just a tiny sample of the many and various stylistic riches to be found among classic fiction written in English. But I hope it’s enough to make clear one of the main reasons I take such pleasure in reading the Classics, most of which feature captivating, distinct, aesthetically crafted writing styles.
A Pause for a Personal Confession
Here might be a good place for me to pause to make a little confession. Although I do occasionally read contemporary bestselling fiction, I find it really, really difficult to do. The characters may be vivid, the plot engaging, even the themes worthwhile, but when the writing style is flat, unvaried, common, unoriginal, or graceless, the reading experience, for me, is similarly flat.
Let’s look at some brief passages from a few bestsellers from the last 20 years so I can show you what I mean.
I’ll start with an older one, Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, published in 2000. Brown may be able to construct a page-turning thriller because of his intriguing topic, clever plotting, and swift pacing; but the choppy, insipid, trite writing in this novel proved a real barrier to my getting through the book. This short passage from Chapter 1 will illustrate:
The incoming fax lay in the tray. Sighing, he scooped up the paper and looked at it. Instantly, a wave of nausea hit him. The image on the page was that of a human corpse. The body had been stripped naked, and its head had been twisted, facing completely backward. On the victim’s chest was a terrible burn. The man had been branded . . . imprinted with a single word. It was a word Langdon knew well. Very well. He stared at the ornate lettering in disbelief. “Illuminati,” he stammered, his heart pounding. It can’t be . . . In slow motion, afraid of what he was about to witness, Langdon rotated the fax 180 degrees. He looked at the word upside down.
Instantly, the breath went out of him. It was like he had been hit by a truck. Barely able to believe his eyes, he rotated the fax again, reading the brand right-side up and then upside down. “Illuminati,” he whispered. Stunned, Langdon collapsed in a chair. He sat a moment in utter bewilderment. Gradually, his eyes were drawn to the blinking red light on his fax machine. –from Angels and Demons
The plot of this book beckons, I guess, but I feel weighed down here in a sludge of continuous cliché: “Stared. . . in disbelief”; “in slow motion. . .”; “his heart pounding”; “like he had been hit by a truck”; “stunned, Langdon collapsed”; “he sat a moment in utter bewilderment.” Really? These phrases could be plucked from any of a thousand fake-sounding fictional scenes. It takes all the lurid interest of a branded, backward-headed corpse and the single magic word “Illuminati” to draw me forward from here.
Moving forward in time a little, let’s look at a little passage from a bestseller from 2012, Gone Girl: A Novel by Gillian Flynn. From early in the book:
Finally, finally, finally I pulled myself out of bed with a stage-effect groan and wandered to the front of my house. I rent a small brick bungalow within a loop of other small brick bungalows, all of which squat on a massive bluff overlooking the former stockyards of Kansas City. Kansas City, Missouri, not Kansas City, Kansas. There’s a difference.
My neighborhood doesn’t even have a name, it’s so forgotten. It’s called Over There That Way. A weird, subprime area, full of dead ends and dog crap. –from Gone Girl
The book has a clever plot and psychologically interesting characters, which did keep me reading. In addition, this passage is not as trite as the one from Brown’s novel. There is some smart-aleck sarcasm, and efficient establishment of the character’s situation and personality. But the writing is flat and unrhythmic, without a sense of belonging to any particular person. And do we really have to hear this woman groan getting out of bed in the morning? This wannabe bad-girl style pales in comparison with Updike’s single perfectly-tuned opening line from Sammy, the soon-to-be rebellious teenager: “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.”
Closer to current time, here’s a little excerpt from Marcia Clark’s legal thriller Moral Defense, 2016, in which she renders the voice of another tough girl, defense lawyer Samantha Brinkman. In this passage, Samantha is finishing up her appearance on a TV program where she debates current legal cases:
Sheri [the show’s announcer] interrupted. “Sorry, folks, my producer tells me that’s all we have time for tonight. Samantha Brinkman, Lonnie Miston, thank you for joining us. To all of our watchers, join us again tomorrow on Crime Time, when we’ll talk to the former FBI agent who’s blowing the whistle on this case.”
I pulled out my earpiece and unclipped the little microphone on my lapel. The guy wasn’t my client, but his predicament really did piss me off. The FBI had used him up and then spit him out. And now, although he’d been a model prisoner for the past eight years, he couldn’t get paroled because one of the scumbags he’d helped the FBI take down had cronies in high places.
–from Moral Defense
I did read this book all the way through and found it entertaining, but had to ignore the choppy, undistinguished sentences and continual waves of cliché to keep moving forward: “used him up and spit him out”; “scumbags”; “cronies in high places”? Aargh, enough.
More Dull, Flat Contemporary Style. . .
Sadly, not even Pulitzer Prize winners can be relied on to produce an interesting, distinctive, or elegant style. Many recent winners sound to me a lot like the dull style of all the other recent bestsellers. Take Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel, published in 2012. Here is a paragraph from Chapter 1. Read this, then look back at any of the examples of amazing style above, and compare:
Jun Do’s mother was a singer. That was all Jun Do’s father, the Orphan Master, would say about her. The Orphan Master kept a photograph of a woman in his small room at Long Tomorrows. She was quite lovely—eyes large and sideways looking, lips pursed with an unspoken word. Since beautiful women in the provinces get shipped to Pyongyang, that’s certainly what had happened to his mother. The real proof of this was the Orphan Master himself. At night, he’d drink, and from the barracks, the orphans would hear him weeping and lamenting, striking half-heard bargains with the woman in the photograph. –from The Orphan Master’s Son
While not rife with cliché like the other recent passages we have seen, this writing AS writing offers nothing distinctive, memorable, or beautiful. The sentences are short and choppy, the vocabulary dull (“lovely”; “eyes large”; “At night, he’d drink. . ..”)
Put this simplistic passage next to “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show,” or “A moment later, the men might have been known as shadows, if it were not for the involuntary utterance of oaths that came from them in whispers”; or “They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house.”
Begin to Tune Your Reading Ear to Excellence: You Will Be Rewarded
Can you begin to hear and experience the difference between undistinguished writing and the examples of masterful prose from great fiction? If so, you are on your way to experiencing, appreciating, and enjoying a treasure trove of great fiction at a whole new level. My wish for every reader is that you look forward to and experience nothing less.
Baroque Interior of Rokoko Festsaal-Schaezlerpalais. By Adam Jones (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.
Henry James Portrait. By John Singer Sargent (died 1925) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Original illustration from Tale of Two Cities. By Hablot Knight Browne, Phiz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Virginia Woolf in 1927. See page for author [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Angels and Demons photo. By Sami Mlouhi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.
Modern Building. Two Lecture Halls at University of Sussex. By Joolz, 2005 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.