The Dance of Style and Content

For each new story, a writer must make a slew of stylistic choices. What’s the literary perspective? Should the language be in low or high diction? How will I show internal monologue? All too many writers assume these choice are arbitrary, yet a seasoned author will tell you that these decisions are hardly choices at all.

The writing style of any narrative should be dictated by the content therein. It’s rare indeed to read a story set in the old west that utilizes high, Elizabethan diction, or a enlightenment novella written with hurried pace. These choices aren’t meant to be constraints – just because something is not usually done a certain way doesn’t mean it cannot be reimagined in new fashion – yet you should never make a stylistic choice without justification taken from the content or theme of your story. Too many writers think their style ought port with them from piece to piece, that everything they write should be recognizably them; however, just because an painter’s favorite color is blue doesn’t mean he will always paint the sea, and just because you feel comfortable in one literary style doesn’t mean you should write every narrative with the same language, tone, and perspective.

So how do you dance the waltz of style and content? Some writers do it naturally, without even giving it a second thought, but for the rest of us those decisions can be stressful. Typically, I find these are easier issues to tackle if you take each element of style individually.

Sentence & Paragraph Structure
The structure or rhythm of your writing can be broken down into two levels: the sentence and the paragraph. How do you build your sentences? Do they tend to be simple, or do you consistently make use of more elaborate compound and complex sentences? Keep in mind that punctuation can function as a tool to break the fluidity of a narrative and add emphasis to certain ideas, but excessive punctuation creates a start-and-stop feel that can make it difficult for a reader to immerse themselves in the story.

How about your paragraph structure? When do you start a new paragraph? Longer paragraphs give the impression of weight and substance, but studies have proven that a reader’s attention tends to drift after so many words. Think of a paragraph break like a long breath — the lack of air might build tension, but be careful you don’t asphyxiate your readers.

This goes hand in hand with structure and rhythm, yet accounts for content rather than format. How quickly does your plot progress on a line by line level? How much time do you spend on description vs. action? An emphasis on setting and atmosphere that predominates plot movement or dialogue can slow a scene to the point of almost non-movement. This can be useful in many cases – like when trying to build tension, stretch time, or belay the mental state of your narrator – butif you aren’t careful, this style of language can make a book seem boring, especially if you stretch out an already actionless scene. Similarly, the way in which you manage pacing should be dependent not only on the content of your story, but on your literary perspective. A first person narrative often calls for a great deal more introspection that you won’t see from a third person point of view, while a third person narrative can pay more attention to minute details of setting that your character might not notice in first person.

Word choice is key to the tone and flow of a story, yet the style of diction will predetermine the breadth of available vocabulary. Typically, you’ll find there are upwards of 6 types of diction. “High diction” (or “formal diction”) might be better described as classical diction; it’s the sort of language you might expect in older novels like Pride and Prejudice or The Scarlet Letter. Instead of writing “because”, you might use “thus”, or rather than “me” you’d write “myself.” Alternatively, “low diction” (or “informal diction”) is much more modern, allowing for words such as “guy”, “chow”, or “hang-out”. “Concrete diction” is precise and allows little sway from the picture you want to build. In this style, the writer will give descriptions of physical places or objects in a way so that there is no discrepancy between the place the writer intends the scene to happen and the place wherein the reader imagines it to happen. Alternatively, “abstract diction” veers in the opposite direction, abstaining from too much physical description so the reader can create their own interpretation and emotional response. “Colloquial diction” is closely related to “slang” diction”–both cover word choice that may not be classically accurate, but is an accepted part of the common tongue. Examples of diction in these groups might be “dude”, “gig”, or “ya’know”. Lastly, “jargon” is considered to be diction that stems from a particular profession or trade. Medical jargon, for example, will use words like “cardiac arrest” rather than “heart attack” or “epidermis” rather than “skin”. When unfamiliar jargon is used in commercial media, it’s common for the author to allow either a situation or character to describe the words being used so that the readers don’t become lost. In the show The Big Bang Theory, for example, Sheldon might reference Schrodinger’s Cat and then explain the reference to Penny – his non-scientist neighbor. In doing so, the writers give the necessary information to their viewers without veering from character consistency.

Even within a style of diction, different stories may call for different breadths of vocabulary. A great example of this distinction can be found in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Though classically written, the characters are not well educated, so their vocabulary – though formal – doesn’t cover the breadth of language that you might see in a novel like The Picture of Dorian Gray. Most often, the vocabulary of your story should be dictated by the narrator, and beyond that your main characters, but as always, there are exceptions to every rule.

Figures of Speech
Does your writing employ metaphor, simile, personification, hyperbole, onomatopoeia, or any other figurative language? Typically, a critical reader will look to find these tools in every story, but the use, choice, and frequency is entirely dependent on what the story and characters demand. To better understand these figures of speech, it’s best to split them into two categories: phonic and visual. Alliteration and onomatopoeia fall into the former group; that is, they describe content by means of sound and comparative pronunciation. Most other figures of speech – simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, idiom, and cliche – prompt a visual comparison in the reader’s imagination. While one grouping of tools is not necessarily better than the other, it’s worthwhile to note that visual language is typically easier-written than phonic language, and so is more common.

Another way to understand these tools is by connotative simplicity. Some figures of speech are just, for whatever reason, seen as being artless and less thorough. Onomatopoeia, for instance, can often bring with it a “comic book” tone that may not fit with the cadence of your narrative. Similarly, some interpret similes as being heavy-handed. Keep these sorts of unintended nuances in mind while writing, because with or without your awareness, they will work to characterize your narrator and color your story.

Use of Dialogue
Dialogue is a largely underappreciated stylistic tool in the modern writing scene. How and when you use dialogue can determine the entire flow of your story. Do your characters talk in formal or slang diction? Do their words seem natural or forced? Do your readers see the entirety of their conversations, or do you tantalize them with snippets and flashbacks? Does your dialogue properly convey undertone and subscriptual meaning? How often is it used? Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is almost entirely written as extended dialogue, with only one or two hundred words of second person narration. How do you punctuate dialogue? In All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy chooses not to punctuate or differentiate dialogue from the rest of his writing at all, which creates a feel of lawless motion – a stylistic choice that jives well with the overall theme of the novel. Whatever your choices, keep in mind that the more uncommon a technique is, the more chance it can be misused or misinterpreted, so more precise artistry is required.

Literary Perspective
One of the most apparent stylistic choices a writer will face – and often one of the earliest that needs be determined – is the point of view, or literary perspective, that the story will be told from. Thankfully, this choice also tends to be one of the easiest since the effect of it is usually pretty clear. A first person narration allows for much greater introspection and a contained view of events, yet limits the insight into secondary characters and extra-narrative developments. Third person narration, on the other hand, has a far wider breadth of field, yet can intrude upon the empathetic connection between character and reader. Though rarely used in English fiction, the second person perspective – wherein the main character is addressed with second-person pronouns such as “you” – can give a unique viewpoint from which the reader becomes, in a sense, the main character of a story.

As said, this choice can be simple, yet there are nuances of the stylistic element that can, if explored, be both complex and versatile. For example, these perspectives are almost always anchored to a specific character, yet many novels will shift that anchor from character to character as the story progresses to allow for more viewpoints – more camera angles – from which to experience the plot. In some other narratives, the perspective can actually change from first to third person and back again, allowing for diverse views into the self-visualization of the characters.

Character Development
At first glance, many believe character progression to be separate from style, yet the ways in which characters are introduced, evolve, and function have an enormous impact on the tone and theme of a story. Do your characters develop naturally, or are they pulled through a gambit of trials by fire and force? Is their evolution explicit or subtextual? How are they motivated; how do you introduce those motivations? Even more important are the ways in which they’re characterized. Are they static or dynamic (do they stay the same throughout the story, or do they change as the plot develops)? Do you employ original characteristics, or do you write them as stereotypes, caricatures, or stock characters? Even unoriginality has its place, especially in stories involving satire or symbolism.

For the most part, the use of tone speaks for itself. It dictates the attitude of the narrator, the mood of the story, and the subtextual color of your writing. Sarcasm, rage, desire, sorrow, love, apathy, hope, irony, pessimism, each or all of these ideas can and should be created and sustained by means of tone. How, though, do you dictate tone? There are many methods, and the ways in which you utilize them should be determinate on the narrator and theme. Certain words, sometimes called “tone words”, can connote emotions beyond their strict definition. For example, “murky” carries with it a sense of darkness and tension that you don’t see in the synonyms “muddy” or “misty”, even though their dictionary definitions are almost identical. Another way to set tone lies in the structure of sentences. Short clauses, especially in a first person narrative, can show agitation, fear, or even anger. Meanwhile, longer phrases carry with them a sense of comfort and security.

Word Texture
This element overlaps heavily with phonic figures of speech. Alliteration, assonance, consonance, dissonance, rhythm, and other such techniques can create a fluid narrative as beautiful to read aloud as silently. You find these tools most often used in poetry, but the incorporation of poetic language into prose can create a uniquely textured story–one reminiscent of novels like Cormac McCarthy’s Outer Dark.

And stepping softly with her air of blooded ruin about the glade in a frail agony of grace she trailed her rags through dust and ashes, circling the fire, the charred billets and chalk bones, the calcined ribcage.

It’s likely that most of the novels you’re familiar with utilize a fairly linear chronology; that is, the progression of events is narrated in the order that it actually happened. However, some of the most intricate storytelling is done via bilineal, or even incidental, chronology. See Gravity Dreams by L.E. Modesitt Jr.; within, the author jumps between past and future events, eventually bringing both timelines together so that each resolves themes within the other. These rarer forms of plot progression allow for a higher complexity of ideas and a much more sophisticated arc of character development, yet it can be difficult to juggle several narratives at once. Before deciding on such a design, be sure that the effect is in line with your content and theme.

The reference of extra-narrative texts, myths, symbols, or other commonly recognized material can be one of the most powerful tools at your disposal, yet the wrong allusion can just as easily corrupt your scene to the reader. Before employing this sort of technique, always ensure historical accuracy – don’t reference a song by Freddie Mercury in a story set in 1963 – and situational accuracy – an illiterate character is unlikely to be familiar with a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson – and be sure that the connotation for your allusion is in line with your narrative intent. Opinions differ, and you may find that your agnostic readers find a different implication from your biblical allusion than you intended. On the same note, the views of many popular ideas can, and have, changed drastically over time. Be aware that what seems like a good allusion today may not fit quite as well in five or ten years.

Whether subtle or explicit, by revealing to your readers events that have yet to happen, you introduce an aspect of inescapable certainty and either tension or hope. As a tool, foreshadowing is incredibly powerful, but as such it should usually be used with a light hand. Again, this is a general rule and should sometimes be broken.

Furthermore, the way in which you narrate foreshadowing can have a huge stylistic effect, and should be derived from theme and content. Outright proclamations of future events often feel more certain to the reader and tend to stay fresh in the mind. Other techniques, such as projective symbolism, may suggest on a conscious, or even subconscious, level the events to come, yet are more often used to build general tension than excite concrete emotions of hope or despair.

As an element of style, symbolism as a concept is fairly straightforward, yet the diversity of its use makes it complex and difficult to master. The ways in which you introduce or establish symbolism, the connotation of the symbols themselves, the ability therein to set tone, foreshadow choices and events, prescribe subtextual characteristics, and influence the reader’s opinion – all of these aspects must be considered thoughtfully before employing the technique.

When choosing a symbol in my own work, I sometimes find it useful to look through a dream dictionary. In many cases, the definitions therein are derived from commonly understood associations, and so function well as literary symbols.

By using words and phrases that appeal to the five senses, a writer can create a mental picture in the mind of the reader. While most consider visual imagery to have the most immediate effect, strong, multi-sensual imagery can invoke emotional, or even physical, responses. Keep in mind that these responses will dictate how your readers experience the story, and so should be placed with care. Be sure your content deserves the response your imagery invokes, or you’ll desensitize your audience – the boy-who-cried-wolf effect in action.

Experimental Language Techniques
Innovative or experimental style is almost always a gamble. Success stories are easy to find – David Foster Wallace, Cormac McCarthy, John Milton – yet it’s important to keep in mind that many, many more writers have attempted innovation and disappeared into the sands of time. Therefore, make any such choices with as much discretion as possible. How will most readers react? How will publishers (most of whom are conservative in nature) react? Does the style overwhelm the content? Yes, it’s a gamble, but a calculated gamble can reap the biggest rewards.

In this category I group metaphysical writing, wherein the writer (distinct from the narrator) brings attention to himself or his writing. Thought not a new technique, it is still very much experimental, and often destroys the reader’s suspended disbelief.

Of course, determining style and writing in that style are two very different beasts. Practice! Become comfortable with a new style before beginning to write your story. Sometimes you’ll find that your abilities limit the reality of what you can create, and that’s fine. No author is born with a perfect pen. We’re all learning, we’re all growing, and as long as we keep moving forward, we will improve.

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