by Arielle K Harris
I’ve been undertaking the writing of a new novel and I thought that perhaps it would be helpful, for others as well as myself, if I wrote a series of articles on the fundamentals of storytelling as I go about the process.
A disclaimer before I go any further: I don’t profess to be any kind of writing expert, that’s not what this is about. Everything I say comes purely from my own personal experiences, my interpretations, and from sometimes wildly quoting my writing idols at length. Feel free to take everything I say with a pinch of salt, if not a heap, or quite simply ignore it altogether. Every writer writes differently.
However, let me put my feelings of imagined presumption aside. My first article is about an essential part of storytelling that often gets ignored by new writers but without it your story would fail to exist.
To explain with an example, let us consider the following of Chris’ excellent meme collection posted the other day:
|I think this is from a Tumblr post, but the land of memes is so incestuous, I'm not really sure|
What is the difference here? Each of these passages describe the exact same event but written very differently. The difference is each example’s authorial voice, its style. And that changes everything.
What followed in the comments section was quite simply amazing as many of you followed this exercise through to other writers. I admit to cackling to myself rather a lot and getting concerned looks from my dog. You’d think he’d be used to me by now. Each example you made was brilliantly accurate in capturing each writer’s voice, and this was possible because the authors quoted have a unique style that shines through even in mimicry.
This is what we’re aiming for, my dear writing comrades. This is the reason for developing your own writing style because a story is so much more than a list of plot points. Style is everything.
Let us hear some words from my personal hero Ursula Le Guin on the matter, for not only is she an excellent writer of both science fiction and fantasy but she is also a brilliant essayist and critic. From her essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” she writes:
“Many readers, many critics and most editors speak of style as if it were an ingredient of a book, like the sugar in a cake, or something added on to the book, like the frosting on the cake. The style, of course, is the book. If you remove the cake, all you have left is the recipe. If you remove the style, all you have left is a synopsis of the plot.
This is partly true of history; largely true of fiction, and absolutely true of fantasy.
In saying that the style is the book, I speak from the reader’s point of view. From the writer’s point of view, the style is the writer. Style isn’t just how you use English when you write. It isn’t a mannerism or an affectation (though it may be mannered or affected). It isn’t something you can do without, though that is what people assume when they announce that they intend to write something ‘like it is’. You can’t do without it. There is no ‘is’ without it. Style is how you as a writer see and speak. It is how you see: your vision, your understanding of the world, your voice.”
She goes on to discuss the next important thing about style: it takes time to perfect. I think I can safely say that all writers learn to write by reading, and so it follows that writers learn how to write their own style by first imitating the styles of those authors they read. Even Neil Gaiman has admitted to this, and in one particular blog post he wrote about discovering some old stories he wrote when he was a teenager. But he says of them: “there was almost nothing there that was written by me”. He could tell exactly what he had been reading at the time from reading those stories, and none of them were in what he recognized as his own style. The important thing, he noted, was that he was writing.
This is how we all learn, just as we learned language in the very first place as toddlers. Mimicry is an essential part of language acquisition, and that’s exactly what writers are doing: acquiring their own language, learning to speak their own words. It’s a long, hard process and there are no shortcuts. To begin you must simply start writing, and then keep writing. Discover what makes your view of the world unique, because it is, just as you are.
I’m still learning, and still imitating. My novel Bestial is certainly a mish-mash of various fairytale authors’ styles, but as I wrote it I began to find myself in it, too. I’ve come to discover that my own style is some strange combination of (often thesaurus-driven) serious prose with a touch of utter wackiness. I can’t help but add touches of comedy into my stories because I sometimes go to some very dark places, and without humor I don’t think I’d survive telling it. My readers may not survive reading it. This is why the climactic scene in Part 1 of Bestial, when my Beast is in the grips of self-pity, despair, and quite nearly suicidal out of loneliness, includes an exchange with a torches-and-pitchforks waving mob about a cow. A dead cow.
Now I’m in the beginning stages of writing a new novel and the very first thing I’m concerning myself with is the style of it. I know what I’m hoping to write, but I need to establish how I’m going to write it before I can proceed. A novel should tell a good story, certainly, but the plot can’t exist in a vacuum.
Further to narrative style, which is to say your authorial voice in showing your readers around the world and its events, there’s another style that needs to be considered: the style of each of your characters and their own unique voices. This is the stuff that makes writers seem like they’re suffering from multiple personality disorder, because the voices you hear your characters speaking in will be different – different from your voice and different from each other. There have been too many novels by inexperienced authors I’ve read where if I took away the character’s name tagged on to a piece of dialogue I’d have no idea who was speaking. This shouldn’t happen.
Obviously not every piece of dialogue can be wholly unique, sometimes they’ll just need to say “Yes” and that’s that. But even then maybe your character says “Yeah” rather than “Yes” because they abhor formality. Maybe they say “Aye” because they’re a rogue Scotsman wandering through your pages. Each character must have their own unique voice that only comes from a fully realized persona complete with motives, flaws, history, aspirations and doubts. More on that later in another article, however. For now let us suffice to say that style and voice are as crucial in dialogue and characterization as they are in narrative.
The reason I’ve made style the topic of this first article on story fundamentals is because this is the stuff you need to decide on before anything else can happen. Style affects everything, because style is the story. The style is you, writing it.
Look at the authors you idolize and identify what makes them so incredible at their craft. Read their stories with a critical eye in order to figure out exactly what about their style is unique to them, and then try to imagine their stories without it. It’s impossible. One can’t exist without the other.
As writers we’re told that “every story has already been told, but not by you”. This couldn’t be more true. You make it different and your unique style is that difference.
Arielle K Harris is the author of the novel Bestial as well as the ridiculous steampunk time travel drama short story The Adventurous Time Adventures of Doctor When. She is responsible for one very opinionated toddler as well as a writer, poet, falconer, knitter of many half-finished scarves, drinker of tea, enthusiast for wine and sometimes has been known to have wild birds in her spare room.
She can be found online at her own website: www.ariellekharris.com as well as on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/ariellekharris/ and her published work can be found on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/author/ariellekharris