“Style is to forget all styles.”—Jules Renard
You need to find your own style – your own voice or distinctive way of writing – but this will develop naturally, over time. It is not something you need to fret over and it will come with practice.
But here are some fundamental dos and don’ts when it comes to style. Apologies if some of these basic rules are obvious to you, but they are important and so it’s worth being reminded of every one of them.
– Do not mix your tenses within a passage.
– Do not use clichés – it’s lazy. Using unoriginal overused phrases is off-putting for readers, think of your own expressions or descriptions instead.
– Don’t overuse similes or metaphors.
– Don’t be overly descriptive – too many adjectives will swamp the plot!
– Don’t use descriptive words only found in dictionaries. Being a novelist doesn’t mean showing of your wide knowledge of the English language. Keep it (mostly) simple or no-one will understand what you’ve written!
– Don’t be repetitive – with your vocabulary, with your description or with your action. This seems sloppy and can jar with the reader if it interrupts the flow of your prose.
– Don’t overuse jargon. Some professions you write about will require a certain level of jargon to remain authentic, but you can’t assume that your readers will have any background knowledge of this field. What’s more, explaining this jargon is exhausting for both you and the reader and can bog down the story in detail. Sometimes its best to just leave it out.
– Don’t use exposition. This is when you tell your readers exactly what is going on in a an obvious manner. There are more creative ways to convey information (More on this below)
– Don’t overuse or unnecessarily use slang or swearing.
– Don’t over punctuate – especially with exclamation marks!!!
“Resist the temptation to try to use dazzling style to conceal weakness of substance.”-Stanley Schmidt
– Be concise in everything you write. Too many words spoil the reading experience.
– Be clear in your writing so the reader so they can follow the story and understand why events happen.
– Ensure the subject and verb in your sentences agree. They should either both be singular or both be plural. If in doubt, ask your writing group or a literary friend.
– Use description to enhance the key parts story and bring it to life. Too much description is tedious but leave the reader with not enough and they can’t visualise your characters, backdrop or action.
– Stick to one particular perspective and tense throughout your novel. If you have to switch at all only do it within certain contained chapters – never within a chapter, it’s too confusing.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass”
It is also known as lazy writing! You’ll recognise exposition when you feel like you are giving the reader a history lesson, rather than telling them a story.
Authors use it – either by accident, or because they can’t think of another way – to write backstory, historical context, or prior plot events in a way the reader will pick up on. What you need to remember is you are more skilled than that, and the reader is cleverer than you think. They like mystery and looking for clues, and will be disappointed if they aren’t left to think for themselves a bit.
The key is to give the reader the right snippets of information at the right time. They only need to understand what’s happening in the moment they are reading. If your novel is set in another place or time, you can allude to this through events and actions which take place, without literally telling your reader: “You are here.” Hint at a past (or a future) through innocuous comments and settings. If you have a particularly complex backstory to explain, you could employ the age-old technique of volunteering one character to ask the ‘dumb’ questions on the audience’s behalf. Aldous Huxley uses ‘the Savage’ as a conduit for exposition in the dystopian environs of Brave New World.
““Isn’t there something in living dangerously?’
There’s a great deal in it,’ the Controller replied. ‘Men and women must have their adrenals stimulated from time to time.’
What?’ questioned the Savage, uncomprehending.
It’s one of the conditions of perfect health. That’s why we’ve made the V.P.S. treatments compulsory.’
Violent Passion Surrogate. Regularly once a month. We flood the whole system with adrenin. It’s the complete physiological equivalent of fear and rage. All the tonic effects of murdering Desdemona and being murdered by Othello, without any of the inconvenience.’
But I like the inconveniences.’
We don’t,’ said the Controller. ‘We prefer to do things comfortably.’”
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
You obviously need to explain some things – especially in a completely new world – but simply swamping the reader with details (known as an ‘information dump’) is boring and wading through dense narrative, void of personality, makes tough reading.
It is more engaging, and realistic, to “show not tell.” If you need to explain something, convey the information via the actions of a character or the events happening in that scene. For example it is more exciting to discover a map rather than be told where the treasure is, or to find a diary revealing a secret rather than be told by another gossiping character.
You can use dialogue to impart information BUT don’t have the protagonist sit down and have a heart-to-heart about his feelings, or tell a story about his childhood, or have them tell another character something that character would already know (just to bring the reader up to speed). Just drip-feed the facts – via actions wherever possible – and the reader will put them together.
For example, rather than using the dialogue – “I’m broke” you could use any one, or a combination of these actions:
– The character’s credit card is declined at a counter.
– They steal food.
– They get an overdraft notice or loan refusal from their bank.
– They turn down going out with friends.
– They look jealously at someone spending money.
See what a difference that makes? It’s much more interesting and engaging if an action shows the reader a situation rather than telling them.
Telling us that Hannibal Lecter is dangerous and has killed in the past is one thing – but putting him in a specially made Perspex cell and putting a mask over his mouth when he’s being transferred so that he can’t bite people is much more compelling. Silence of The Lambs illustrates the character brilliantly without him, or other characters, having to tell us how chilling and intriguing he is.
WRITING EXERCISE – Practise “Showing”
Select character traits or points of information exposition in your story.
How can each of these be shown to the audience?
Try to conjure up several shows for each element, and then select the strongest.
Create an ‘out there’ show which pushes the envelope and surprises both yourself and the audience – is this too over the top or have you created a memorable moment?
“Once upon a time there was a small girl called Little Red Riding Hood. She lived with her parents beside a deep, dark forest.”
– Little Red Riding Hood, Charles Perrault
It is important to consider who is going to tell your story. The viewpoint you choose will have a big impact on the reading experience. Often your novel will lend itself to a particular style, but it is worth thinking through your options. When it comes to perspective in novel-writing, you have four choices:
1) First person – told from the narrator’s perspective (which is often the main character, but not always), using the viewpoint of “I” and “we”. This allows the reader to get to know the inner thoughts of the person, but limits the known feelings of others in the story. It is a subjective view of everything that unfolds, and therefore it can be unreliable.
2) Second person – told from the reader’s perspective of “you.” Do NOT use this when writing a novel, it is best utilised in poetry or songs.
3) Third person limited – one character’s thoughts and actions are told at a time, using “he,” “she,” “it,” and “they.” This is the most commonly used perspective, allowing you to move between the characters and convey all emotions and actions equally. Your viewpoint is “limited” to what the focal character/s knows or feels at that given moment of the plot.
4) Third person omniscient – an all-seeing, all-knowing narrator, who is like a character in itself (but not a written one), who tells the thoughts and actions of everyone. They know everything there is to know, past and present, of all the characters so have very different insight.
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” – Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
In a character-driven novel, the first person narrative is an instantaneous and effective means of introduction. Not only are you positioning you protagonist front and center of the story, you are also inviting your readers into their psyche and forging a relationship which will (hopefully) last for the duration of the novel.
Multiple first-person perspectives can offer you a fun opportunity to play with style and dialogue, as well as delving deep into the minds and motivations of your supporting characters and villains.
The only limitation is your imagination, but there are a few considerations to take into account when you are writing in the first person:
– If you have created a really exciting character whose personality and viewpoint is key to the story then writing in the first person allows you maximize their traits and the reader will feel the world around them as they do.
– As the narrator, the protagonist’s voice must be distinctive enough to carry out the task of telling the whole story – very amusing or intensely creepy, for example. You must consider their style.
– They also have to be likeable (or fascinating if they are a “baddie”) otherwise the reader won’t want to stick with them throughout the book.
– Using the first person from a secondary character’s viewpoint can be very effective so don’t automatically opt for the main character. If Sherlock Holmes weren’t from Watson’s perspective, or The Great Gatsby told through the eyes of Nick Carraway, they would have been very different stories.
– You can obviously never kill off this character, or you are left without anyone telling us how the story ends.
– You story will be inherently biased. The narrating character is all the reader has to rely on to know what’s going on, so make sure the other characters are well-written enough to convey what you can of “the other side.”
– You can’t write about what is happening anywhere else, except where your narrating character is (and what they are witnessing at that location), which could be a difficulty for some stories.
– You won’t be able to describe your narrator’s physical appearance. How the other characters react to him / her will allow the reader to create this image in their mind.
– Your character can have a hidden agenda – maybe his viewpoint is not all it seems. If this is the case, then make sure you drip feed clues to suggest these throughout the novel, giving the reader a sense of intrigue and tension.
– Consider at what point in time the story is being told by the narrator in relation to when the events happened. If the action is present tense, or it happened last week then details are crystal clear. If aspects occurred 10 years ago, would they be told differently?
– Be careful not to be repetitive when it comes to your character’s thoughts. Of course they will think or feel the same thing multiple times, but you don’t have to tell the reader more than once. Describe their opinions well the first time they are experienced and the reader will assume they stay that way until you tell them otherwise.
“The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain, he fell madly in love with him.” – Catch 22, Joseph Heller
When you write in the third person tense, you can get away with making dramatic and almost omniscient statements which directly inform the reader about your characters and their motivations. The danger here is that you may become too reliant on the narrative as a tool for characterization, and end up with a novel full of clunky, expository prose.
On the plus side, you have much more leeway to explore random sub-plots and minor characters, and you can jump backwards and forwards in time if you think it would help the narrative.
Here are a few other considerations regarding the third person narrative choice –
– The third person perspective means your narrator is a nameless, faceless voice, which is usually authoritative, so they may not have the same warmth and depth as the first person.
– You can leave some distance between the events unfolding and the feelings of the characters, allowing the reader to use their imagination a bit. Readers don’t need to know every single thought of every single character.
– Without a first person perspective, the reader has to figure out the motivations and decisions of the characters via the action and dialogue, so make sure these are well-written enough to do this job.
– You can flick around between the characters viewpoints which means you can describe how everyone is feeling in a scenario and about each other e.g. the captor and the captive; the husband and the wife. Any argument has two sides revealed, with the reader able to choose between them.
– For a first novel it is best to use a maximum of four characters’ viewpoints or things can get too complicated.
– If you are using multiple perspectives, make sure you write from the viewpoint of whoever is the most important in that particular scene. Stick with them until the end of the scene or until the action makes it necessary to change viewpoint. If you flit about too often the reader will end up irritated and unable to identify with any of your characters.
– Your characters must be distinctive enough (in their views, their tone, their reactions) that the reader knows instantly when you have switched to a new perspective.