The Indie Novella Writing Course
Lesson 5 - Style & Sensitivity
This week we discuss two key subjects in writing which often go unconsidered; what we mean by style and what our style is as a writer; and how we handle the writing of certain characters or the telling of stories which may not be our own to tell. For those who are not familiar with the topic of sensitivity, consider the term 'sensitivity reader'. A sensitivity reader works alongside the publishing house to conduct a very specific read of the manuscript, and offer notes on characters from marginalised groups, or elements which may cause offence. We pair these topics together because a lot of the time they can be entwined especially as style often goes hand-in-hand with voice and whose voice you choose to represent in your novel.
In our earlier lesson we discussed at length narrative and the types and forms of narrator we might adopt to write our novel. These narrative choices are hence closely connected to what is known as style – the unique ways writers use language, syntax and structure to build a scene or world. To put this into context let’s go straight into an example. Ernest Hemingway is one of the most famous authors in literary history – a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature – and the reason is due to his unique style: simple grammar; no verbose descriptions, few adjectives and adverbs. This has sometimes been termed as hardboiled style.
Consider what we discussed in Lesson 1, “Openings”, regarding “gilding the lily” and “overwriting”. Over the years many writers have tried to mimic Hemingway’s hardboiled style to differing degrees of success. However there are no hard or fast rules when it comes to style. Yes, verbose descriptions tend to distract from the action or conflict of a novel – it can be jarring when a protagonist is in the midst of activity, or characters are being introduced, and the scene is broken up by a long description of the lake they are standing by – but some form of description is needed to set the scene. The question is how much, and how to keep this consistent with your choice of narrative and your plot.
What is Style?
In its essence, style is a writer’s unique way of telling their story. It can be the kind of words you use or how your sentences flow. At school you may have had a teacher who could tell which student’s essay they were marking just from the way they phrased their opening paragraph. The same can be said about many authors. While above we have discussed hardboiled style, the first rule of writing still very much applies to style – there are no rules.
It is sometimes said that artists must go away to find their voice. The same can be said of style. As writers all of us possess a certain individuality when it comes to prose and how we use language. Further, writing Fiction involves us writing from the point of view of someone who is not ourselves. Whether writing a first person or third person narrative, the writer has to make a conscious effort to decide how that narrative will be written and what style the writing should take – should the narrator be opinionated, should they be a neutral observer, should they be detached and matter of fact or should they embroil themselves into the story. An omniscient narrator might adapt the novel’s style for different characters, altering the style and language to match different attitudes, viewpoints or personalities. An impersonal narrator might use an unadorned style to indicate a detachment from events, but it would be plausible then to adapt the language for other characters’ speech.
As discussed in Lesson 3, we can have multiple narrators, even in first person narrative. Talking it Over by Julian Barnes tells its story through the words of three different characters each talking to an unknown person i.e. the reader. Sections are narrated in different ways by three different characters, their versions overlapping and conflicting with each other. In another of his books The Only Story, each of the three parts is written from a completely different point of view. The first is written in the first person, the second is written in the second person, and the third is written in the third person. So there are plenty of options to play with and make use of when working on a distinctive style and developing distinctive characters.
The most important thing to remember when considering style is to be consistent. In the examples above, where different narrators alternate throughout the story, each narrator is consistent to certain approaches and structures to their scenes and word us, and so the reader can be quickly immersed and easily follow each one.
You can of course have multiple narrators, as in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, in which each of three sections is narrated in different ways by three different characters, their versions overlapping and conflicting with each other, while the fourth section is told in the third person.
If you have a single narrator who is an actual participant in the story, then his or her style will prevail, except when other characters show their individuality in their way of speaking.
And then there is the use of other writing devices such as the reporter or stenographer narratives where the narrator aligns themselves to a specific character as though the character was speaking into a Dictaphone or voice recorder. Such a technique allows the narrator to purely be the medium and the style shifts from telling the reader what is in their characters’ heads to directly reciting what the character has said or done. It is a deliberate stylized technique and again Hemingway’s early short stories are a prime example – the narrator becomes invisible and the story is told first-hand without dropping into the first person.