Style is the element that “happens” once you the author begin to make choices about how you employ linguistics. Linguistics is defined as “the science of language, including phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics.” (www.dictionary.com ) In short, the words you select and how you arrange them in sentence structures will be two of the first tools you’ll use as you develop style. For this column, we’ll look at style in terms of words and sentences only. We will leave other literary devices for the next series.
Many authors have a style that distinguishes their work from that of their fellow writers. Ernest Hemingway is a well-known American writer noted for his use of simple words in sentences that tell his stories in a straightforward manner. This does not mean his writing is simplistic. His skillful employment of symbolism and imagery with little use of adjectives and modifiers are just two of the literary tools that add complexity and depth to his “simple stories.” His style most likely evolved out of his background as a journalist, where writing is pared down to just the essential facts. Look at the following excerpt from the beginning of The Old Man and the Sea.
The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The
brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on
the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face
and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on cords. But
none of these scars were as old as the erosions in a fishless desert.
The words Hemingway used to describe the main character are sparse and direct as well as the sentence structures he chose. Yet, the result is a clear visual in the readers’ minds of what the Old Man looked like.
A more elaborate and descriptive type of prose distinguishes William Faulkner, another well-known American writer. Look at this one sentence from Absalom, Absalom!
There was a wisteria vine blooming for the second time that summer on a wooden
trellis before one window, into which sparrows came now and then in random
gusts, making a dry vivid dusty sound before going away: and opposite Quentin,
Miss Coldfield in the eternal black which she had worn for forty-three years now,
whether for sister, father, or nothusband none knew, sitting so bolt upright in
the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid
as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like children’s feet, and talking in that grim haggard amazed voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation evoked, quiet inattentive and harmless, out of biding and dreamy and victorious dust.
Notice how Faulkner uses more descriptive words followed by detailed descriptive phrases. While this sentence is extreme, it illustrates the complexity of his sentence structures.
I chose these two particular examples to illustrate polar opposite styles,
emphasizing that neither one is right, or necessarily better. Hemingway and Faulkner achieved popularity and have continued to add new readers, and both attained their readerships through people who prefer a particular style.
There are many other linguistics components that comprise style. For our purpose in this series, I want you to think of style as it pertains to your Writer Within. When I first began submitting stories, I received several returned manuscripts from editors with the sentiment, “You are a good writer and I like your story. Your writing, however, is too quiet for our purposes.” I loved the part about being a good writer with a good story, but what did the editor mean by “quiet?” I came to realize that this was part of my style. It’s sometimes difficult to cull out exactly what it is that makes style. A bit of advice: when a publication has in its guidelines, “study a few of our back issues before submitting your work,” the editors are not trying to drum up sales for their publications. What they are saying is we have an audience that prefers a particular style. Genre may be irrelevant. What is relevant is how the author makes use of language and literary tools.
In columns eight and nine, we will examine what we have learned about the fiction foundation and how it applies specifically to “The Filtered Life” and “The Answer Is . . .”
Step Seven: Using the story you selected at the beginning this series, describe your style. Cite specific examples.
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