Stretch Your Style

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Not every writer is interested in style. If they can write lean, mean plots that move, with interesting characters and a satisfying ending, that’s enough. They’d rather write fast and turn out more work than spend extra time trying to find the “right” words.

Isaac Asimov was such a writer. He purposely developed a stripped-down style so he could churn out the books. He was once asked what he would do if he found out he had just six months to live. “Type faster,” he said.

Other writers do seek to enhance their prose. One such was John D. MacDonald, considered one of the great crime writers of the 20th century. He wrote a string of paperback classics in the 1950s, and then invented an enduring series character for the 60s and beyond—Travis McGee.

He was a great plotter, but a careful stylist as well. As he himself once put it: “I want a bit of magic in the prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases really sing.”

While “unobtrusive poetry” is not necessary for a well-plotted novel, it is an elevation. It’s a fine thing to consider stretching your prose. The main proviso is that you never let the style overplay its hand. Serve the story first.

One place where prose style is most fitting is when there is a high emotional moment. Nothing is higher than a young writer dying, in the aptly titled and justifiably famous short story that made William Saroyan’s reputation, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.”

Then swiftly, neatly, with the grace of the young man on the trapeze, he was gone from his body. For an eternal moment he was all things at once: the bird, the fish, the rodent, the reptile, and man. An ocean of print undulated endlessly and darkly before him. The city burned. The herded crowd rioted. The earth circled away, and knowing that he did so, he turned his lost face to the empty sky and became dreamless, unalive, perfect.

Go ahead and stretch your prose in the safety of your own writing room. Three ideas:

  1. Read poetry

Ray Bradbury, one of our greatest unobtrusive poet-writers, read some poetry every day. “Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough,” Bradbury says in Zen in the Art of Writing. “Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition.”

  1. Write page-long sentences

As an exercise from time to time, write a run-on sentence of 250 words or so. Don’t edit yourself. Let the words take you wherever they roam!

This is a good way to add emotional depth to a scene. When you get to a point where you describe emotion, start a fresh document and write a page-long sentence of inner description. Don’t judge it; just write it.

When you’re done, look it over. Maybe you’ll use most of it in your novel. Maybe only one line. But what you’ll have is fresh and stylistically pleasing. I’m certain this is how Jack Kerouac came up with that famous passage in his novel On the Road:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

  1. Play with metaphors

Dow Mossman, author of The Stones of Summer (the subject of a documentary, The Stone Reader) says he considered each page of his massive novel to be its own poem. Naturally it is filled with metaphors and similes.

He stood, leaning against the wooden jamb of the double glass doorway, looking back, and his eyes seemed almost dull, flatter than last year, muted somehow like reptiles not swimming in open water anymore.

Dull eyes like reptiles not swimming surprises in a pleasing way, but also fits the overall tone of the novel. The best similes and metaphors do both.

So how do you find these images?

Make a list. At the top, write the subject. In the above example, it would be dull eyes. Dull like what?

List as many images as you can, absurd and farfetched as they may be. Push past your comfort zone. Force yourself to come up with twenty possibilities. One of them will surely work.

Robert Newton Peck uses nouns in place of adjectives to plant the unexpected in his novel A Day No Pigs Would Die:

She was getting bigger than August.

The whole sky was pink and peaches.

Like Peck, you should occasionally step outside the normal, grammatical box. You’ll find some pleasant surprises when you do!

How important is style to you, when you write and when you read? We all agree that story comes first, but are you also an “unobtrusive poetry” fan? Do you think about it as you write or revise? 

NOTE: This post is adapted from PLOTMAN TO THE RESCUE: A TROUBLESHOOTING GUIDE TO FIXING YOUR TOUGHEST PLOT PROBLEMS.

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56 thoughts on “Stretch Your Style

  1. I am anxiously waiting for Plotman To The Rescue to drop into my inbox tomorrow! And I’ve known for some time I need to read more poetry…will be my New Years resolution. And I’ll get a head start on it this week.

    • Patricia, you can find a number of poets and samples of their work in Bill Moyers’ The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets (I especially like Stanley Kuntiz).

      Among the poems I reread are “The Waking” by Theodore Roethke, “Dog” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and “Poem” by Tom Clark (which begins “Like musical instruments/Abandoned in a field…”)

  2. I’m sitting in a hotel room waiting for the restaurant to open so I can have some food before taking the cheap seats flight to LA to visit my mom. When parents hit their 90s, visits become important.

    I know people who think finding the perfect word is a waste of time, and throw each book out there when it meets their personal standards. I’ve ordered your book, and hope it improves my style, although I always refer to it as my voice.

    Perhaps you can explain the difference. When I try to write elegant metaphors, they don’t sound like me (and worse, nothing like my characters).

    There’s a writing instructor who teaches authors how to power up their writing, but based on her examples, they go too far. Honestly, much of the time that elegant writing pulls me out of the story.

    I’m obviously not good at it, because my editor kills the majority of my attempts.

  3. Excellent post.
    An additional example of an author of remarkable style and poetry-in-prose is James Lee Burke.
    At times his stories have been dark but his writing is always powerful, evocative and somehow both gritty yet lyrical. A unique and brilliant author/style I recommend all TKZers check out.
    Thanks, Jim (will get Plotman – good luck w release)

    • Burke is a great add, Tom. And one can always read pages of a recommended writer just for the style. Many successful writers of the past, when starting out, would copy (by hand) passages they admired, word for word, just to get the rhythms in their heads.

    • IN THE ELECTRIC BLUE MIST WITH THE CONFEDERATE DEAD is awesome! Burke is a Southerner with a heritage of KING JAMES BIBLE influenced orators like Martin Luther King, Jr., storytelling, and a rich language tradition. His heritage and style flow naturally through him and onto the page and is real. I have the same heritage, but I wouldn’t attempt it.

      • Note: The movie version called, In the Electric Mist, stars Tommy Lee Jones and carries forward that same feel with the setting, accurate dialogue, and local color. In addition you get to listen to Buddy Guy sing. It doesn’t disappoint.

  4. Using metaphors and other imagery is part of my style – probably an offshoot of teaching literature and literary criticism. I loved the idea of changing an adjective with a noun. I hadn’t come across that tip before. So simple, yet so effective – if done well. Thank you!

    • Glad that caught on with you, Caroline. I remember being pleasantly surprised when I came across it in one of Peck’s books on writing. Another tool on the belt.

  5. Writing flash fiction is useful for refining style and scene construction.

    To me, Toni Morrison is the ultimate stylist. She reveals characters and situations through unique and shocking prose.

  6. Thanks for a great post and the link to PLOTMAN. I look forward to reading it.

    A book you recommended to me on this subject (and I apologize for mentioning it again) is Rebecca McClanahan’s WORD PAINTING. I go back and reread it when I am fleshing out characters.

    I’ve found it interesting that beta readers (even middle-graders) have given me more smiley faces for metaphors and similes than any other writing element.

    Thanks for another great writing lesson.

  7. Style doesn’t rank up there on my list of concerns at the moment–perhaps it will with time and experience. I still consider myself a novice writer and I have my hands full just trying to remember the ten thousand things I need to do to write solid care-about characters and a strong plot.

    I’m not sure I understand the difference between style and voice although the interpretation I make, based on this discussion is that style is trying to be cutesy with words but ultimately improving your work with it when something really good spins out of it. I don’t even think about voice, per se, I just know it will emerge as I keep writing. I’ve written very little poetry and read even less. Mostly because I’ve just never found poetry that rocked my world, and I prefer the longer narrative of novels (because novels generally make sense, most poetry doesn’t. LOL!)

    But I’m all for trying different writing exercises. Just as its good practice to try to sketch or draw a little as frequently as you can to experiment and gain experience, it’s essential for writing too.

    • BK, as I’m using the terms here, “style” is what you possess as a writer no matter what; thus, stretching it gives you greater scope to apply it. “Voice” is specific to each novel and is filtered through characters. IOW, it’s not “author voice” on the page. See the post I referenced in my 6:22 a.m. comment.

      • A nice distinction of voice and style. With the current use of third and first person narrative tight in the viewpoint character’s head, we’ve just about reached the point where voice and style are the same thing if the writer wants the reader to be totally immersed in the story. Style has become more a general sense of the kind of story a writer creates overall, not what we see on each page. We know what to expect when we pick up a Stephen King or James Lee Burke novel, yet each novel is individual.

  8. Excellent post as always, Jim. I don’t read enough poetry. I’m a huge Poe fan, though. Style is very important. I’ve been known to fiddle with one sentence for WAY too long, but I can’t help it. I need the right words, not just any word will do.

    • My obligatory history-of-narrative warning. Style like all parts of narrative has changed drastically over the years because readers and language have. Heck, what was accepted twenty years ago sounds like so much boring static to the average reader. So, find the best contemporary writers in your genre to study.

    • You can benefit from the rhythms of the distant past. You’ll update naturally in your own style. I love the chapter called “The Lee Shore” in Moby-Dick. Many descriptive sections of Dickens, etc.

  9. A few annoying additions to an excellent article. Current genre and the reading expectations of that genre should be considered while choosing your style. A police procedural shouldn’t sound like a romance novel, and vice versa.

    Popular genre, unlike literary fiction, for the most part means that the author should remain hidden. Florid language and in-your-face metaphors can knock the reader right out of a genre novel because the reader is seeing the novelist pointing his finger. “Look! Look! Isn’t this awesome writing!” If that’s your style and it fits your story, go for it. Otherwise, no. (See link below for detailed explanation.)

    Stephen King, for all his flaws and horrible writing advice, is a master’s class in using language and metaphors within the story to control what the reader is feeling. Today, all popular writing should be about the reader’s feelings as much as it is about plot and character. Otherwise, the reader might as well be watching other media.

    http://mbyerly.blogspot.com/2014/12/literary-versus-genre-fiction-defining.html

  10. I’ve noticed my taste in reading has changed over the years. I want books to move with the plot but also move me with emotion. My tolerance for long rambling prose has dwindled. Although I do love great imagery & a beautiful turn of phrase, for me there must be a balance between structure, movement & memorable prose. As you’ve said in your post, SERVE THE STORY FIRST.

    I struggle over every word in my edit process because it brings me joy, whether anyone else notices. I know you feel the same. That’s reflected in your writing & your methodical approach to telling your stories.

    Poetry & song writing lyrics trigger images in my mind & can inspire whole plots based on a few carefully crafted words. Writing is an amazing process. The creative process–whether you’re an author or a song writer or a poet–has links that connect us all as human beings.

    Thanks for your Sunday inspiration.

    • Right, Jordan. Balance and serving the story!

      There’s that venerable saying “Kill your darlings.” I’m not that homicidal, but I would say sit your darlings down for a long talk during the editing process.

  11. Japanese literature was part of my major when I went to university. At the time, I wasn’t much interested in haiku, tanka, waka poetry. But now, for reasons I can’t quite determine, I love the stuff.

    The hero in my WIP is a hard man, and cold. But there are moments when he will recall the words of a poem that seem fitting to his situation, feelings and surroundings.

    Stuff like: “I gaze across the autumn fields, from a rustic hut with broken eaves; But there is much more than the dripping dew to wet my lonely sleeves.”. (by Saramaru Dayu, 8th century). (the rhyme isn’t necessary, but the translator wanted it).

    I love it!

    I know this is not MY style being effected by incorporating these into my work, but I hope they have a positive influence on my own words as I write.

    • The hero in my WIP is a hard man, and cold. But there are moments when he will recall the words of a poem that seem fitting to his situation, feelings and surroundings.

      I love the possibilities of that, Carl. The contrast makes for complexity and unpredictability, two big factors in unforgettable fiction. Go for it!

  12. I love poetry. It’s like music with words and thrills my musician heart.
    My favorite quote is from Robert Frost – Two Tramps in Mud Time

    “But yield who will to their separation,
    My object in living is to unite
    My avocation and my vocation
    As my two eyes make one in sight.
    Only where love and need are one,
    And the work is play for mortal stakes,
    Is the deed ever really done
    For heaven’s and the future’s sakes.”

  13. One of the things I do to try to improve my prose is to write what I call American Haiku.

    Using the five-syllable/seven-syllable/five-syllable to describe something, I have learned, disciplines my thinking and writing to to bring out images I never have thought of before. Further, I use words from many languages–all the usual ones, plus a few from the few words I know of my Mother’s language, Kiowa, and my Dad’s language, Creek. (Mah, which means here, in the sense, “Here, I’m handing you your odle,” and Haw, good, in the sense, “Haw. That was a good sermon,” or “Haw, the meat is good, and I am full.” I also make up words. Keep in mind that I never mean for anyone to read these–they are just for me, for me to learn, to touch my thoughts to the tip of my pen.

    So, such a haiku to describe my morning encounter with a butterfly, would likely go differently from the encounter of one by Kathleen Kelly’s description of the one that entered her subway car at 42nd and got off at 59th, presumably to buy a hat at Bloomingdale’s. Mine would say:

    fliby don’t mean that/
    da flutterby kept goin’/
    to buy da hat, da?

    Here, I use fliby to speak of something that flits and flies, like Maria, the flibbertigibbet, a clown. Rather, the real meaning of flibbertigibbet is something a gossip or chatterer. (A catcher, in the old days, could have been described as a Flibbertigibbet, “C’mon, now. Champ. Chonk me the hard one, right there, hit me in my palm.”) In my poem, an image, means for me, someone or something that zips, flits, from one thing to another.

    The flutterby is, of course, a butterfly. The image is pulled from the thought of a well-to-do, young Victorian-era English girl on summer holiday who lies on the grass of her home, watching butterflys flit and scamper among the sights and scents of clover and red fescue.

    And like Kathleen Kelly’s butterfly, this one is going to buy a hat somewhere–probably not Bloomingdale’s but a location where people who say da, meaning the, and Da, meaning yes (as is, Should I press the button to launch the missile aimed at the United States? Da!). Someplace where someone who would say da and Da where there’s butterflies–perhaps it is only a place in a dream. Or suburban New York City. Wherever it is, it is a place I can visit in an image, a place where da and Da are spoken fluently and with ease.

    Conjuring up such a place is why I fool around with American Haiku. There are no rules, just thoughts.

    • An intriguing practice, Jim, and one I can see having several benefits.

      FWIW, when my daughter was 3 she used the word “Flutterby” all by herself. It makes perfect sense!

  14. I find inspiration in the lyrics and the images of serious rock. When I heard Pink Floyd’ Comfortably Numb, just those two words lit up my imagination. As a bonus you get to hear David Gilmore play guitar.

    Here is another:
    Oh, let the sun beat down upon my face
    Stars fill my dream
    I’m a traveler of both time and space
    To be where I have been
    Sit with elders of the gentle race
    This world has seldom seen
    They talk of days for which they sit and wait
    All will be revealed
    Talk in song in tongues of lilting grace
    Sounds caress my ear
    There are not a word I heard could I relate
    Story was quite clear

    That is the opening of Led Zeppelin’s Kasimir.
    My kind of poetry.

  15. Sometimes I love me some good clean sharp prose that just smacks me around with the basics and moves the plot forward before I am reading such drivel, and quickly don’t care.
    But I also love some good colorful poetry. Among my favourite authors are the likes of Frank Delaney, Ken Follett, Clavell, Michener, and others pull me with their colorful description.
    In my own work, I hope to hit somewhere in the middle. Writing deeply thought out yet fast moving.

    • Mr Basil forgot to mention that we, his housemates, being Leprechauns, and Irishmen of the first order, are amongst those most renowned for our prowess with the words, letters, phraseologies and colourful metaphors both of that which we all know, as the English Language and of the great ancient dialect, of our own people, to which he and us alike owe the very blood in our veins and arteries, those vessels through which course the blood pumped by a heart created and made in the very center, the forge as it were, of the Green Isle herself, of impossibly long legacy and impossibly long pedigree.

  16. Thanks for the heads-up about Plotman. I’ve added it to my every-expanding JSB writing library.

    Although a novice, I tend to revise and revise and revise, looking for the right words and the right cadence. I need to read more poetry and listen to more music, though. Maybe in 2020.

    And I love all metaphors. Not only the immediate “he pulled his lips back over his teeth giving him the look of a ridiculous lizard.” But the subtler ones like a discussion of the properties of light that causes the main character to suddenly see the solution to a problem.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

  17. It’s all in a feel for me. Sometimes the story/character/moment is chopped down and spare but there are others that are rambling and lyrical.

    I love the advice to read poetry. I find sometimes jumping into something that is purely style helps ‘loosen’ me up.

  18. Once again, your advice is spot-on, James, and timely. I’ve gotten away from reading poetry recently–have bought the books and left them lying around. Yipes. It doesn’t take much to read a few poems. So I will.

    I’ve been using another way that helps me improve the quality of my prose–copying. When I find a writer whose prose I admire, I put that book next to the word processor and begin my writing sessions by copying from that book. Most recently, the author whose prose inspires me is Liane Moriarty.

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