Style – The Spectrum

by Steve Hooley

After reading JSB’s post on 2/21/21, Who is on Your Writing Rushmore? – I have been working on my remedial reading list. If you missed that post, it is worth reviewing for the list of “Greatest of all time” (GOAT) authors, presented in the article and in the comments.

Here is the list of GOAT Authors (compiled from the post and comments) if you want to copy and paste:

  • Dostoevsky
  • Twain
  • Hemingway
  • Raymond Chandler
  • Faulkner
  • McCarthy
  • Agatha Christie
  • Jane Austen
  • Charlotte Bronte
  • George Eliot
  • Tolkien
  • Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Conrad
  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • Chekhov
  • Dickens
  • C. S. Lewis
  • Steinbeck
  • Ray Bradbury
  • George Orwell
  • Elmore Leonard
  • H. G. Wells
  • Jules Verne
  • O. Henry

The reason for the topic today – “Style, the Spectrum”: I read Raymond Chandler and Hemingway back-to-back. Talk about different styles. Hemingway’s writing has been described as “spare, tight prose.” Chandler’s style is saturated with description. At the beginning of The Big Sleep, every other sentence contains a simile. I exaggerate, but description definitely gets your attention.

So, what is “style” in writing?

According to –

“The style in writing can be defined as the way a writer writes. It is the technique that an individual author uses in his writing. It varies from author to author, and depends upon one’s syntax, word choice, and tone. It can also be described as a “voice” that readers listen to when they read the work of a writer.”

The author of the article lists four “basic” styles: expositive or argumentative, descriptive, persuasive, and narrative. For our discussion today, we are focusing on descriptive and narrative.

Descriptive style: “In descriptive writing style, the author focuses on describing an event, a character or a place in detail. Sometimes, descriptive writing style is poetic in nature, where the author specifies an event, an object, or a thing rather than merely giving information about an event that has happened. Usually, the description incorporates sensory details.

Narrative: “Narrative writing style is a type of writing wherein the writer narrates a story. It includes short stories, novels, novellas, biographies, and poetry.”

I remembered JSB describing John D. MacDonald’s style as having just the right amount of literary poetry (“unobtrusive poetry”) sprinkled in for seasoning, and went back to reread John D. MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Good-by. I found a style somewhere in the middle, between Chandler’s and Hemingway’s.

In a review of The Kill Zone blog I found tributes to MacDonald by JSB and Kris:

Kris’s comment on MacDonald’s style –

His style “had an ease and breeze as fresh as the ocean winds”

JSB’s comment on MacDonald’s style –

“The first lesson I picked up from a wide reading of MacDonald is what he termed “unobtrusive poetry” in the style. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish. You don’t want a style that calls so much attention to itself that’s all the reader is thinking about. On the other hand, it’s not stripped-down minimalism of the Hemingway-Cain school.”

I didn’t see MacDonald’s name on the GOAT list, but I greatly enjoyed his style.

And I realized that I definitely liked his style better than many others, and it would influence which books I wanted to read in the future. I then wondered, does my favorite style for reading affect the style I seek to attain in my writing?

And that is our discussion for today.


Which author’s writing style do you most enjoy reading? Does that affect which books you plan to buy or read? And does that style, influence the voice and style you seek to attain in your own writing?

37 thoughts on “Style – The Spectrum

  1. Good morning, Steve. Thanks for a great post and list. As to your thought-provoking questions…I would go with James Lee Burke, Cormac McCarthy, and Elmore Leonard. Burke’s scenic descriptions and characters, McCarthy’s broad canvas and deep brush that leaves no stone unturned, and Leonard’s dialog win the day here. Burke and Leonard influence my own writing. I don’t think anyone else can do what McCarthy does.

    Have a great weekend, Steve!

    • Good morning, Joe. Thanks for your comments. I’m making another list today of favorite authors. I see that James Lee Burke didn’t make the previous list, or I missed his name. It sounds like he should have been on the list. And now I’m marking that list with your three suggestions to read next. Given the large number of books that you read, I trust your recommendations.

      Have a great weekend!

  2. The Ransom of Red Chief by O. Henry still makes me laugh. I swear I babysat that kid!

    I just finished Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury and I highly recommend it. He is one of my favorites. A kindred spirit. I’ve learned a lot from him.

    I also love C.S. Lewis, particularly The Screwtape Letters.

    Erma Bombeck and Mark Twain are other favorites.

    Life can be brutal but it’s a lot of fun too. And laughter heals.

    • Thank you, Cynthia, for your additions to the list. I, too, recently reread Zen and the Art of Writing. And then I read Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury’s writing certainly is poetic and oozes emotion.

      When I reread C.S. Lewis, I plan to read The Screwtape Letters. I’ve read it a couple times before and truly was entertained.

      I look forward to exploring O. Henry’s short stories. I agree. We need laughter and healing.

    • Read O. Henry’s “Jimmy Valentine.” It’s a master class on putting a main character into a situation where he can’t win, whatever he does.

  3. Thanks for the list, Steve. I confess there are a few there I haven’t read. Should rectify. I remember someone asking my high school English teacher what “style” was. He replied, “It’s the words the author chooses, and the order he puts them in.”

  4. Thanks, Terry. According to (referenced above), they agree with your high school English teacher. They say that “diction” refers to the words used, and “syntax” is the way they are used in sentences. But, isn’t there more? Tone, voice, how much those techniques are used and when? Isn’t it fun to discuss things that are so difficult to quantify?

    Have a good day.

  5. Excellent post, Steve!
    James Lee Burke (with ya, Joe H!) can describe an approaching storm in Louisiana bayou country and make you experience the humidity and sense the plunging barometric pressure. In a paragraph he can introduce a character and, in key ways, you know them as if they grew up with you.
    Michael Connelly forges emotional investment in his characters without ever using melodrama or pandering. The protagonists of his stories struggle like the rest of us and their heroism and accomplishments arise organically from their dedication and character.
    I hope these two ninja-genius authors have had an influence on my writing!

    • Thanks, Tom. And thanks for your comments. With two pros like you and Joe, I’ll definitely put James Lee Burke next on my reading list.

      I’ve read some of Connelly’s books, and enjoyed them. I should read some more.

      Thanks for stopping by, Tom. Have a great weekend!

      • I recommend starting w JLBurke’s Dave Robicheaux series and I prefer M Connelly’s work featuring Harry Bosch.
        Steve – thanks for teaming with Joe H in making every Saturday a ‘can’t miss’ TKZ visit.

  6. Speaking of reading back-to-back, Steve, I’m currently into the work of Carroll John Daley, whom I wrote about HERE. I next plan to re-read Carroll’s most famous literary descendant, Mickey Spillane. Love that no-nonsense, first-person POV.

    • Thanks, Jim. I enjoyed that post you referenced above. And your phrase at the end is probably what inspired this post.

      “Carroll John Daly >> Raymond Chandler >> Mickey Spillane >> John D. MacDonald >> Mike Romeo”

      I’ve enjoyed the Mike Romeo series – hard boiled with a dash of philosophy.

      Have a great weekend!

  7. Happy Saturday, Steve! Today’s post is very informative. Style in fiction is something I admire, provided it serves the story, assuming that there is a story, not just stylistic pyrotechnics. A story amplified by the right style, one that evokes emotion, brings characters and setting to life, well, I’m in an awe of that, especially being a fairly straightforward “stylist” in my own writing.

    Tana French in her Dublin Murder Squad series uses style and attitude to create very distinctive first person POVs in each novel. Every book in the series features a different protagonist and her style reflects that.

    I was also very impressed with Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories, her first Jackson Brody mystery, which juggled multiple third person POVs and jumped back and forth in time, and the style reflected that, going from somber to wry and back again. Truly brilliant.

    Thanks for all the food for thought! Have a wonderful weekend!

    • Thanks, Dale, and Happy Saturday to you!

      “A story amplified by the right style, one that evokes emotion, brings characters and setting to life, well, I’m in an awe of that”

      I knew we could depend on you, as librarian, to come up with some good examples. I’ve put French and Atkinson on my expanded reading list. Thanks!

      Have a great weekend!

  8. As the resident crotchety expert on the history of narrative, I once again must say, “style and reader expectations keep changing.” Those here who are beginning their journey into professional writing need to study the current crop of successful writers, particularly the newer ones. Readers want a clean narrative style which has been pared down over the last two hundred years. Anyone who writes like Poe or, God forbid, Faulkner will make most popular fiction readers run screaming in the opposite directions.

    So, sure these GOATs will teach you about storytelling and give you an historical overview of what went before, but, for the love of all that is popular reading, understand you don’t want to sound or put narrative on the page like them.

    • Thanks, “resident crotchety expert on the history of narrative,” for putting this discussion into perspective. Great points. And great advice. I always look forward to your comments.

      Who are your current top picks for narrative style?

  9. Good post, Steve. I’m not a fan of Hemingway. I don’t like his cardboard women characters. I do enjoy Charlaine Harris, MWA’s new Grand Master. Her narrative style moves the plot along but contains small details that make the character seem real. For instance, in the Southern Vampire mysteries, which became the TV series, “True Blood,” Sookie wonders if she should eat the last jar of grape jelly made by her late and much loved Grandmother. Another master is Ann Cleeves.

    • Thanks, Elaine. And thanks for adding to our “Contemporary Master Writers” style list. Every reader has different tastes. I like the way you have spread your series across the spectrum to create “four mystery series (with) something for every reader.”

      Have a great weekend.

  10. Good Saturday morning, Steve and fellow KZers. I have an old goat nominee for the list – Frederick Forsyth. (Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File, Dogs of War, The Cobra, and many more.) The best I can describe his style is pure, captive storytelling.

    • Good morning Garry, and thanks for adding a nomination to the list. It sounds like Forsyth’s style has resonated with you. And he’s certainly had many of his books turned into movies. I’m putting him on my expanded list and also looking for the movies.

      Have a great weekend.

  11. Another interesting, well-researched post, Pity more female authors weren’t encouraged or even accepted back in the day. I agree with Marilynn that today’s aspiring novelists shouldn’t emulate the style of the classic writers of 70 or 100 years ago and still expect to sell well. Today’s readers are more impatient and prefer tighter writing in general, I think, with the exceptions of some genres, like historical fiction and fantasy or sci-fi.
    I agree with Tom Combs about James Lee Burke, and I’d add Ken Follett to your list. He’s one of my favorite all-time writers. A master storyteller, from his short, snappy thrillers, his espionage tales and other shorter historical fiction, to his longer, incredibly well-researched epic series.
    I look forward to your posts on alternating Saturdays!

      • Thanks, Jodie. And thanks for adding Ken Follett to the list. When I read “Eye of the Needle” years ago, I remember how I couldn’t put the book down. Time to go back and read some more of his books.

        I always enjoy and respect your contributions here at the TKZ. Thanks for stopping by. Have a great weekend!

  12. I’m re-reading Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye.” His descriptive style captivates my imagination. He switches from humorous to blunt to sarcastic all within Phillip Marlowe’s first person POV. IMHO, Marlowe is defined as much by his descriptions as by his actions. I hope Chandler’s writing is influencing me.

    Thanks for the reminder about John D. MacDonald. I haven’t read any of his works, so I just checked out “The Deep Blue Good-by” from the library. (What is it about “goodbyes?”) Looking forward to reading it on the heels of Chandler.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Kay. At least there won’t be as much jolt between the styles of Chandler and MacDonald (vs. Chandler and Hemingway). I’m planning to read more of MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. I really like that “unobtrusive poetry.”

      Have a great weekend.

    • Chandler and MacDonald are still – for me – the epitome of what thriller writing – in fact any writing – should be about.
      I don’t get the comment above about “writing in the modern style”.
      Since when did writing involve the reader go out of fashion?
      Chandler is always like watching a play: first he describes the set, then the players, then the action and creates the story out of thin air.
      MacDonald does similar, but less obviously.
      Kay – get yourself a copy of MacDonald’s “Darker Than Amber”, quick 😊

      • Thanks for stopping by, Harry. I agree. Chandler is the master of description. And nobody can slip in the telling details like MacDonald. I’ll take your advice and read Darker Than Amber. Hope you stop by TKZ again. Thanks.

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