Style is defined as the characteristic manner of expression in prose or verse or how a particular writer phrases things. If we are to become better writers, we must develop our own sense of style. According to the Dictionary of Literary Terms & Theory, “the analysis of style involves examination of a writer’s choice of words, figures of speech, the devices (rhetorical and otherwise), the shape of the sentences (whether they be loose or periodic), the shape of the paragraphs – indeed, of every conceivable aspect of language use and the way in which it is used.”
Study great style to find great style. I have compiled a list of five authors and one novel by each which exemplifies that author’s style. Please find these books and read them in order to study great style.
1. Norwood by Charles Portis – Portis only wrote 5 novels, but these books are packed tightly with a style that is comic, dry, colloquial and poetic. I think of all his novels, Norwood is my favorite. Portis’s signature style is that he does not judge his characters at all. They simply exist as is. Most of them go on journeys, and many of them originate in his hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas. Portis has a unique gift for description as in this line: “Grady Fring’s Invicta was parked across the street on the apron of a darkened service station. The engine was idling but making no more noise than a rat peeing on a sack of cotton.” When describing Bill Bird, the man who “unexpectedly” marries Norwood’s sister one day, Portis writes: “He used Norwood’s blades. He left hairs stuck around in the soap—short, gray, unmistakable Bill Bird hairs. Norwood had built the bathroom, it was his, and the thought of Bill Bird’s buttocks sliding around on the bottom of the modern Sears tub was disagreeable.” The sentences are full of alliteration, cadence and strange metaphors. It is something I try to emulate in my own writing, and if you write with a sense of wit you would be wise to do the same.
2. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner – William Faulkner lived an interesting life and the strangeness of it is found in his prose. His personal life was one of lies about war injuries (he never saw action), getting fired from a postal job for throwing mail away and the confidence to realize how important he was to American literature. He was once on a hunting trip with Clark Gable. Gable asked Faulkner who he thought were the most important American writers and Faulkner listed a few including himself. Gable said “Oh. Do you write?” Faulkner replied. “Yes, and what do you do?” Faulkner had a way of paying particular attention to diction and cadence in his writing. There is almost a poetic quality to his text. In As I Lay Dying, each chapter is the voice of a different character in the novel. Each shares their own perspective about what happens in the novel, and the story unfolds through each person’s eyes. Faulkner was a master of helping us get inside the head of a character, whether it be his stream of consciousness style or a masterpiece like As I Lay Dying. If you are having trouble speaking in the voice of a character you created, reading a few chapters of this book will show you how it’s done.
3. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – Fitzgerald writes like someone rambling on about nothing, but then when one steps back and sees it as a whole, one realizes the grandeur and power of his ability to show and not tell. If you have trouble with this very important stylistic faux pas, then you need to read Gatsby cover to cover. There is a passage in the novel where the party guests are discussing Gatsby in dialogue, and it is a textbook example of how to show and not tell. Fitzgerald uses the words of his characters to tell us everything we want to know about Jay Gatsby without ever narrating it himself. He lets the characters do it. I would argue that one would be hard pressed to find one example in the novel where Fitzgerald “tells” instead of “shows”. I advise all budding writers to study Mr. Fitzgerald closely.
4. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess – This line says it all: “There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry”. Burgess proves that writing in choppy, run-on sentences with strange slang and colloquialisms (sometimes made up words) is perfectly fine if you are using it for stylistic reasons. He uses onomatopoeia and by stringing seemingly dis-associated words together in descriptions he is simply listing the first words that come to mind when thinking about a chill winter. It’s brilliant stuff, and if you are having trouble coming up with a uniqueness of your own, then he will show you what one person can do with words that no one else can. It is a blast using context clues to figure out what words like “rassoodocks” mean.
5. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton – The beauty of Hinton’s novel is her ability to present all the elements of prose in a way that is incredibly well balanced. There are flashbacks, epistolary episodes where Pony Boy includes letters and also street smart vernacular. Hinton has a straightforward, stripped down prose style that is simple and precise. She has an ability to show characterization that is real and not stereotypical. If you desire a prose style that is unapologetic, realistic and able to reach to the emotional heart of your story, then you must study her intently. Even though she is melodramatic at times, her characters are very realistic while remaining simply described. Her work is worth examining.
If you have read any authors whose style is worth studying, by all means post them below. I am always reading new novels, looking for that added lesson I might learn from other great writers.