Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

Writing advice: show articles ▼▲

Style, the life and death of a writer

Style is two things. It is the way you write something, and it is the way you write. One you should work at, the other you should avoid. Let's look at the first kind of style: how you write something.

"I love you," he spat. "Always will."
"Me, too," said Jane. "Count on it."
Their fists gripped, their gaze locked like blades.
"Hell, you're sweet," he hissed.

Tough-guy style, romantic content. Not really the way to tell that story, is it? The author has badly misjudged the right style. Or:

It was a warm evening. The sun touched the edge of the woods and disappeared in a haze of red. Free, the vampire stepped from the house.

A natural, easy style, yet this is supposed to be a High Gothic vampire story. Maybe the author is bucking the trend, or maybe he just didn't realise that style has to be appropriate to the subject:

The evening was deathly hot, the air like sweat. The sun sank into the tangled grasp of the old woods and died in a slow, blood-red pool. Freed at last from the lance of day, the vampire slid like a foul breath from the tomb-like hulk that housed him.

Form follows function, and the function of this story is to settle the reader into the queasy folds of a ripe and luscious tale of the undead. The second way works, the first doesn't.

Style is how you tell your story. The best way to tell a story is as simply as possible, using the fewest words that convey the sense of action and character. But it's not just a task of minimising your prose. If it were, all stories would sound like newspaper articles. A story has to be told the best way for it, and if that means the foetid atmosphere of the damned has to pervade every sentence like an unholy night fog, then so be it.

This doesn't mean writing to formula, making your action thriller all tough-guy prose, your romance all poetic metaphors. You are even allowed to write a story of vampires as if it were a high school comedy (or has that been done...). What it does mean is seeking a sense of fitness between your story and how you tell it. There is a "right" way and many wrong ways.

Toby glanced down the hall, full of perplexed regret. His eye caught a mark along the edge of the floor; it was Old Fluff's paw print, and must have been put there last summer, a whole year ago. Dad wasn't much of a housekeeper. He had probably cleaned up only because Toby was coming again.

Although it's written is a plain, clean style, and seems appropriate to the story of a boy, your sense of "rightness", of style, tells you that something isn't working. The style is that of an adult's voice, but this story seen through a child's eyes. You try telling it again a different way:

Toby looked down the hall. Dad had mopped, but there was bit along the side where he never got. One of Old Fluff's paw prints from last summer was still in that bit. He felt a ball of tears inside him, tight, like the ball of worms that got pushed up through the cracks in the sidewalk after winter. He saw how the sunlight along the hall picked up every smear he'd made last summer, and it was like nothing changed in Dad's house when Toby went away.

This kind of style is telling your story in the right way. What it is about and how it's told have a unity. You know you don't have this unity when you can't seem to write easily, when the words don't flow. It's as if you're forcing something against the grain.

All stories have their own styles, and what you need to do is find it for each one you write. This might involve shifting from third to first person, or setting it as a lush Victorian novel of manners, or putting it into present tense, or using deliberately pared-down language. It is only through constant writing that you get a feel for what style is needed and learn to give the story that style it needs to live.

You have to cultivate a good 'ear', a sense of pitch. You also have to learn to listen to that still small voice inside, what Hemingway called the 'bullshit detector' that tells you 'this is wrong' or 'that just isn't going the right way' or 'why do I feel uncomfortable every time I re-read that section?' This is you seeking the right style. If you are thinking this way as you are re-writing, you are doing the right thing.

Critics sometimes say that a young writer "hasn't found his voice". What they can't feel is a distinctive style, the way the author presents his works, the over-all sense of "writer" that a real writer gives off. Critics, like hunters, know the fragrance of a fully mature Margaret Atwood and can differentiate, even in the twilight, between this and the scent of a Stephen King gnawing something nasty in the underbrush.

These authors have their distinctive styles, even though they might write individual books in different styles. Their over-arching style, their "voice", is something that is intrinsically them. Stephen King knows his contemporary America like the grit under the skin of his own eyelid. Atwood knows the hearts of the unsatisfied, the discontented, the ones on the margins, and dissects them over and over again from new angles. Their styles for each book have become a greater "style": their authorial "voice".

Style is the culmination of work and thought and obsession and craftsmanship. It begins when you write your first book and it matures through your next book and your next. The stories you choose to write and the way you choose to tell them begin to be recognisable from the outside. You aren't setting out to be distinctive, you are just telling stories, but that pure motive creates something outside of you that becomes a distinctive signature, something readers recognise, even if they can't put it into words.

But be warned: a writer who concentrates on having a 'style' can't, just as people who desperately want to seem cool aren't. It's the wrong goal.

Many writers cease to be great when their style overtakes them, when they realise they have one and start to write to it, instead of just writing. Hemingway is an example. If a writer has derived a style out of writing the best way she can and it is distinctive enough to make people start talking about it, the writer finds it hard to resist wearing it like an identifying hat, 'her' sort of perfume, 'his' special tie. It stops being a 'signature' and becomes a tic or a trope.

Dashiell Hammett, author of The Maltese Falcon, quite suddenly stopped writing forever. Asked some years later why, he said, "It is the beginning of the end when you discover you have a style."

Don't let that happen. Keep your eye on your story, seek the first kind of style: the best way of telling the story, while all the time hoping that you never see the second kind looming behind you. The first gives life to your story, the second takes it away.