Here are my notes from week two of the writing workshop I'm teaching. This week we discussed style--and worked on some pretty advanced ideas for a group of teens, but they--as I expected--were amazing. Try the exercises and see just how difficult they are, and you'll get an idea of why I was so impressed.
Week Two: STYLE
Last week we discussed character, because I see character as the heart of any story. Today we’re going to turn from the heart to the hair, the externals: style.
Style is as individual as any one person’s fingerprint; but just as fingerprints are made up of standard combinations of curves and whorls, good styles are made up of accepted combinations of good writing.
The purpose of style is two-fold:
First and foremost, it serves the purpose of telling a story.
Second, it’s pure art--it’s using words in a beautiful and individual way.
Never let style get in the way of a story. This can happen by sliding over the edge of making the writing too flowery and “purple-prosy” but it can just as easily happen by making the writing staccato or dull.
EXAMPLE 1: Here’s a bit of dialogue from Louisa May Alcott’s The Inheritance--she wrote this when she was seventeen, and there’s a clear reason it didn’t get published then. “Neither knew the other’s secret, till Walter, our Lord Percy, heard his brother whisper the dear name in his sleep, and then he nobly put away his own joy and strove to win for his younger brother the heart he loved so tenderly himself, and he succeeded. The young lovers were married, and none knew why Walter’s cheek grew pale or why he stole away when the happy couple told their joy and tried to cheer his sadness. None save his mother ever knew the sacrifice her noble son had made.”
EXAMPLE 2: Here’s a great example of some purposely dull (and then interesting) writing: Gary Provost’s “This Sentence Has Five Words”
The things is, it’s a good idea to practice going over either of those edges so you know when you have to pull back. Most especially, you want to be able to “write gorgeously” as Ursula K. LeGuin puts it, because there will be moments when just a touch of that gorgeous writing is going to convey the emotion of your story through style alone.
Also, keep in mind that if you have to have one of these problems, it’s better to be melodramatic. Why? Because if you have a sense of drama and beauty, you can easily learn to tone it down. Without it, you’ve got your work cut out.
EXERCISE: Being Gorgeous, p. 26 of Steering the Craft: “Write a paragraph to a page of narrative that’s meant to be read aloud. Use onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, rhythmic effects, made-up words or names, dialect--any kind of sound you like--but NOT rhyme or meter.”
EXERCISE: Now to swing to the other extreme, try writing a paragraph with as sparse language as possible. Keep the sentences short. Shun adjectives. Keep it simple. (If you’re stuck for a plot idea, go back to last week’s exercise of having your character up in a tree with rocks being thrown at them.)
Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. LeGuin deals with the subject of style in several of her chapters.Your favorite books! Re-read the books whose style has inspired you, and analyze what the author did to create that style. I like to study Jane Austen’s punctuation and Shakespeare’s repetition and Mark Twain’s dialect and Neil Gaiman’s bits of gorgeousness at just those perfect moments.