Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Writing Wednesday, with Style

So far, I've only covered very basic things. Today I'm going to mix it up and give a more advanced lesson on writing styles. Why is the word styles emphasized, you might ask? Because it turns out there are quite a few of them.

Typically people begin hobby writing for one of these reasons:

• They read a particularly terrible book and think, “gosh, I could do a better job than this!”

• They read a particularly amazing book and think, “gosh, I want to make stuff like this!”

• They've been writing all of their lives, on and off, and realize that they need to get back into practice.

• They've read so many books that they can't help but channel that input into something creative.

Some people are a little of everything above, like me. I've done all of these. Some of you probably have, too.

Lets get back on the subject of styles. It seems that people write the style that they read. There's nothing wrong with this, but some people like reading books that aren't particularly well-written. This means that you're launching everything off a shaky base. Remember that guy in the Bible who built his house on the sand? Never read the Bible? That's fine too (or as we've learned, I could also say “that's fine as well.”)

Today I'm going to be focusing on three writing styles that I think most people will recognize. Afterward I'll try to analyze them and point out the differences with minimal grammar-jargon, for your convenience!

Here's our example sentence, first written as neutrally as I can manage.

I entered the diner and sat down on the chair. I sat at the counter and a waiter appeared. We had a short conversation, then he went back into the kitchen.

I'm going to write the same sentence as written by J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer and Terry Pratchett, to the best of my ability.

J.K. Rowling:

Sam found the diner on the corner, not quite where it should've been. He went inside and found it to be a small, shabby place with peeling wallpaper. Hesitantly, Sam took a seat on a dusty barstool. He rang the bell on the counter. For a moment nothing happened, then an aged old woman appeared from the back room and tottered up to him. Her skin was cracked and peeling, much like the walls.

You ready to order?” she asked. Her breath smelled like skunk.

Sam hadn't touched the menu, so he just said, “can I have a coffee?”

The woman grunted and hobbled away.

Stephanie Meyer:

It was a cold day. I couldn't believe Johnny had talked me into coming. For the moment I found myself hating him.

I found the diner after only a half hour of walking, but not before accidentally treading in a few annoyingly deep puddles. I felt soaked. I tried to tell myself that I was going to be fine, but I'm not a very good liar, even to myself.

I went into the diner and nearly gagged. The whole place smelled like moldy shoes and skunk.


I was glad there weren't any other people around to see me. This neighborhood probably wasn't the best place for a teenage girl. Luckily I wasn't attractive enough to warrant harassment.

Before I could ring the bell, someone stepped out of the back room, which I assumed to be the kitchen. The person turned out to be a guy who was a little older than me. He had short black hair and long sideburns, and if it weren't for the greasy apron he was wearing, I would say he was attractive.

“Ready to order?” he asked, leaning on the counter toward me.

“Not right now,” I said. He smelled surprisingly good.

“Waiting for someone?”

“No, I just like the atmosphere.”

He laughed.

“Well,” he said, “when you're ready, just ring the bell.” He went back to the kitchen.

I shivered. It was very cold, but at least the trip wasn't completely pointless. I felt stupid, making dumb jokes in front of someone, especially when that someone was attractive. I don't think he would flirt. Not with someone as plain as me.

Terry Pratchett

Rindell found the diner buried away in a sea of other businesses, most of which were Chinese restaurants. Somewhat ironically, the diner was called “Buried Treasure.” Its sign flickered sadly as Rindell pushed inside.

Inside wasn't quite what he had been expecting. Nobody seemed to like Buried Treasure, because there wasn't a soul in sight. For a moment Rindell wondered if it were closed. The place was covered in that thin layer of dust that comes from people's skin. With disappointment he saw that on the other side of the bar, the glasses were stored open-end-up, meaning they were also probably filled with dust. He sighed and sat down on a dusty stool, half-observing that his backside would be covered in dust.

Rindell tried not to touch the bar with his bare hands, trying instead to lean on his sleeved elbows.

Immediately someone ran out of the back room and said, “elbows off! ELBOWS OFF!”

Rindell immediately removed them, but quickly asked, “why? What's wrong with elbows?”

“Inappro-pirate use of bar property!” said the person. He was a short, piggish man with a few thinning hairs on his head. His face grew redder as he talked.

Briefly, Rindell wondered what an inappro-pirate was, but the piggish man had already gone back into the kitchen.

Hopefully you can see that each short story follows the order of events I set up in the example.

Things to take away from this:

J.K. Rowling usually uses minimal description of a place. It was more of a flavor than a detailed description of the diner. When it comes to NPCs (a video game term meaning “Non-Player Characters,” used for characters who play a minor part of the story, such as store clerks and people on the street), Rowling either goes really ugly or quite attractive. Read the books and you'll see clerks either being ugly and goblin-like, or perhaps actually goblins. If they're not, then they're Madame Rosmerta, someone who I imagined as a cheerful and rather buxom woman. If you don't have the same interpretation, it's because of the “flavor” description Rowling uses leaves lots of things to the imagination.
In this case, the diner-lady was very,
very ugly.

For Steph Meyer, you can see that I changed the story to first-person (I and me statements). Meyer really plays up the vulnerable teenager (or young adult) bit. There's nothing wrong with this, but you can see how it colors the story. On top of the character's debilitating vulnerability, she's typically scared of strangers, lacks self-confidence and is easily annoyed. Again, I'm not trying to rag on Steph Meyer's writing, I'm just explaining how she gets things done. Billions of dollars can't be wrong.

Unlike J.K. Rowlings NPCs, who are always either extremely ugly or quite attractive, Meyer's NPCs are either bland and forgettable nobodies, scary people who want to kill and/or rape you, or mysteriously attractive people, and not just people of the opposite sex. Remember Alice Cullen? Oh yeah. We all remember Alice Cullen. She's not attractive to the main character; she's attractive to the people reading (and in some ways more interesting than the main character sometimes.) Did I just expose myself? No, I think I'm still good.


Anyway, Terry Pratchett's style seems to take many more words to say things. Perhaps not always, but for me to emulate his style, I find that it takes many more words. His characters aren't usually very interesting by themselves, but by the situations he puts them in. This is what I call Alice and Wonderland storytelling; the main character is only there to ask questions and make funny observations to the characters around him. I rather like this style, because it lends itself nicely to really bizarre world creation. Instead of writing pages and pages of non-character-based narrative, you just throw your characters into the world and then make them ask questions that the audience might want to know. Here's a passage from Alice and Wonderland that demonstrates Alice questioning weirdness, for the sole purpose of making the audience understand some strange joke or abnormality.

The twelve jurors were all writing very busily on slates. “What are they doing?” Alice whispered to the Gryphon. “They can't have anything to put down yet, before the trial's begun.”

“They're putting down their names,” the Gryphon whispered in reply, “for fear they should forget them before the end of the trial.”

Much unlike the first two authors, Pratchett's NPCs are usually hollow backdrop-characters who don't do much except either demonstrate an eccentricity or have something funny or strange to say (the Cheshire Cat, the Queen of Hearts, etc.)

Hopefully now you'll have a better understanding of how what you read affects what you write. It helps to read lots of different books by lots of different authors, so you can find a style all your own.

Finally, here are the answers to Monday's questions. No quiz today, just amazing knowledge.

Lets go to the carnival!

Can you go to the store to get me two boxes of Kleenex?

I'm addressing this letter to my two friends in connecticut.

Two days after my birthday, I went to Paris.

Today was my day to visit my two wives.


  1. Wow William that was great, I had never thought about any of that before. I never noticed any of that in any of those books.
    Great food for thought.

  2. I laughed so hard when I read your S.M. version. And it's ok Will, I have a crush on Alice too. ;)

  3. Thanks for the positive feedback, guys.

    @Meg: How could you NOT love her? Have you SEEN her?! Oh my goodness. OH. MY. GOODNESS.