Like many people I have read hundreds of books in my life and count the moments sitting on a couch with a storm raging outside and a good book to read as one of life’s most enjoyable moments. But until I actually wrote a book myself, I didn’t have a clear appreciation of how much a writer’s style influenced my enjoyment of a book.
Writing style is a combination of vocabulary, sentence structure, emotional honesty, powers of observation, and perspective. And a thousand other things. Style can make or break a good story. Style can pull you in or push you away.
In my previous post, I focused on the style of Ernest Hemingway – a short, clear, no frills style that for me and many others touches our emotions in a way out of all proportion to the simplicity of the language. But I also admire the more intricate and layered style of Martin Cruz Smith in Gorky Park and Polar Star. Likewise the swirling, evocative, gritty style of Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. Strangely, all those vastly different styles have the same effect on me – they pull me into their world where now I hear the sounds, smell the smells, and most importantly, feel the emotions of a reality that exists outside my mind only as marks on a piece of paper. What a miracle a great book is!
But there are also styles I don’t like. And if I had to generalize, I would say that I question any style that breaks me out of the story – that makes the ‘movie’ of the story that I’m seeing in my mind’s eye stutter like a film that has slipped off the sprockets. Sometimes this can be little things such as wrong word choice, repetitive sentence structure, characters that aren’t emotionally congruous or consistent, overlong descriptions, or obvious plot holes and ridiculous coincidences. But usually I can endure those types of errors as long as the book has other redeeming qualities. But for me there is one ‘style’ that absolutely ruins a book, movie, or T.V. show, and that is one that attempts any form of manipulation of the reader or viewer.
An example of this are books and T.V shows where every chapter or episode ends with a contrived, unanswered question or secret calculated to keep the pages turning by cynically manipulating the reader’s curiosity. Or they have ‘obligatory’ sex scenes, gratuitous bad language and violence. For those authors, it appears to be not about telling a good story well so much as running down a checklist of required elements.
So, for me, as with people I meet, I have more tolerance for an earnest, sincere but unpolished writer than I do for a suave, skillful writer who is otherwise shallow, manipulative, and insincere.
My next post will be a plug for two underrated movies, The Eagle and Battle for Los Angeles and what I learned about writing stories from watching them.