Updated: May 23, 2020
There are many aspects of style (sometimes called voice) including perspective, language, tenses and chapter lengths. The fascinating thing about writing a novel is that no one style is inherently better than another. Your style will hopefully reflect both you as an author and be the most effective way to tell the particular story you are writing. Because of this I will not be telling you to “do this” or “don’t do that”. Instead I will look at the ways different styles affect the reader so that you can consider style in your own work and choose the best way to tell your story in a manner that feels authentic to the characters and yourself.
Fashions change, and while you should not make yourself a slave to fashion when writing (or in my opinion in any part of your life) it is worth being aware of fashions and trends because these can alter the expectations of contemporary readers. Have you heard the phrase “too purple”? When I was studying creative writing with the Open University, my tutor levelled this criticism toward the initial pieces of work I submitted. After the painful shock of receiving criticism was processed, I dried my tears and overcame the desire to defend myself, and I looked again, both at what I was writing and what I was reading at the time. I realised that most of the books I read and loved were from the 18th and 19th centuries when florid descriptions were more fashionable. I changed my diet, and I feel confident saying that reading Iain Banks saved my writing, or at least my OU course grade.
In this article I will be covering perspective or point of view (who is telling the story); language (which will include description and dialect); tenses (past and present tense), and lengths of chapters and sentences (while I might touch on punctuation we will return to that subject at a later time).
Otherwise known as point of view or viewpoint.
First-person single viewpoint, where the narrator is also the main character and refers to his or herself as I. First person is a relatively modern way of writing and there are still some literary critics who dislike seeing a page littered with I’s. However, if you, like most of us, write with readers rather than critics in mind, it is a perfectly valid form of telling a story. It can feel more immediate and intense than he/she, and allows for plays on gender and identity which could feel cumbersome with a third person narrative. First person narratives tend to have a single viewpoint which means we really get to know and understand the narrator but not always in an objective way. The entire story is subject to the bias and knowledge (or lack thereof) or the single narrator. Using the first person adds to the authenticity of the character. Readers will, while they read the story at least, see the character as a real person. Writing in the first person lends itself to a conversational, even colloquial, style and the use of slang and dialect can be very effective.
“I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped. I already knew something was going to happen; the Factory told me.” The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks.
Second-person single viewpoint is rarely used. It looks similar to an instruction guide and uses the pronoun you. It is still considered an experimental way of writing.
Third-person single viewpoint, the story is told from the point of view of a single character but that character is referred to as he or she (or ze). It is said to be the most effective way to ensure reader engagement and works well across genres.
A quick note on “the child narrator”. When your single view-point is a child should they use childish language? Henry James answered this question: “Small children have many more perceptions than they have terms to translate them: their vision is at any moment richer, their apprehension even constantly stronger, than their prompt, their at all producible, vocabulary.” In short, a naive viewpoint can be written in a mature style. Alternatively the style can be intentionally less articulate to underline the relative inelegance of the narrator – as in "The Catcher in the Rye”.
Third-person multiple is the most commonly used form. It allows the writer to switch between the points of view of more than one character, allowing the reader to see things from more than one angle.
“He had become so completely absorbed in himself and isolated from his fellows that he dreaded meeting not only his landlady but anyone at all.” Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky.
However it requires skill and care to get right.
For example - imagine a scene where Robert is walking away from an argument with his mother. We are only told his thoughts, motivations and feelings about the situation as if, for the moment, his mother only exists through his perception of her. How comfortable would it feel to switch for one or two sentences to the thoughts inside his mother’s head only to swing back to Robert again?
We call this head-hopping. If you need the perspectives of more than one character to tell your story there are clear ways of signposting this to the reader. Often scene breaks or new chapters are used to switch “heads”. Without carefully handling, shifts in perspective or point of view can be confusing, disruptive and seem lazy.
Detached viewpoint. One way to avoid head-hopping with multiple characters is to describe only outwardly visible behaviour. In this way the author/narrator acts as an impartial reporter of events, never entering the mind of any of the characters. Behavioural displays and dialogue are the only clues the reader is given to the inner thoughts of the characters.
To summarise - point of view, when we talk about writing, is the point from which we focus the lens outwards. Even in stories with an omniscient (all knowing) narrator we will usually find that only a few characters are at the centre and the narrative concentrates on how the events affect and are interpreted by these few. First and third person both have their strengths and their challenges. If you are writing a story that you feel is not working it can sometimes pay dividends to rewrite it from an alternative point of view.
Active versus Passive Voice
Active – John carries the suitcase.
Passive – The suitcase is carried by John.
Using a passive voice is often described as weak. The active voice is simpler and frequently less jarring. It keeps the reader firmly in the action of your story. A passive voice in fiction can push the reader away from the action. When a writer uses the active voice they focus on the subject of the sentence, in this case John. When a passive voice is used the object of the sentence, in this case the suitcase, is the focus. There may be occasions when you want to focus on the object, and in which case passive may be the best choice. As with every other subject I am covering on this course, awareness is key. Know what you want to achieve and find the best style for you.
Do you want to tell your story in a modern, plain English, that won’t have readers reaching for the dictionary every few minutes? Do you want to create a sense of place by using dialect or a mix of English with other languages? Do you want to use repetition to underline an important point or build a rhythm in the prose? Alliteration, sibilance, and rhyme can all add poetry to your prose if that is the effect you want to achieve. Do you want dense descriptive scenes or spare language, where a few well chosen words can replace a page full of adjectives? Alternatively, metaphors and similes can be used to not only describe an object, person or action, but can also add additional layers of meaning to the text.
There are no right or wrong ways of using language, but try to keep in mind what you want to achieve. Cleverness for cleverness’s sake is likely to frustrate a reader, but when it is used to enrich the story and develop the setting or characters it can be the difference between a good story and a great piece of literature.
Is the action happening now, or did it happen in the past? How can you signpost to the reader the chronology of your story?
Present tense – using present tense puts the reader in the midst of the action. It can make a story feel more urgent and can increase the anxiety of the reader.
Types of present tense and examples:
Present simple – Helen grows her own vegetables.
Present continuous – Helen is growing her own vegetables.
Present perfect – Helen has grown her own vegetables.
Present perfect continuous – Helen has been growing her own vegetables.
Past tense- using past tense is often considered a more literary way of writing and far less restrictive than trying to confine oneself to present tense.
Past simple – Helen grew her own vegetables.
Past continuous – Helen was growing her own vegetables.
Past perfect – Helen had grown her own vegetables.
Past perfect continuous – Helen had been growing her own vegetables.
There are no hard and fast rules as to the ideal chapter length. I have heard some people say that chapter lengths should be standardised within a novel, while others say a chapter should be the length it needs to be independent of the length of other chapters.
Rather than focus on the length of a chapter it might be more useful to think about what a chapter contains. Does it progress the story? Does it develop the characters?
Not all novels have them but, as a bed-time reader, I appreciate an author who uses chapters. A chapter break provides a stress-free or at least logical place to stop. At its most satisfying, each chapter can contain its own arc – a beginning, middle and end, with a peak in tension near or at the end of the chapter. Alternatively each chapter might represent a scene or a lesson learned.
A short chapter, like a short punchy sentence, can speed up time and add tension. A long chapter, like a long meandering sentence, can slow down the story and relieve tension. My advice is that you allow the story to dictate the length of your chapters rather than a misplaced anxiety about how things should be.
There is an effective way of keeping a reader’s interest and that is by varying the lengths of your sentences. Breaking the rhythm in this way psychologically wakes a reader up. Short, snappy sentences can speed up the action, while longer ones slow it down. In a longer story a varied rhythm of this kind can be very welcome. We will look at punctuation and grammar with regards to sentence structure at a later date.
By necessity this is the most technical article in the series so far. I welcome your questions and comments. If you are confused and need help, would like further clarification on any the points I have covered, or would like to discuss other aspects of style, please do use the comments to contact me. I hope this section of the course wasn’t too dry and that you managed to gain some insight into your own writing and how it might be improved. While each of these styles have their own strengths and weaknesses and it is up to you to decide which best fit your novel, the key is consistency and awareness. Know who is telling your story and be consistent with your use of past or present tense. Describe scenes as vividly as you can, using multi-sensory information – sights, sounds, tastes and smells etc, but don’t let heavy description take you away from the story. Always try to keep in mind what you are trying to say and what is the best way to express it, so that the reader understands your message and enjoys the experience.
We will be looking at writer’s block and tips on how to keep writing.
Carmilla Voiez is a horror and fantasy author. Her novels have been published by indie publishing companies including Vamptasy Publishing, CHBB and Stone Circle Publishing and her short stories have been included in anthologies by Clash Books, Weird Punk Books, Siren Magazine, and Dragones Mecanicos. Her award-winning Starblood series is being adapted into a series of graphic novels illustrated by Anna Prashkovich. She has studied creative writing with the Open University and proof-reading with Chapterhouse. Carmilla also offers individually tailored editing packages for self-publishing authors.
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