For me, writing is about saying something the way no one else can. I’ve kind of turned off epic sci-fi and fantasy over the past few years (not that I really got into it) because a lot of the writing feels like much of the sameness. Extensive world-building, which by no means is a useless skill, third person omniscient narrator, the hero’s journey, quite formal prose, full and descriptive and similar sort of writing styles from book to book and author to author. Similar sort of narrative arcs, and all that sort of thing. I mean, sure, you get some authors in these genres that are just completely something else, but I guess that’s similar with a lot of other genres.
I’ve started to get into the James Bond series of books. I read Casino Royale a while ago and finished Live and Let Die not too long ago. Now, Ian Fleming is a decent writer. He’s great at the whole “espionage” thing, but I can be sure each book in the series will carry that consistent style of prose that’s pretty much just storytelling how James Bond gets himself into another tight situation and manages to give the bad guys the slip at the last minute. He’s a fomulaic writer, and that’s fine if you want consistency, and he did pump out a book a year until hid death. I wouldn’t put him on a list of my favourite authors though.
So why is style better than content?
I guess the big thing for me is that if you’ve got a story, you’ve got a synopsis for it, and you’re only trying to tell your story as clearly and distinctly as possible, if someone else comes along, takes your synopsis and does the same, the two stories would be more or less interchangeable. The language you use would differ, of course, and the details you use to draw the reader in would be pretty much the same, but essentially, they’re focussing on the same key points as outlined in your synopsis.
Note how the details distinguish your story from the other writer. Think about why you chose those details. It’s part of the world-building process. This is your story, make it real with all your specific little sensory perceptions that draw the reader in just that bit further. Details make a story believable. You’ve got your third person reliable narrator, and with all they’re saying, the reader should believe your story, right?
Well, here’s where I feel authors really come into their own. Style is a details job. Work the details in your favour and your story will be completely different to Johnny Uninspired over in the corner there with the exact same synopsis. Firstly, I think people tend to assume narrators need to be reliable? Yeah, that’s a big fat misconception. Turn them into a lying, theiving bastard and watch the reader sweat. “Oh I don’t know what to believe anymore, these concrete details the narrator is feeding me sound a bit ridiculous, I think he might be lying but I have no way of knowing for sure.” When you make your narrator unreliable, you not only keep the reader second-guessing, but it’s a good way to hide certain plot points without needing the logic to line up perfectly.
Next up, just go crazy with your details. Describe things that are strange or obscure, focus on things that people don’t normally notice, or focus on normal things in a strange way. After you do this for a while, you’ll notice you’re not only making the world around you seem more bizarre and fantastic, but you’re making your narrator seem more interesting as well. It doesn’t even matter if the narrator’s in the story or not, they’ve still got a character. If you can give your narrator a unique voice, it doesn’t matter what’s happening, you can still make things seem interesting as filtered through your narrator’s obscure mind.
You can write about whatever and turn a fresh perspective on it. You can make going down to the local shops seem like poetry, you can tell stories that no one else will think to tell, you can change the plot entirely, make it about anything. Genre constraints? Fuck genre constraints. I hate it when books are just derivatives of other books in the same genre. I hate seeing stores stocked out the asshole with supernatural young adult romance novels, the next big thing that could be written with a dictionary/thesaurus and a genre style guide.
Two books I recommend when it comes to style are:
Eeeee Eee Eeee, by Tao Lin, and
The Bizarro Starter Kit Purple, an anthology of weird stories.
Eeeee Eee Eeee is a story told with an unreliable third person narrator, and it reads as if the plot doesn’t matter, and I think that’s because the book reveals more about the narrator than it does about the characters in it.
The Bizarro Starter Kit Purple is one of three Bizarro Starter Kit anthologies, and the only one I have read, but this is a great text for examining style vs content. It’s almost a certainty there will be stories in here you won’t like, or you’ll like less than others. Some stories I thought were brilliant, others I thought were good, some just seemed to be dripping with weirdness and violence for the sake of it. The thing is, each author has his/her own style, with varying degrees of uniqueness. It’s just one genre, but it’s the genre of the weird, eclectic and creative. It’s about letting go and finding yourself in a weird and disturbing place.
If I’m going to tell a story, I feel that it has to be something worth telling, and that it has to be something told in a way that only I can tell it. Sometimes it feels as if originality is hard to come by these days, but really, I think it’s just a matter of looking in the right places.