Why style is better than content

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.

Tuxedo man saves world and girl without breaking sweat

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.

Who knows what to believe anymore?

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.


Pride + Prejudice + Zombies = New York Times Bestseller!



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.


13 thoughts on “Why style is better than content

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  1. I loved how, in Casino Royale, James Bond is just cold-hearted prick.

    Some good points you are raising here. I’m currently reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which is style over content and ridiculously laborious. But then you have Et Tu, Babe by Mark Leyner which is the most kick-arse-ingest book ever written. In it, the main character is a steroid-taking billionaire version of Mark Leyner, who routinely performs surgery on himself.

    I guess, like most things, it works sometimes, for some people, not so much for others.

  2. So what you’re saying is that you are in favour of postmodernism in writing (or post post modernism even.) Is that correct?

    Also, the picture of the tuxedo man is a still from I Love You, Man, which is an excellent movie.

    And I have Dr No if you want it. The book I mean.

  3. Yeah, I’m definitely in favour of postmodernism, or as D. Harlan Wilson calls it, the post(post)/post-post+postmodern”. I don’t want to sound like I’m writing off all other styles, but definitely in postmodern writing, it’s easier to distinguish writers from one another, it’s easier to find your own distinct voice.

    Postmodernism works for me, but really, it’s about how writers should find their own original voice, think about who their narrator is, and really work on making that person unique. Really, a lot of third person narrators are just (seemingly) objective storytellers, as the author is a storyteller. Characters fascinate me. Particularly how they speak and think.

    And yeah, I’ve seen the film, I just liked the whole “putting on a tuxedo turns you into James Bond” with the hand/gun, as opposed to serious James.

    I’ve got Moonraker (reading them in order) but I probably won’t read it for a while because I’ve got another book I’m borrowing off a friend, I’ve still got to finish 1984, Fuckness, maybe Ulysses, I’ve got two more short novels on order and I’ll probably give Gatsby another chance before I pick James back up again. Thanks, but I’ll have to say no to Dr No this time around. 🙂

  4. I can’t speak of “name authors,” but I’ve always noticed that the majority of the authors who submit to my lit mag and write in a specific genre like horror or science fiction or Tolkienesque fantasy use a sort of writing style that is indistinguishable from the style of the authors who share their genre. It’s usually well-written, but extremely dull stylistically.

    You should read Chilly Scenes of Winter since you liked that Tao Lin book.

  5. Yeah, I think I recall a quote, something along the lines of after Tolkien came on the scene, there came along a thousand tolkien impersonators. If you’re gonna do a genre that’s already been heavily worked over before, you need to make it your own.

    I can only imagine some of the bog standard genre stories your (hell, any lit/genre) magazine would get. I guess that’s why professional writers go on about how important it is for writers to read a lot in addition to writing a lot.

    Thanks for the book recommendation, I’ll make sure to check it out.

  6. Regardless of the writing style of authors, The Lord of the Rings was bad for the fantasy genre considering how many writers have imitated its content. I love fantasy, but not when the content is always the same. If it’s not an imitation of Tolkien, it’s an imitation of Dungeons and Dragons. Alice in Wonderland is a well known example of the type of fantasy I like. There’s not much of it because it’s overshadowed by novels that share the same content rather than being entirely unique, which is what writing fantasy should be all about.

  7. At the time it was written, there was nothing like Lord of the Rings. I studied a unit in my first year of uni called Fantasy and Culture, where I got to have a close look at the text and the stuff that was going on around it at the time. The idea that any old writer can come along an be the next Tolkien is just ridiculous.

    To begin with, he was a philologist, he was well studied on the subject of fantasy enough to write academic papers about it. His aim was not to work with common fairy-tale tropes and write up a derivative work, instead, he set out to create an entire mythology for England like all the ancient myths in Europe. He spent years building up this mythology. It’s just something you can’t imitate. The only way to be the next Tolkien is to create something entirely new and commit your life’s work to it.

    If the Lord of the Rings weren’t so popular, we wouldn’t have seen so many imitators and maybe we wouldn’t have this problem. I think the films didn’t do us any favours either.

    Alice in Wonderland works so well because it’s so nonsensical, the closest imitation I can think of would be something like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There’s no set formula or style, it’s just a man bullshitting his way through a story to a couple of kids. Even in imitation, the style is still wild and imaginative. It’s something that could adapt easily to other genres.

    But then there’ll be the ‘hardcore’ fantasy fans who come along and state that technically Alice in Wonderland is not fantasy because it’s only a dream. I’ve just stopped bothering with the whole genre-divides thing. Good books should be compelling regardless of genre (and I guess regardless of content too…).

  8. Oh, there are a fair amount of fantasy books that aren’t recycled versions of The Lord of the Rings or adaptations of what could be Dungeons & Dragon games. I think fantasy is all about the imagination, so I don’t really view rehashed Epic or Sword and Sorcery fantasy as proper fantasy. I suppose a lot of that was inspired by the King author stories as well.

    Lord Dunsany’s stuff was published way before Lord of the Rings and I think it was similar. Maybe we should be talking about the Hobbit instead of The Lord of the Rings because I think it came out a few decades before. And the movies are so recent, so they’re not applicable to the tons of epic fantasy books that came out in the past. Dragonlance (which the D & D company published) and The Wheel of Time and all that stuff. There were the animated movies based on Tolkien’s books, but I don’t think they were that popular. The Return of the King animated movie was suppose to have been awful. I was probably too young to notice the difference in quality between it and the Lord of the Rings movie that came before, which the guy who made Heavy Metal and Fritz the Cat did. I remember really liking The Hobbit though.

    The most prominent fantasy books that aren’t like this are children’s books like The Wizard of Oz (or The Wonderful Wizard of Oz). It’s funny how popular movies pretty much change the names of the books that they are based on (like Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland). Although I guess the names are always really similar.

    So as far as what I consider “true” fantasy, I’d bring up the New Weird stuff. Like Jeff Vandermeer and Chine Mieville (who I believe is big into Tolkien but has said that he is the worst thing that has ever happened to the genre). And I really like Jonathan Carrol’s Urban Fantasy novels.

    1. Yeah, the Hobbit was out in the 1930s, the Lord of the Rings was 1950s, but took until the 1960s before it was published in America, I think. There was an issue with a publisher (I forget the name) printing the Lord of the Rings as a trade paperback without Tolkien’s (or his UK publisher’s) permission. It was something to do with a loophole in the copyright system in America at the time, but that lead to a wide American fanbase in the ’60s, particularly amongst college students and hippies.

      I think definitely the Hobbit kickstarted it all, and it’s much more readable (note: not nearly as much world-building) than the Lord of the Rings, but I think the Lord of the Rings books, and Peter Jackson’s films really brought the style of high fantasy to the younger generations and resulted with a resurgence of copycat authors.

      I remember watching the first animated film when I was a kid in the late ’90s. Compare that to Peter Jackson’s films, and there’s been nothing like it for my generation. It was a cultural phenomenon, and I recall my parents trying to get my brother and I to read the books, and I recall other kids at school reading the books. It’s a fad thing. It happened with Harry Potter and Twilight too, and while the quality of those texts can be questioned, there’s a demand in the culture for it and for others like it.

      I can guess major publishers would be on the hunt for similar types of books as soon as Tolkien became popular, or as soon as Harry Potter became popular, or as soon as Twilight became popular. It’s not fantasy, it’s economics. Supply and demand. It sucks, and it’s clearly not doing any favours for the fantasy genre but realistically, all we can do is be on the look out for that gem that someone writes for reasons other than to catch the tail end of yet another fad.

      I think genres such as Urban Fantasy, Weird Fiction and Bizarro are more exciting than straight up Sci-Fi because they’re relatively untapped/broad genres that writers can really make their own. I’m keeping an eye on the Steampunk/Cyberpunk genres at the moment to see how they develop because on one hand I’m seeing a shift towards the mainstream, but on the other hand, there’s still a lot of potential.

  9. The Hobbit is a kids book while Lord of the Rings is for adults, which is kind of weird considering it’s a sequel.

    I’m not sure, but maybe The Lord of the Rings was originally released as three books. I vaguely remember Tolkien wanting it to be released as one book and being pissed about it, so maybe that’t why it took longer to be published.

    Generally, I don’t think that people categorize books are movies in the fantasy genre unless it resembles Tolkien’s books or Dungeons and Dragons.

    Cyberpunk seems pretty dead these days, but maybe I just stopped paying attention. I used to love William Gibson’s books. Then with Pattern Recognition, he stopped writing about the future and started writing about the past. Like that book a lot. But hated Spook Country, which came after it and also takes place in the present. Haven’t read his new one because I heard it’s similar to Spook Country. I used to also like Rudy Rucker’s books and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which I heard was a parody of cyberpunk but I don’t remember realizing it at the time. It was definitely goofier than the other cyberpunk books though with a samurai pizza deliverer named Hiro Protagonist and a girl with some sort of weapon in her vagina.

    I haven’t read much Steampunk. Just the book that Gibson co-wrote with Bruce Sterling. I wasn’t crazy about that. And Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, which I liked a lot.

    It’s supposed to be a trend these days and I read those books before it was a trend. I just thought it was a counterculture fashion thing until recently when I started noticing more books in the genre.

    And I’ve read the His Dark Materials series. Is that Steampunk? I don’t know.

    It doesn’t seem that popular movie-wise considering Sky Captain bombed and it seemed like it was the most Steampunk movie ever, so maybe it’s just a trend as far as books, but it’s not like science fiction is that popular these days.

  10. Yeah, I think at one point he wanted it released as one book, and I think after his publisher denied him that he wanted either two volumes or six. I’m pretty sure it was two, and perhaps I’m thinking six because Jackson may have wanted to split the story into six films, or maybe I’m just making it all up. I also recall he was totally against the title of “the Return of the King” becuase it reveals a main plot point of the third book.

    I think people have just become so used to fantasy as a genre largely formed around your typical fantastical creatures/medieval myths and such, but really, it is a lot broader than that. There’s the high fantasy stuff like Lord of the Rings, the whole ‘other realm’ type thing which I guess most people think as ‘true fantasy’, which I guess has all the ancient mythologies and strange beasts and epic backstories and such. And then there’s the ‘low fantasy’ which is tied back to ‘the real world’ with portals and the like, with stuff like Harry Potter and Narnia, and I think the His Dark Materials Trilogy sort of fits into low fantasy too. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland can be considered low fantasy if you count her dream state as a portal. But then you get the urban fantasy stuff which seem like a mish-mash of fantasy and realism, which is strange considering they’re polar opposite genres.

    I haven’t really seen much cyberpunk being published lately, although I didn’t really get into cyberpunk until recently, and even then I still feel like I’m not fully “into it”. I think it’s still got a lot to offer. If you look at cyberpunk in the ’80s, I only read Neuromancer this year, back then technology was a completely different monster than it is today. I mean, just compare Tron with Tron Legacy. They’re both dealing with similar sort of technology, but now the majority of us can understand it, and even looking back on the original it still feels a bit strange. I don’t think cyberpunk in literature is dead, so much as it’s in hybernation.

    As for steampunk, I think it’s turning more into a kid’s genre. It’s more of a contemporary fantasy, or a retro sci-fi that’s still somehow tied back to a familiar society, so it’s imaginative, yet relatable. I’ve read a couple of steampunk novels that came out in the last couple of years and they’ve been good reads, although they’ve been targeting more of a young adult demographic. Pretty much like His Dark Materials. I think it’s considered to be steampunk, although the first book is more traditional steampunk than the other two.

    I recall there being a Golden Compass movie, and then the sequels got cancelled, so I think you’re right that steampunk tends not to fare too well in films. I’m curious to see how the movie “Sucker Punch” goes down, considering it appears to be an action blockbuster with steampunk aesthetics.

    Maybe it’s just me coming onto the genres a little late. I’m quite fond of the whole cyberpunk/steampunk aesthetics. I think also that these sorts of things are being picked up in games too (eg. Bioshock), so while it’s still a niche genre, there’s enough people indulging in the genres (reading/playing/watching/writing) that there could be someone that comes along like the next Tolkien or Harry Potter or Twilight that blows the genre wide open. I don’t know if it would be a good thing or a bad thing, but I think it’s something to keep an eye on, at least.

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