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Writing Style Myths: It's Time to Ditch the Rule Book

S.P. Austen (1960- 2020) was an independent author writing on a diversity of subjects and genres. He passed away on June 30, 2020

Writing Style Myths

Writing Style Myths

Throw Out the Rule Book! Why Breaking Rules Might Better Your Writing

We often hear comments on 'writing style' in the literary world, and it is, of course, natural that writers will discover their own particular style and personal leanings in their writing. But sometimes, what happens is that the very concept of a 'writing style' starts to get bogged down in rules and regulations which then dictate how to write and what you should avoid.

'Don't Talk About the Weather'

I was once criticised by someone who thought they knew all there was to know about writing because I opened a short story with a description of the weather. Yes, rather a crass thing to criticise, I agree.

It wasn't that I was actually being criticised that bothered me, because taste is taste after all, and that, of course, is a subjective experience; what rankled for me was that this individual went on to justify the criticism by saying that all good writers know that you never open a story by talking about the weather. Ouch. Really? I thought, flabbergasted.

Sometimes the Rules Don't Apply

Yes, painful. Who on earth makes up these stupid rules? Did this individual never read Shakespeare's The Tempest which opens with a storm at sea? I was beside myself with frustration. Why can you not 'set the scene' for any story with a description of the weather? If I'm writing about a person walking on the misty moors of Scotland as my opener, I would be absolutely remiss to not say something relevant about the damn weather!

In the above example, it may well be that our character is walking across the wet, misty moors thinking about the body he's just buried in the peat back there, but unless we set the scene up properly and include pertinent observations about the weather then he might just as well be taking a Sunday morning stroll along the village green.

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Aspects such as the weather play their part in atmospheric description which adds to the dialogue or the narrative in ways that bring the story to life. To not mention it would be just plain bad writing.

'Call Me Ishmael . . . '

I love great literature, from the classic English and Scottish writers to the American classics. But they all write differently. That's the beauty of the creative imagination and personal style. Think of Herman Melville's immortal opening lines to Moby Dick; "Call me Ishmael..." Thank God the critic mentioned earlier was not around to review Melville's first draft of that great classic about the white whale! I can just hear the critique of that novel now: 'Oh, no writer would begin a novel with such an enigmatic line' or words to that effect. In fact, it was a brilliant line, and remains in the mind of the reader, making them want to read on.

Sometimes the Unexpected Brings Flair

I love Stephen Crane's Civil War story The Red Badge of Courage where he masterfully describes the oppressive clouds hanging over the marching, weary soldiers. It paints a picture of the scene which the reader's own imagination then re-creates and adds to as an indelible sense of the grim reality of war. You feel it in your very bones.

Other writers have included some very odd things in their books, which a less inspired red editing pen would have scratched out, losing some immortal facts. Such an example was the epic true-life account entitled The Long Walk. Written by Slavomir Rawicz, I first read it at school.

What Grabs Your Imagination?

But what grabbed my imagination was the account that he included in the book of sighting a line of humanoid-type beings walking in a line along a mountain pass, in the distance. We would call them Yetis. The author could have excluded this aside from the book, as it did not directly relate to the main theme of the account which was about a long journey of escape from oppression. But it was stunning to read it, simply because it did not fit into the reality that most of us are used to. The author included it because he witnessed it, and although it seemed anomalous, it was important for the overall impression of the manuscript.

Include the Details

So, if you have two characters in your next bestseller standing in a room engaged in talking deeply about some meaningful aspect of the tale, you can certainly have one of them notice other things as an aside. Perhaps, whilst listening to the other person, she glances at the windowpane and watches two raindrops winding their way slowly down the pane, wondering which one will reach the bottom of the window first. Maybe the other person is even talking about something absolutely momentous, and yet the other person may still be distracted by the two racing raindrops, mentally betting on which one will win the meandering race?

It doesn't matter what the writing style is, because there are no rules that you must adhere to. If your imagination conjures up something quirky or interesting, by God include it. You may miss a gem of literary genius if you do not, simply because someone told you to follow certain writing guidelines and 'rules' which have no foundation in the actual creative process of writing.

© 2016 S P Austen

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