Writing Style and Voice
When all story elements (setting, characters, plot, conflict, theme) are present and accounted for a work can actually be defined as a story. But what about making it a “good” story? Or how about a Newbury award winning story? What sets those books apart? That all comes from the storytelling. How each element is presented is just as important as its presence. An author’s writing style or their voice is a key element in any “good” book.
An author’s voice is what may set him/her apart from all the other writers out there for good or for bad, depending on the preferences of the reader. If you don’t like a particular writing style in can be more difficult to enjoy a book. I have tried some high fantasy books by a couple of different authors and I have determined that it is just not the genre for me because of the writing style that seems to accompany it. It feels like such hard work to wade through all of the description and background information for these epic fantasy worlds that the authors dream up. I need the plot development to move more quickly. I felt that way with Eragon, The Eye of the World (From The Wheel of Time series), Mistborn, The Hobbit, and The Fellowship of the Ring.
The extreme detailedness of these books kept me from loving them, but I didn’t necessarily dislike them either. I am able to appreciate some of their other “good” qualities and even understand why all of that extra information is important. In writing fantasy an author must suspend our disbelief in magic. We have to believe that the world they have created within the pages could actually exist and work. We have to know the rules of the book’s reality and agree that if those rules were to in fact possible that the events in the book would then also be possible. I may get bored by the way author’s describe their epic fantasy worlds but I can still respect the skill and genius it takes to think it all up in the first place. Add in consistent characters with relatable desires and motivations and you have a very interesting story. Unfortunately, just not interesting enough to make it worth trudging through pages and pages of supplemental information that in no way develops either the plot or the characters.
In addition to well paced plot and character development, I love any writing style that can “show” the people, places, things, and events rather than “tell.” When an author does too much “telling” it can feel like reading a grocery list – “This happened. Then this. They were wearing this. It looked like this. It felt like that.” Boring. “Showing” allows us to experience the story events and live them in our imaginations. The words we read register more as images in our mind’s eye, and in addition to the sights, sounds, and events of the story emotions are illuminated and created as well.
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier is the ultimate reader sensory experience. The words paint vibrant colors, action, and feelings that envelop you and take you on a journey through rhododendron lined drives, a stylish mansion, and a haunted life. It has been years since I read that book, but I can conjure an image of the Manderly estate as easily as I can picture my toothbrush all because the words actually took me to that place. It wasn’t just described to me; I feel like I actually saw it.
There are all kinds of other “technical” terms we could use when talking about good writing; we could analyze sentence structure and dialogue, or the use of similes and metaphor, but good writing is more complex than a checklist literary jargon. While these checklist items can certainly help a writing style to be more engaging, the real sign of success is that we don’t notice the use of specific writing conventions. Instead, we as readers are simply caught up in the flow of the words. We might pause to reflect on a particularly beautiful word arrangement, or choice of descriptors, but if we are paying attention to sentence structure and other conventions while reading it’s probably because it has been written badly.
The criteria for judging good writing style or voice is not really measurable or specific; opinion and personal preference certainly play a role in it, but that’s where exposure to a variety of author’s and genres will help us develop more educated opinions. The more different writing styles you read the more you will be able to pinpoint the differences and then justify why you like or dislike something. I guess that old TV slogan was right: “The more you read the more you know.” You just know when writing flows well, sounds good, and works; or on the other hand you know when it is confusing, awkward, and just missing something.
Next up, my last post on the art of reviewing. We’ve covered the “why” and “how”; now it’s time to talk about the “what”.