You Gotta Have Style
“Fashion fades, but style endures.” …Coco Chanel
Which brings me to the second part of William Strunk’s treatise: style.
What is literary style and how does it play into a writer/editor’s labors? Can we even discuss style or is it like Potter Stewart’s obscenity, we simply know it when we see it? Perhaps it’s a bit of both.
Curiously, over this past week my thoughts veered away from the world of letters and into – for me – the unfamiliar world of haute couture, specifically the wit and wisdom of Ms. Coco Chanel. One does not usually put Strunk and Chanel in the same breath, and yet, when it comes to style, they actually have a great deal in common. Both emphasize simplicity and clean lines, a style which is natural to the wearer, not forced or laden with ornamentation.
In words or cloth, despite publishers’ fads or the vagaries of the marketplace, style is like a little black dress, well-made, beautifully tailored, and right for any occasion.
So, how do we get there? Are there rules to literary style? Nothing as specific or rigid as those of its elements. More aptly, I would say there are principles – some of which I will examine in detail in upcoming weeks. These principles vary slightly with region, culture, and, to a degree, time, but the underlying tenets remain the same. A few things – and only a few – to bear in mind are
• Write naturally. It is high artifice for a 21st century author to write like Brontë or Twain, and has a tendency to wear thin. That said, you also want your style to fit your genre. The language of sword-and-sorcery is not that of noir mystery or gritty YA.
• Fit form to project. For example, few people – Joyce is an exception who springs to mind – would, could, or should spend 500 pages on a tale as intimate and temporally restricted a single day in a man’s life. Most of us would see this as the stuff of a short story, play, or perhaps a narrative poem.
• Chanel said, “A woman is close to being naked when she is well dressed.” So dress your story well. Write with nouns and verbs. The rest is needed, of course; it is the flesh on the skeleton. But without the skeleton, you have only a blob of distracting words.
• Don’t overstate. Few readers want to have everything spelled out, let alone be hit over the head again and again.
• Avoid qualifiers. “Rather,” “around,” “sort of,” et al., only make for fuzzy writing and make the reader wonder if you know what you’re talking about. You are the author. You know that you character is not “about twenty-five years old” but was born on May 20, 1987 and will be turning 26 in seven weeks.
• Don’t get cute or slangy or use fancy or foreign words when simple, native ones work just as well.
• Be clear. A reader will work with a book that deals with difficult subject matter or tells a tale in an unusual way, but don’t make them scratch their head because you didn’t take the time to be clear. Strip away the clutter so you can see your story from A to Z. With dialogue, make sure the reader knows who is speaking when and to whom. (This is not just a matter of dialogue tags, but we’ll get to that another time.)
• Don’t fall in love with the sound of your own voice. It’s something we all do. That exquisite phrase we labored over for hours, days, so hard to let go of it. But sometimes we must learn to say ‘No!’ (“Elegance is refusal,” Coco said.) If it puts you, the author, in the spotlight and your story in the shadows, then it has to be cut. What we do is ultimately not about us writers; we are simply servants to our stories, and serve them best in the background.
In the end, hard-edged as Raymond Chandler or lyrical as Alice Walker, regardless of tone, hue, or voice, style comes down to dressing your story in effortless elegance. Ms Chanel noted, “Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.” We want people to remember our storied women.
Luxury lies not in the richness of things, but in the absence of vulgarity.
If you were born without wings, do nothing to prevent them from growing.
Women think of all colors except the absence of color. I have said that black has it all. White too. Their beauty is absolute. It is the perfect harmony.