Part of writing is developing a written voice. Some writers craft long sentences that string words together to paint a verbal picture. Others are believers in brevity. Still, others practice a happy medium. Personally, I lean away from the “clipped” tone of say Hemingway but also from the excessive descriptions of Melville.
Whatever style you prefer, you can see how writing styles have developed and changed over the last hundred years. It is a given that the novelist of our era must not be wordy. He cannot devote his paragraphs to lengthy descriptions of the location, or expositional descriptions of the characters themselves. True, he may describe but indirectly. He cannot say “Bill was a tall man.” He can say, “Bella looked up at Bill, wondering slightly at his great height.” Of course, the second is wordier than the first, but at least we can work into something productive like developing the personality of Bella (i.e. we show the reader that Bella is short).
Modern novelists are every bit as wordy and descriptive as their predecessors. What has changed, however, is the content. Older writers used more description for setting and characters in an attempt to give you a basic picture. Read an original Sherlock Holmes story, and you’ll notice how every time a client comes to see Sherlock Holmes, Watson gives a straightforward description – sex, gender, socio-economic position (poor, rich, middle-class) hair color and their fashion. Sometimes he gets more detailed but he hits the essentials in painting an impression in your mind. Contemporary writers describe feelings, emotions, and reactions. It might be a no-no to spend a few sentences telling the reader what Bill looks like. But by all means, let’s spend every other sentence describing his facial muscles, his feelings and his slightest physical movement.
This difference between writing methods flows from a larger style change I’ve observed in the literature of the last hundred and fifty years: a switch from external-narration to internal-narration. Let me write an example of each style, talking about the exact same character(s) and situation and then break down some of these differences I’ve found:
Example A: In the morning, Jack and Mary hit the road again, taking the exit for Highway 12. The couple had the highway to themselves and the hours passed quietly as the enjoyed the open road and the sound of jazz over the radio. As the evening hours approached, a loud “pop” sounded from the rear of the car, and Jack pulled over. He checked the rear and found both tires gashed. “Well that’s just dandy,” he said. “What now?” asked Mary. What indeed. They had only one spare, of course. According to the map, the nearest city lay another thirty miles northeast, the nearest gas station eighteen miles behind them. With any luck, they could thumb a ride but luck had been against them so far. The solitude of the desert highway which delighted them earlier had just become their enemy. Inside the car, Mary examined the map. Her eyes lit up and she called out excitedly to Jack. “Honey look! There’s a town here, off the highway about three miles.” She handed the map to her husband. “Rascals’ Flats, eh? I believe that’s a ghost town, Mary.” “Maybe we’ll find somebody there? Or at least a place to sleep.” With evening fast approaching, Jack had to agree with her point. They still had a few hours of daylight left, enough to reach Rascals’ Flat before total darkness arrived. Bring only the essentials, Jack and Mary left the car by the side of the road and started the three-mile walk to the ghost town.
Example B: Mary looked at the desert scenery through the car window. The radio, at half volume, played an upbeat jazzy tune that made her smile. In the driver’s seat, her husband Jack had one hand resting lazily on the steering wheel, the other on the window seal. In either direction, Mary saw only pavement and desert – and she loved the solitude. All day, she and Jack had had the road to themselves. Suddenly, a series of loud “pops” erupted behind them, and the car jolted. Mary felt her throat tighten as Jack pulled the car over. He checked the back of the car. “Two flats, honey,” he called out. “Just dandy.” “What do we do now?” She asked, trying to calm the rising fear she felt. Jack shook his head. “We’re in for a long walk either way, according to the map.” “Maybe we’ll get lucky,” Mary replied, trying to convince herself more than Jack. “Maybe we can thumb a ride.” Jack laughed. “Maybe. But with our luck today, I wouldn’t count on it.” Mary laughed back – he was right. She pulled out the map and looked for anything nearby. Nothing. Or, almost nothing. Her eyes rested on a small name, near the highway. “Honey look, there’s a town right here, about three miles away,” Jack took the map and examined it for himself. “Rascals’ Flat, eh? I believe that’s a ghost town.” “Maybe we’ll find someone there; at least a place to sleep perhaps?” Mary glanced outside at the evening sky and noticed Jack doing the same.”Alright,” he said. “Let’s start walking.”
Example A is, of course, an external narrative while Example B is internal though neither is purely one over the other. In Example A, you’ll notice a few distinctive traits:
- Neither Jack or Mary is the exclusive point of reference, but rather Jack is the main focus of the narrative since he does most the action but you are not in Jack’s head any more than you are in Mary’s. This gives me, the narrator, the freedom to focus on the active parts of the story rather than being stuck with one character writing from his/her perspective of a scene.
- The opening sentence begins with time and place, followed by character entrances and an action. The desert and the highway exist as the setting and are frankly introduced, the characters are in the setting and the action is what they are doing.
- The narrative is active-verb-heavy: “Mary examined“, “Jack pulled over. As the narrator, I’m narrating what Jack and Mary do, rather than attempting to interpret their actions.
By contrast, in Example B:
- Mary is the narrative conductor (I deliberately chose her instead of Jack to highlight the different effects of narration style), and we only see into Jack’s head by way of Mary’s interpretation.
- The opening sentence begins with a character, an action, and a location. Mary is looking at the scenery around her. In Example B, the desert is in the opening sentence to give Mary something to look at. I could just have easily said, “Mary looked out the car window” and from a grammatical perspective, it’s fine. From a narrative perspective, I need to specify what she was looking at, either in the same sentence – “Mary looked out the window at the desert“- or include the scenery in the next sentence by way of implication – “Mary looked out the window. In the fading light of evening, the desert was enchanting”. But notice how the second option is awkward. The desert is only there to give Mary something to look at, and Mary is only looking at something to give her an internal-narration introduction.
- Example B uses mostly emotive action: “Mary felt her throat tighten.” An emotive action is about how the perspective-character is reacting. It doesn’t advance the story but instead seeks to connect you emotionally to the character. You the reader have a tangible reaction from Mary that you can theoretically connect to.
The basic differences come down to a central contrast: In external-narration, when the action happens, the narrator describes the action through the perspective of an observer. In internal-narration, when the action happens, you see it through the perspective of a character and the action happens outside of the focal point rather than being the focal point.
I don’t mean to say internal-narration is bad. I think a good writer can blend both styles appropriately. But I will say that it’s easier to weave internal-moments into an external-narrative than the reverse method. You can work in a character’s personal reaction in the broader external framework without jarring the reader:
Example A: Mr. Charles Johnson lived alone in his New York apartment. Except for a maid who cleaned the place in the morning after he left for his work at the department store, and the occasional guest to share a meal and glass of brandy, Mr. Johnson led a quiet life. On one of these quiet evenings, he relaxed after a long day at work by reading a detective novel, a cheap paperback he had grabbed at the bookstore. And as he read the story, he began to reflect on just how boring his life had become. Perhaps, he thought to himself, one day he would go on an adventure. But not today.
Notice that the narrative is still external. I’m situating where the character lives, and I’m establishing his situation. But to enhance the set-up, in Mr. Johnson’s first action, I describe what he is thinking or feeling. I have my cake but I eat it too, so to speak. Now let’s try switching the order of narration and see how it works:
Example B: Charlie entered the apartment. Another day’s work done, he thought to himself as he collapsed in his favorite recliner. At the department store where he worked, he liked to browse the bookstore when had a chance. Today, he’d bought a cheap detective novel – an older paperback. He opened the pages and began to read. One page in, he reached for his glass of brandy from the previous evening, only to find the glass missing. The maid had probably cleaned and stored it that morning. The maid came to the apartments once a day in the mornings for those who wanted her services. Sighing, Charlie rose from his chair and went into the kitchen, fixed another glass and returned. An hour went by, Charlie letting his mind rest as he read. It hit him, as he neared the end, just how boring his own life actually was. Perhaps, he thought, one of these days I’ll go on an adventure.
You’ll notice how much harder it was for me to introduce external-narration here. I included the detail about the maid and his buying the book. But if I were writing this normally I would not include the line about the maid after “the maid had probably cleaned and stored it that morning.” The following sentence disrupts the flow of the personal perspective. The book’s purchase is needed information, it sets up what the character is doing this evening – a catalyst. But in the first sample, I could introduce the book with a quick expositional statement. In the second sample, I have to include Mr. Johnson’s feelings about the bookstore to make this information blend.
Which brings me to my conclusions for now. Internal narration relies on flow and connection to generate interest and sympathy. External narration relies on the logical sequence of events and their relationship to the characters, trusting that the story itself captures you and creates feelings for the characters. Again, good writing uses both but I believe externality allows for clearer and more active writing.
That’s all my thoughts on this subject for today, but I’d love to do some more posts on writing styles. Let me know if you’d like this to be a regular series!