POV and Style, PART 2: Do Your Groundwork

Stylized writing is something everyone wants to try, once or twice.  Things like intensely tonal writing, insane temporal structures, and iambic pentameter sometimes are unique choices that add pop and interest to a story.  Sometimes there’s only one way to tell a particular story, and that’s with eight simultaneous first person narrators.  (If that is your story, I’m sorry, that is going to be very difficult.  Good luck.)

When I talk about style, I mean all the things that make prose pretty instead of efficient.  Standard prose gets the point across; stylized prose gets the point across with flair.

However, style is not a free pass.  Style is not a story, or a premise, or good characterization.  The reader isn’t looking at a story just for style–the reader still wants plot and arc and setting.

Style is never a Band-aid, to cover a hole or a lack of development in a different area.  Writing something heavily stylized means that the writer needs to work significantly harder to make all of the key elements clear despite the extra layer of complexity that stylization adds.  It takes a skilled hand with very careful editing to get it right, and to make things more difficult, critique groups sometimes get distracted by skillful line-by-line writing.  It’s an easy thing to notice and compliment: “Your sentences are beautiful,” and “This description glows” are nice things to say, and your critique group wants to be nice.  Nobody is going to complain that the worlds are too lovely.  This means that it’s harder to learn what’s missing in a story with a layer of flashy prose on top and it means it’s harder to learn when to let go of sentences that add to the pretty but don’t add to the plot.

A story that could stand on its own merits can sometimes be crippled by style.  Everything that be done in prose can’t happen in a sestina, no matter how much the writer wants it to.  Style makes each part of the story less accessible, as the reader has to do an extra mental somersault to get to the story.  Sometimes that’s one gymnastic trick too many.

The story might be like a Picasso painting–twisted in form and broken in perspective, but it can’t be successful like Picasso if the writer doesn’t understand how to write a story that isn’t twisted and strange.  Picasso could paint perfect realism but didn’t, because he found his abstraction more interesting.  The thing to recall is that Picasso’s abstraction wouldn’t be as interesting if he didn’t understand perfect realism.  Picasso spent his youth making realistic portraits and still lives, and after moving on to cubism, still made extensive studies before starting a painting.

It is for this same sort of reason that art classes, as a general rule, have figure drawing in them.  Figure drawing is boring, difficult, and the end result is a massive pad of paper that’s all used up, which you can’t really show around because a) it’s newsprint, which isn’t very nice paper and that’s a bit embarrassing, and b) it is all drawings of naked people.

Very few people really like figure drawing.  It’s not flashy, it doesn’t turn into proper finished work, and it’s not creative.  If the professor points out that the thigh is too long, mentioning your stylistic choices isn’t going to fly.  You are chained to what’s in front of you.

And yet, when you’re set free of that horrible class, you have the skills to do beautiful drawings without pain and effort and pulling your hair out, because you filled up that huge useless pad.  The hours of drawing a model become the backbone of visual skills and underlie all the insane things that an artist decides to do with creative freedom.  It’s not hard to tell the difference between abstraction done by an artist who’s put their time in, and abstraction done by an artist who hasn’t, because the latter case is empty and broken underneath, and the former is gorgeous.

Writers who want to write with a veneer of style over the top of their story have to practice stories that stand solid and engaging without the line-by-line glitz, because the story rests on character and plot and emotion.  Without the good stuff underneath, even the flashiest style is going to leave the reader wondering why they worked so hard to get to a story that just felt hollow inside.

Put in your hours.  Go to figure drawing class.  Try not to hate it.