The Most Dastardly Plot of Willycon

[NOTE: I like all parts of a story. If you haven't read anything I've written, please don't assume/limit what kind of writing I like to read/write. Give the exercises Czerneda and Salsitz suggest a try and see if they don't expand limited notions of character. NOTE #2: No, I never want to stop learning about story from anyone who has anything worthwhile to say on the matter. Nothing kills a writer's writing more surely than the one who quits asking questions about his craft.]

Julie Czerneda and Rhondi Vilott Salsitz directed the writers’ workshop with an exercise Czerneda called, “The Wall.” When you run out of ideas or your plot feels flimsy, you stare at... [scary music] the wall. She didn’t necessarily call it so much a search for story as a search for potential plot points along a story. Writers grouped off into threes and viewed illustrations by A.B. Word. We basically brainstormed as many scenarios as possible from an illustration after five minute study. The importance of the exercise was not to construct a plot, but to find possible components of a plot (some of which you will discard, of course).

We shared our points, then each group traded illustrations. Suddenly, the stakes were higher. You had to get more creative since the more obvious plot points had already been spoken for. I found that while the ideas were fewer forthcoming, a few of the remaining ideas were necessarily more intriguing.

Czerneda’s take-home points were that if you tried too hard to write a story immediately after the viewing, you might lose energy the exploration provides. She suggested writers allow the ideas go way off target to get what they’re looking for.

Next, we were handed three story ideas that Czerneda had pulled down from her idea wall. She reads and selects articles from Discover magazine, Science News, and BBC for juicy ideas. Some of these she handed us to assemble into a plot. Every few minutes or so, she would add another idea out of her grab-bag, and the writers had to incorporate the ideas into the plot we were assembling. We also traded ideas with different groups (that is, you still have to use that idea, but so did another group). After an accumulation of about ten ideas, each group revealed their plots.

The first lesson I took away was the value of discarding ideas. Salsitz [I believe] said that ideas do not have to be weighted equally. Sometimes, an idea is just a background detail. So if you have too much going on, consider paring or “sublimating”--moving an idea from the main thread.

One idea I was keen on discarding, however, was a key component of colleague’s future play (he has plans to write a play, me a story based on our idea session). William Campbell, short-short-ist (his collection) and playwright with two plays currently in New York, was great to bounce ideas off of (Terry Hickman, who has a novella forthcoming from Jintsu Press, also played a valuable part but she wasn't quite as taken by the ideas). We took each other’s ideas and took tangents off tangents, reinterpreting bad ideas into wholly new and hopefully provacative ways.

Finally we were handed “tone” & “consequence” cards that suggested how the story should feel overall and the final consequence followed all these plot events. These cards, Czerneda pointed out, changed the plots, changed what we expected from them, and got us to think about what ideas the plot conveyed.

To be frank, I couldn’t understand the other groups’ plots, lacking characters (what’s a plot without characters?). So I asked how character fit into all of this. The next assignment was to find character[s] who fit[s] this arc of ideas, character[s] to whom this arc matters most. Bill and I didn’t have too much more work to do since we’d come up with a character already in order to understand our plot (perhaps we were lucky enough to be handed an interesting character on an early card). We did need finer points to flesh out the character of his character, which Czerneda thought helped with the plot's motivation.

Bill and I discussed some of these ideas over lunch. Character is king when talking of story, but talking plot is really no different than talking of the environmental conditions that impact a character’s course and that may even change a character within to cope better with his environment. Character, meanwhile, is the DNA, and/or the personality built from prior environmental exposures (parents or previous plots that changed a character’s course). Which you lean on more heavily--character or plot--may shed more light on your world view.

The whole exercise sounds rather plotty, of course, but unless you try it for yourself, you’re bound to miss how adding new and unusual plot points can stretch your characters and enrich your stories. If done right, you can walk away invigorated, as Bill and I at least of the dozen writers present, felt the fiery hand of the muse touch us as we pulled and twisted the ideas into something relevant to our character in his situation. I submit you can’t do character without plot, nor vice versa, although you can lean toward one or another. Plot is what happens when you break the status quo, and isn’t breaking the status quo exactly what builds and develops character as he learns from the plot's unfolding? I could limelight or put in a bad light either option, but let’s just leave that up to the stories that individual storytellers choose to tell.

Following the exercises was a question and answer period with the authors. Despite all the talk of plot (or because of), they talked mostly about character. Salsitz thought villains, at their best, were not necessarily villains but the polar opposite of your protagonist. She suggested, amongst other vital statistics, knowing your character’s religion, personality traits, and fears. Everybody has a skeleton in the closet, even if the writer never pulls it out. (She suggested Red Moon, Black Mountain by Joy Chant as an example of where a main character has to die in the greater service of the plot (I suggested that you could always resurrect him again for the sequel--ha, ha).

Czerneda said she had two approaches to character. If idea came first, you decide upon the consequences of that trail of ideas, and decide what character best fit, what character the plot trail would matter most to. In character-oriented fiction, she looked at the triggers or fatal flaws that cause problems within that character. She also developed layers of character: what made her anxious, nervous, fearful of something that she could never overcome (she cautioned not to toy too much with this one except at climax because it’s easy to overdo). If a [character? plot?] is too easy, then it’s probably not worth doing.


Playing the Game: Rules and Experiment

I can't yet weigh in on the Rake's Progress debate without having read the books in question, but being a fan of some postmodern aspects and a scourge to others, I'd like to weigh once more on rules in my own recent viewing/reading experiences.

“Rules are meant to be broken” appears to be the mantra of Robert Altman. Alice McDermott, in the Oct/Nov 2000 Writer’s Chronicle article “Bend Sinister: A Handbook for Writers,” wrote that no one can tell you how to write, which I took to mean something along the lines of Altman’s rote quote. Yet I wonder: Do they really mean that?

I submit that it is the very rules the give us pleasure. If someone plays a fine game of tennis, we admire his skill. If someone swims in the Olympics, we may appreciate the fine, smooth technique or their power.

While you can bend or break a lot of “rules” in fiction (usually those which weren’t rules to begin with, but artifacts that helped certain kinds of stories achieve a satisfactory “intercourse”), there are probably some rules that are pervasive or overarching (“über”) that, when broken, can only allow at best an interesting experience.

A friend of mine, whose opinion I admire, went to see Gosford Park and hated it. I only recently saw it for myself and discovered why: It was marketed as a murder mystery. As a mystery, it sucks. The strength of the film is not that it breaks the rules of a murder mystery, but that it plays by its own rules: It is essentially a finely detailed fictional documentary of the life of the English upper class and their servants. If people went in expecting those rules, more would have come out appreciating what the filmmakers accomplished. If the film had gone into a little more depth with each character, I might have suggested the film was genius. Unfortunately, most of the stories are necessarily cut short due to time constraints; however, to go into more story would risk--if excessive--pushing it into soap opera, which Altman himself labeled it. In fact, examining the deleted scenes, one finds that most of what they attempted to do in expanding the stories would have slopped over into excess (except the last deleted scene which I thought marvelous).

But are there any über rules that Altman ought not to have broken? Well, as our scientific pals recently discovered, if even intelligent humans are given more than four variables, they don’t follow what’s going on. For literature, I surmise that including more than four story threads will only confuse viewers (which isn’t to limit stories to only four major characters unless you want the reader to follow each character as a separate story). Now some readers love to be dumbfounded by art, but they can’t really talk about art in an intelligible way, so why should we pander to them?

In the commentary track, Altman mentions again that rules are meant to be broken in conjunction with “Never cut on a pan shot.” “That sounds like a stupid rule to begin with” was my first reaction, not knowing why someone would suggest such a rule, but then Altman’s breaking the rule accomplished nothing as far as I could tell. If you break a rule, you should know why it was first suggested as a rule and why you broke it (see McDermott’s quote emphasized below). Altman’s MASH broke rules to good effect: nudity, sex, profanity, medical gore, improvisation away from the script. Why? The film was about Vietnam, so he broke the rules in rebellion to a culture that created those boundaries. MASH made today would still be interesting but soon forgotten. Some of these rules that Altman created with MASH, however, he still carries along into later films to lesser effect. Blessing a jeep is improvisational genius in MASH. The separate threads of conversation in the “upstairs” dining room of Gosford Park, while realistic, are mostly superfluous and, therefore, expendable.

McDermott seems to be aware of the rule/no-rules seeming dichotomy:
In a recent workshop at Sewanee, Ernest Gaines said..., “No one can tell you how to write your stories....” And then a split second later, there passed a shadow of utter dismay.... “Then what the hell are we doing here?”

I think this implies that each writer must come to a sense of personal rules, but these are rules that must be communicable, probably based on older rules. McDermott demonstrates how the rules are “broken” in Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister (Now just because Nabokov gets away with some of this doesn’t mean it was genius or even good but simply he followed what he felt the narrative needed):
A first sentence made up of three phrases joined by semicolons, followed by a single-word sentence.... Blatant alliteration, second person and first person in novel that is to be predominately third person, a detailed description of a puddle--can you do that?... Are you allowed to have the whole first page of the novel go by without indication of who, what, when, where, or why we should keep reading?

But really it doesn’t take long to get at enough of the who, what, when, where, or why to keep reading, so I’m not sure he really broke any rule there. She also points out he uses other supposed taboos (although he’s hardly the first to do any of these--it’s just most beginning writers do it poorly):
the manipulative use of dreams to give background and develop character. Long, delightful, but didactic passages that however briefly put the story on hold to explore the nature of thought, God, Shakespeare, school yard bullies, the futility of translation... [and a] final blatant authorial intrusion

But she does derive rules even from these supposedly broken ones:
[T]ake your reader by the scruff of the neck and make him see the world you are calling forth, remember the appeal of language used well and the necessity of voice, of the human, and in the simplest descriptions, and remember, too, that this is fiction you are writing, where every detail is chosen and every word purposeful and a necessary part not only of the sentence it is contained in but of the entire work as well....

The emphasis is mine, of course, but she emphasizes it, too, by more or less repeating the advice. She goes on to talk about finding telling details of characters as opposed to cataloging them (although that can be done too--if done well, of course).

So rules are here with us. The rules help us appreciate the form. If it’s a mystery, we know we will be examining clues and motives. If it’s science fiction, we know that we will be thrilled by the manipulation of science. And so on. It may be important to remember that (although I plan to point out seeming exceptions) if you break some rules, you are probably not so much “breaking” anything but rather no longer writing within a certain form, writing within another form altogether, or inventing a new one on your own. No crime has been committed. But to break rules, you should both know them and know what you hope to bring about in their breaking. If you want to "break" rules within a form, that requires mending the fiction to otherwise conform to the rules.

Buckell Interviews David Barr Kirtley

Don't know if Toby posts these things anywhere but in his newsletter, but Kirtley has some great responses (takes Zelazny's Books of Amber with him on a desert island, time-travels to kill Orson Scott Card to steal Ender's Game), but especially this:
Buckell: What's the most challenging aspect of writing?

Kirtley: For me, by far, it's coming up with good ideas. I know that most writers will tell you that ideas are easy, they're everywhere, all around you. I think this is just a natural reaction to the constant stream of bozos assaulting them with, "Hey man, I've got this great idea for a story. I'll sell it to you for $50,000." After a while, you're just conditioned to snap, "Look, ideas aren't that important." But if good ideas are so easy, then why does it seem that most stories I read are well-executed but ultimately forgettable because they're built around a nothing idea?


Pain and Fascination at the Dollar Theater

I love the dollar theater. Although the aiming skills of those who use the stalls leave something to be desired, there isn't a salary in America that won't allow someone to have the theater experience. In the lobby were two vending machines of temporary tattoos: with all the smart-ass remarks the kids wished they could say in a debate, anime characters, or dreams of future glory: soccer balls with bold-lettered "Mexico" or the blood-dripping characters of "peligroso." Just my staring at it seemed to bring the machines attention. A young hispanic girl, who couldn't have graduated from toddlerhood for too many years, desperately tugged at her mother's arm but I only caught the "no, no, no." A teenage girl smugly shoved quarters in without reading or hesitating and walked away without examinging her prize. Perhaps she'd been staring at the video games and suddenly decided that she did want that temporary tattoo after all (or perhaps decided to show off her daringly impulsive nature).

But, wow. I can't remember the last time I saw such a bad movie. Son of the Mask had one funny moment at the beginning where a kid rams his helmet in the balls of the protagonist to show us why he doesn't like kids. I didn't laugh out loud but the kids in the audience did. I may have smiled. It went downhill fast. Nearly no actor could capture the right tenor of the piece. One's admiration for Jim Carrey's abilities sky-rockets when you compare. Everything was derivitive. Not a glimmer of refreshing insight, so that when we came to the moral, I groaned audibly. Totally unearned. I walked out and had the urge to warn a father and son away from attending, but at the marquee, a woman had remarked that she thought it funny. The best part was when the film melted. I thought it was part of the movie for a minute, expecting some exciting new development to become incorporated in the plot. You see it happening from time to time as a gag in the movies, but this may have been my first real-life one. I was sorely tempted to walk out and ask for my fifty cents and hour and a half back.


News of Note

Michael A. Burstein has an intriguing look at what kind of language makes a bestseller. The results will underwhelm you.


Michael Schaub of Bookslut writes:
Philip K. Dick will be posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame ["along with director-mogul Steven Spielberg, animator Ray Harryhausen, and the late artist Chesley Bonestell"--seattlepi.com] on May 6. But what the hell took them so long? Several SF authors are already members, including Isaac Asimov, Andre Norton, Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel R. Delany. Good authors all, but did any of them have Dick's insanely high literary credibility?

Most of the writers before Dick either had more historical significance or more writing talent [yes, "insanely high[er] literary" works--albeit many of the inductees are not as insane or as known in the literary community because of Dick's high visibility thanks to Ridley Scott and movie industry], though after reviewing the list of inductees, I too wondered. Perhaps its a grabbag: You know who we forgot? With the inductees now limited to one writer, probably all inductees from here on will be head-scratchers for one reason or another.


How to Talk to Aliens

Yet another theory of how to approach the possibility.


Speculating on Summer Speculative Workshops

Jay Lake just posted his "rules" for writing (for getting it done, that is) which he usually hands out at workshops.

Tobias Buckell also posted information on his two weekend workshops: the first a short story one with Mike Resnick, the second a novel one with agent Steve Mancino. I attended last year with Stephen Leigh, Jon Hansen, Pam McNew, John Trey, Simon Owens, and Tobias, the 2006 debut novelist himself. All had had some critiquing experience, so it wasn't the awkward rehashing the first week of Clarion (but then the weekend didn't quite capture vibrant enthusiasm of being thrust into six weeks of being considered a writer). Resnick will be replacing Leigh (an all-around, swell fella). I've admired Resnick (not to mention his Kirinyaga work) ever since a college friend mentioned as a kid he'd written Resnick and received a substantial reply. Very cool. (On the down side of the Resnick shop, I might attend if the stars misalign.)

Brief notes on this year's six-week Clarion workshop: Gwyneth Jones is tough but sharp as a tack. I discussed a story of mine with Sheila Williams--a story I didn't much care for myself--but her critical processes seemed very editorial, which contrasts with the usual writerly problem-solving approach yet should prove a fresh perspective when juxtaposed against the usual writer-critiques. Leslie What, depending on how her MFA program is working for her, may be a veritable force and definitely will be more fun than a barrel of monkeys (help her make pizza--mmm). (I only briefly met Joan Vinge at Wiscon--I liked her earthy personality on panels and signing books.)

Cliff notes on this year's six-week Clarion West: Octavia Butler gives great inspirational speeches--perhaps a good foot start on. Gordon Van Gelder like Williams uses an editorial approach (his good advice is very sparse but goes deep; it probably won't solve any story's problem, but he will give you something to chew on for future work). I chatted with Connie Willis a few hours for an interview I still haven't transcribed for a book that graduate school stepped in the way of completing. I sense with my Spidey powers that she will help people focus their critical powers on the writerly craft. If my Spidey powers fail me, then read all of her collections--what a great voice.

I have little to add about the six-week Odyssey (apart from telling you not to take ten years getting home--har, har). I'd be interested in the comments of Clute and Hand, however, since I've read their critical work. (Williams also puts in a day's appearance.) Note that, apart from one week where guests stay the entire time, this workshop's professional guests stay for a day while Jeanne Cavelos provides continuity which may be an asset that other workshops lack--or alternately a detriment though from her handling of the Gene Wolfe fiasco it sounds as if she is amazingly judicious (luckily, she has worked as both editor and writer, so she can probably see things in multiple ways).

I don't think James Gunn's two-week workshop has been updated apart from the dates of this year's workshop. Email Chris McKitterick if you want to know what authors besides Chris, Kij Johnson, and James Gunn will be sitting in on the workshops (Fred Pohl and Elizabeth Hull usually attend, health permitting). Every author has some critical faculty that you may need to build your own, but James Gunn is essential, always on target, especially for those who chose science field of speculative fiction. He's a wealth of history, too, if you can swing to attend that. (Again, depending on circumstances, I hope to attend his conference this year and maybe the workshop.)


Excellent Post on Revision

Gwenda Bond offers insight on rewriting her first novel.

Style: The Texture of Text

Note: This post isn't completely polished. This note will disappear when it is.

Hopefully this is worth waiting a month for. I tried to capture both the meaning of the term and its breadth, which means a long article albeit probably not long enough to contain the numbers and ways that style can be used which a book might be able to cover.

Style is the feeling you get from reading the text. In order to capture this feeling, you must temporarily remove the meaning of the words and listen to their music only--like mentally peeling off the lyrics of a song to hear what feelings the tone is revealing. Even the vocalist has a sound, where the keening--if the vocal artist has any talent--matches or contrasts with what the lyrics literally say. Haven’t you asked yourself, “Does the saxophone really sound in love?” or “Does the shrieking vocalist truly sound enraged by the loss, or is the shrieking hitting all the wrong inflections?” This analysis of sound is what we look for in style. If we were interested in the vocalist’s character we would use the emotional state/style intimated in the vocalist's tenor, but we also would ignore the saxophone and take into account what is said in the lyrics.

Starting simple before we get to more complex examples, we might say, “Bob sped to the market to deliver the goods.” Style is more interested in how sound smoothes the reading experience. “Sped,” while it resonates with the last syllable of market, gums up the flow with the unpleasant “speh” sound (which may or may not be effective, depending on the context). Plus it doesn’t capture Bob’s action well (though it might for a car).

Let’s exchange “sped” for “jogged,” which resonates with “Bob” and “mar” in “market.” It’s a better stylistic choice, but may or may not improve/change the character. “Sped” again doesn’t reveal much of Bob’s action although one might say it marks extreme urgency (an extreme exaggerated unless Bob can run faster than a train, plane, or automobile) while “jogged” might show nonchalance or arrogance in the face of danger.

But style's focus isn't on character but the texture of the overall story. One can change “market” to “grocery store” to see what the style change brings and not gain an iota of change in the character (unless Bob was supposed to jog to the market--ha, ha). Sometimes I worry that we get so smart we confuse ourselves. Anything in the story that affects character is character. Anything in the story that affects style is style. Sometimes effects overlap because talented authors use sentences in more ways than one. For instance, a far more tangled web that no intellectual seems to confuse but should is character and plot (thank you, Henry James). If we consider ourselves intellectuals, we sneer at plot because stories of the pulp tradition concern themselves more with plot than story. But what is plot but the action of or on character? Apparently, and thankfully at this moment, we are not confusing the two (though there’s obviously not enough understanding of plot if we sneer at it, but that’s another topic which will take me another month of working out).

Getting more complex and specific, in Lucius Shepard’s Life During Wartime, he establishes a very dry, academic or nonfictional tone--that is, an almost toneless tone or a lack of style--much as a director might leave a scene without music to heighten the tension:

One of the new Sikorsky guships, an element of the First Air Cavalry with the words Whispering Death painted on its side, gave Mingolla and Gilbey and Baylor a lift from the Ant Farm to San Francisco de Juticlan, a small town located inside the green zone, which on the latest maps was designated Free Occupied Guatemala. To the east of this green zone lay an undesignated band of yellow that crossed the country from the Mexican border to the Caribbean. The Ant Farm was a firebase on the eastern edge of the yellow band, and it was from there that Mingolla--an artillary specialist not yet twenty-one years old--lobbed shells into an area that the maps depicted in black-and-white terrain markings. And thus it was that he often thought of himself as engaged in a struggle to keep the world safe for primary colors.

There’s one real moment of music in here that sparks a glimmer of intrigue into the rest of the style. While the last line establishes a surreal goal for the character, the music highlights sets off something else entirely different: “with the words Whispering Death painted on its side.” The sound is almost onomatopoeic for its meaning--“Whispering Death”--and the surrounding “w” and “s” and mostly short vowels reinforce this sense (the “p” and long “a” in “paint” jerks us momentarily though evocatively out, back into the dryness of war. We often use euphemisms to describe war to pull us away the harsh cruel realities it inflicts, i.e. “casualty” instead of “death”--so that this dark, soft sound breaks the illusion of distance from death.

So is this an instance of style conveying character or a subliminal thematic signal that Shepard has slipped to the reader?


In “Jaguar Hunter,” Shepard juxtaposes opposing sounds of feeling in the character, Esteban Caax:

By nature he was a man who enjoyed the sweetness of the countryside above all else; the placid measures of a farmer’s day invigorated him, and he took great pleasure in nights spent joking and telling stories around a fire, or lying beside his wife, Encarnacion.

The sounds all lull the reader, except the “k” in joke which the long “o” helps mask the harsh, turning it into a sound not unlike a bark of laughter. Meanwhile, listen to the harsh staccato “k” and “t” and “g” sounds in this next sentence:

Puerto Morada, with its fruit imperatives and sullen dogs and cantinas that blared American music, was a place he avoided like the plague.

How does “blare” make you feel about “Ameri[K]an musi[K]”? Is it not unlike an abrupt change in volume? But what is the style that tells us why he is in town and reluctance to be there? It cannot be defined because it is told without frill:

It was his wife’s debt to Onofrio Esteves, that brought Esteban Caax to town for the first time in almost a year.

Does the way this is stated conjure anything outside what the words directly state? Does it evoke any feeling? No. It’s told in a relatively straightforward manner. But, one might say, he chose those words and not any other, and that’s style. What he chose was a lack of style for this particular sentence.

That said, Shepard has a larger story style within the framework of the style of his sentences--a style I’d always pictured as some strange beast lumbering towards a weighty finale--perhaps due in part to his patience of long sentence and plot--not unlike Joseph Conrad in The Heart of Darkness, where the effect also builds cumulatively. Roald Dahl’s style relies on such an overall structure by his repeated use of unveiling surprises in the middle. Such repetition of plot structures, although each story feels fresh, makes the structure unique to the author and, hence, their style. But structural style has little bearing on a story unless one is making a comparative analysis.


Geoff Ryman in Air adopts a quieter, simpler tone, by shortening and simplifying the sentences to create the mood of the simple, uncomplicated life of the Eastern rustic. No mad traffic dashing about, no loud noises or American music, no cruel and cornered rats willing to fight for the diminishing city space. Just life in country. You probably won’t find words--pending a sudden change in mood--like “artillery” or “invigorate.”

Mae lived in the last village in the world to go online. After that everyone else went on Air.

Mae was the village’s fashion expert. She advised on makeup, sold cosmetics, and provided good dresses. Every farmer’s wife needed at least one good dress.

Mae would sketch what was being worn in the capital. She would always add a special touch: a lime-green scarf with sequins; or a lacy ruffle with colorful embroidery. A good dress was for display. “We are a happier people and we can wear these gay colors,” Mae would advise.

Notice where the language gets more specific. We are being shown through style that this is what Mae loves. But what effect of style is at play in the sentence “Mae was the village’s fashion expert”? Again, this is told without any special sense or inflection.


An interesting debate I had with Ryman over Clarion was whether poetry had a place in prose. Since I have before and am now analyzing text based on the sound of words, obviously I think it has major import, even in Ryman’s work. Ryman may have meant simply: If you don’t know poetry, don’t inject/inflict your idea of poetry into/upon your readers the pain of bad poetry.

But it is poetry which originates many of the more interesting styles that we find in prose. In fact, styles in poetry are generally much more complex.

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

--William Carlos Williams, from “Spring and All”

Here Williams is more concerned with sound than sense--a complex fluid sound purposefully interrupted at odd intervals. Style is not always the beauty of sound, but in this case, sound interrupted to cause us to pause at certain sounds. Williams forces us to consider each word that passes, breaking the lines at unexpected places: “a red wheel” as an entity separate from “barrow.” He also does this with “rain/water,” but does he need to? Doesn’t “glazed with rain” convey the same meaning as “glazed with rain/water”? “Water” would appear to be a useless appendage except for the alliteration with “white” and the continuity of three-word/one-word stanzas.

Wallace Stevens also, while inviting the reader in with sound, denied the reader access to living in the poem as a lived thing but as a symbolic thing to be lived:

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.

--Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West”

As opposed to Williams’ poem which opposes idea only for you to live in the poem (going so far as to deny sense in favor of sound), it is not until you see the poem as “idea” that you can live in this poem. Williams said, “No ideas but in things,” yet Stevens has transformed an idea into a thing as living and breathing as the things.

Gertrude Stein [may have] invented the idea that the same ordinary words have music that can be repeated ad nauseum to different meanings/effects:

I knew too that through them I knew too that he was through, I knew too that he threw them. I knew too that they were through, I knew too I knew too, I knew I knew them.

I knew to them.

--Gertrude Stein, “A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson’

But Stein borders on a monotony that Samuel Beckett borrowed and slowly wrote towards, so that in his middle years there was something spectacularly fresh and original to the sound while still conveying a sense beyond style:

They clothed me and gave me money. I knew what the money was for, it was to get me started. When it was gone I would have to get more, if I wanted to go on. The same for the shoes, when they were worn out I would have to get them mended, or get myself another pair, or go on barefoot, if I wanted to go on. The same for the coat and trousers, needless to say, with this difference, that I could go on in my shirtsleeves if I wanted.

--Samuel Beckett “The End”

Some styles depend on rhythm--an idea also borrowed from poetry--based both on the natural inflection of language (meter) and the length of lines (Whitman expanded our definition). I suspect this--not just Hemingway’s stark vocabulary--draws us into Hemingway’s style:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

--Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

By using few adjectives that directly modify nouns, it forces the use of prepositional phrases, which have a breathing pattern all their own--that is, they generate a natural pause in the line: “In the late summer [beat] of that year [beat] we lived in a house [beat] in a village [beat] that looked across the river and the plain [beat] to the mountains.” One might legitimately position “beats” before all conjunctions and prepositions, thereby including a few more beats.

Richard Christian Matheson shortens the lines further with commas and periods to create a starker staccato effect, which often better suits Matheson’s horrorific material (and in this case, jogging):

Andy chugged up the incline, sweatsuit shadowed with perspiration. His Nikes compressed on the asphault and the sound of his inhalation was the only noise on the country road.

He glanced at his waist-clipped odometer: Twenty-five point seven. Not bad. But he could do better.

Had to.

--Richard Christian Matheson, “Third Wind”

Matheson’s abbreviated sentences create a sense of panicked urgency. Joyce Carol Oates, on the other hand, stretches the length of sentences out with unabashedly modified nouns, which not unlike Shepard, when Oates writes the grotesque (which includes both the horror and suspense genres) , creates a sense of inexorable, impending doom.

A sleek tiny baby he was, palpitating with life and appetite as he emerged out of his mother’s birth canal, and perfectly formed: twenty miniature pink toes intact, and the near-microscopic nails already sharp; pink-whorled tiny ears; the tiny nose quivering, already vigilant against danger. The eyes were relatively weak, in the service of detecting motion rather than figures, textures, or subtleties of color.

--Joyce Carol Oates, “Martyrdom”

This story is powerful too due to the structural choice--stylistic because it sticks out from the average story (if most stories did this, then this could not be considered style; however, most stories will probably never do this because we naturally see things from one perspective)--of numbering and alternating perspectives in every lengthy paragraph.


If every author used style, why should some be more noticeable than others? Style is an expression of ego: Look at what I do, says the writer of style, with the way I put words on the page. Ego may also have played a part in Orson Welles’ reinvention of film through Citizen Kane. I don’t find the ego criminal, as a large segment of our society does, but an acceptable, even fascinating expression of an individual, much as we might admire an actor like Marlon Brando who is capable of rendering himself visible against a backdrop of actors who render themselves invisible. Some writers actively seek or at least resist such individual expression, standing out with a style. Flannery O’ Connor comes to mind as one who, when an editor requested a few beautiful sentences to break up the lack of style, balked at the suggestion (O’Connor, of course, displayed an oeuvre, structural style in her choice of subject matter, but this only stuck out because her contemporaries--as well as some writers today--don’t want to write about the baser instincts). The invisible style--or no style--calls more attention to the myth of the narrative as reality and forces the viewer to deal with the content more than a stylistic choice, which always puts the reader at a distance from the reality of the narrative--whether with a rose-colored or dung-colored lens. I suspect this is why people balk at a movie like Citizen Kane. They are made aware of Welles’ style, which requires an appreciation. After I watched it the first time, I too wondered what the big deal was. Only after watching it three times with and without commentary tracks (Ebert did the better job), did I gain a fuller understanding of what it achieved, as did the history disc charting what the film represented at the time of its showing. Slapping the label “style” over every author or director does a disservice to both those who seek style and those who spurn it. I don’t think a work of art can be fully appreciated without knowing how the authors chose what they chose.

This intimates that a further debate exists--Which is better: style or no style?--which is exactly the wrong question to ask. The work has to be evaluated upon the basis which it chooses to present itself. A character story cannot be evaluated by action/adventure standards, nor vice versa. A standard romantic comedy cannot be evaluated for the use of noir motifs, nor vice versa. After all, there are some things we can only see with a dung-colored lens, some we see only with a rose-colored one, other things require a lens without tint. So that the question--Which is better?--is irrelevant in seeking the true mode of the art’s art.

Sometimes styles are inappropriate, i.e. roses cannot be viewed through a rose-lens, which is why Ray Bradbury’s lovingly nostalgic style flops when it isn’t examining the seamier side of life to some degree. Ted Kooser, Nebraskan and our nation’s current poet laureate, just got criticized in the latest Nebraska Review for putting a good spin on the bad of life, but if this is an expression of his aesthetics--which structurally becomes his style by what he chooses to examine--how can one say he doesn’t look at enough shadows? What a critic can say is that the critic prefers to looks at shadows and that these are not present in Kooser’s work. However, the style itself can be criticized if it fails to do what it sets out to do. One criticism in the review that comes close to doing this is pointing out a cancer ward description that refuses to take in the depressed mood of the place, pointing out the funny little knit hat that one patient wears, but again if this is Kooser’s chosen aesthetic--seek the silver lining in the hurricane--I’m not sure how well the criticism sticks. In fact, reflecting on my critique Bradbury, the cancer ward may be the best place for Kooser to lay down his style, to heighten his strength through contrast of subject.


So if the reader remained unconvinced, the question remains for any other definition of style: How does style convey character and not plot? And if style is everything--i.e. what normal people call “story”--how is this meaningful to or enlightening the study of stories? How can one understand the whole if one cannot parse the parts?