I recently read The Wes Anderson Collection, and it got me thinking about style.
For the unfamiliar, Wes Anderson is the writer and director of numerous films, and he has a very particular style that can be seen in the art direction, special effects, dialogue, and many other aspects of his movies. He’s a critical darling, and he’s managed to collect an impressive array of well-known actors who are eager to work with him in movie after movie, even in small roles that might seem “beneath” them.
There are also plenty of people who absolutely can’t stand him. They think the dialogue is stilted and monotone, the sets are twee, and the man loves pastels more than the Easter bunny.
Whether you love it or hate it, it’s clear that Anderson has a distinct style.
What is Style, Anyway?
Artistic style is nothing more than a pattern in your work. It might be subtle or obvious, and it will probably change over time.
It’s often hard, as an artist, to be aware of your own patterns—the elements of your personal style. This is one way that feedback can be incredibly valuable. Others will often see patterns you haven’t noticed.
If you have regular readers, ask them about any repeated elements they see in your stories. Those ideas, characters or settings might tell you something about the topics you’re interested in exploring, even if you haven’t consciously realized it.
Digging Into Your Own Head
Style doesn’t have to be entirely subconscious. You can probably identify some elements of your personal style without a reader’s help.
Look at the things you’ve written, and the things you’ve thought about writing. Past writing is a map of the places you’ve been, stylistically, and brainstorms, journals, or half-baked ideas will tell you more about where you might want to explore next.
Know Your Influences
It can also be valuable to look at the work that inspires you. What were your favorite stories growing up? Which books on your bookshelf are well-worn? What about other media?
The most fertile ideas are often the ones that you see in your own work and your favorite stories. You might also find inspiration in non-story pursuits, hobbies, and even “regular” jobs. Life and art often intersect in interesting ways.
Follow Your Interests
The reason it’s valuable to think about your own style is because it will help you shape your stories to be exciting as possible for your primary reader: yourself. It’s a bit of common advice that you won’t get anyone else excited about your work unless you’re excited about it first.
Understand as best you can what thing you want to make, then make deliberate choices that project or communicate that to the reader. Depending on what you like, these choices might be intellectual (references, tropes, allusions, subtext), or emotional (feeling, sound, resonance).
Most importantly, make honest work. It’s easy to shy away from the parts of ourselves we don’t like (or the parts we think others won’t like). But those thoughts and emotions are important aspects of style too.
You have to be true to your thoughts and experiences. Don’t shy away from the unpleasant bits, the cringing embarrassment, the weaknesses. Good characters are usually flawed characters, and authors often need some insight and sympathy for the darker sides of our shared humanity.
Writing With Style
Style often plays out in the choices we make without realizing it. If something feels right, interrogate it. Look inward, and understand your loves, hates, influences, and fears. Play to an audience of yourself.
If you’re honest about the things that fascinate you most, it will help you to write stories you love. And if someone out there decides they hate your style, then at least you know you have it.