Storytelling Class — Style/Substance

Every once in a while, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This time, our topic was style and substance.

We always start with two questions: What did we read and write recently?

What Did We Read?

Freya is getting close to finishing the first Wheel of Time book. I asked her if she was excited to continue with a series that has fourteen books. She said she thought she might be 70 before she finishes. She also just started the “Janitors” series, though she hasn’t gotten far enough to form an opinion yet.

I have been working my way through my beautiful new Ambergris hardcover. City of Saints and Madmen was a formative book for me, and I’m excited to now have it in a single massive tome alongside Jeff Vandermeer’s other Ambergris stories. I was however, a little disappointed to find that they actually removed some of the appendices that appeared in the original, so now I have to keep my copy of City of Saints and Madmen as well.

In non-fiction, I started Ways of Being at the recommendation of Cory Doctorow, although I’m only a few pages in.

What Did We Write?

Freya has kept busy writing for school work, and hasn’t worked on any fiction recently. After my Covid break, I’ve been working on getting back into Razor Mountain.

Style and Substance

Each story consists of two parts—two sides of the same coin—style and substance. You can think of “substance” as “what the story is about” and style as “how the story is told.” Substance is the meaning. Style is the actual words. By some definitions, substance is good, while style is just the shallow surface layer. However, when it comes to fiction, each story is really a melding of the two.

Schools of Thought

At the risk of being a little controversial, I’m going to define two schools of thought, and I’m going to call them “genre fiction” and “literary fiction.” I put them in quotes because each story is a special snowflake, and I’m about to speak in broad generalizations, so take it all with a grain of salt.

The “genre fiction” school of thought is that substance takes precedence. Genre fiction sometimes even devalues style. Common genre fiction advice suggests that, when reading a great book, the reader should forget they’re reading and get lost in the story—that is, in the plot and the characters. The descriptive text should become transparent. Authors should endeavor to become invisible, and never call attention to themselves.

The “literary fiction” school of thought holds that style is quality. Literary fiction tends to put a higher value on authorial voice. The advice here is that a great book should be overflowing with the author’s unique voice, and the reader should be transported into the mind-space of the author. Mechanics like plot and character are nice, but they need to be described through transcendent prose. Anyone can tell a story. A true author tells it in a way that only they can.

False Dichotomies

Like most dichotomies, this one is artificial. Style and substance aren’t strictly opposing forces (although they can sometimes fight each other). Some authors make the mistake of crafting page after page of beautiful prose that doesn’t really  tell a story, while others create intricate plots by placing row upon row of flat words like bricks in a wall.

Readers, like authors, are unique, and there are audiences for both of these styles. Science fiction has a big audience that revels in clever plots and is fine with a lack of ornamentation. Likewise, there are plenty of literary fiction readers who care more about delicious sentences than characters who actually go somewhere and do something.

As an author, you can make your own choices about what you value. You may choose to focus on substance, or style, or try to find a happy medium. However, it’s important to understand that there are trade-offs. The more stylized your prose is, the more your reader will have to work to understand what’s going on. Some readers will appreciate the extra layers of complexity, but others simply won’t be interested, and may just put the story down. Focus on style inherently takes some focus away from the substance.

Examples

We looked at a few of my personal favorites when it comes to literary style.

Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide series is a relatively mild example, where most of the stylistic flourishes could be described as “literary comedy,” twisting language for fun and amusement.

Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a book with literally complex text that stretches sentences across pages, forms shapes and pictures, and wraps around upon itself. But it is also a narratively complex work, presented by a character named Johnny, who details the work of his acquaintance, Zompano, who himself took detailed notes based on videos shot by a third character, Navidson, whose descriptions of his ever-shifting, labyrinthine, and spatially inconsistent house form the heart of the story.

Finally, there’s Vandermeer’s more recent work, Dead Astronauts, a book that is so dense and challenging to decipher that it almost feels encoded.

These are wildly different examples of a strong authorial voice put to use for different purposes. While Adams is extremely readable, House of Leaves ranges from straightforward prose to deep complexity. Dead Astronauts is lyrical and dreamlike, but so obfuscated in parts that I found it off-putting. And there are many other examples of other authors doing entirely different but equally interesting things with language.

Choosing a Style

Depending on the type of writer you are, you may find that you default more toward one end of the spectrum than the other. There’s nothing wrong with that. Many authors are influenced by their own favorite writers and stories, and you may like to write the same kind of stories that you like to read.

I find that memorable quotes and phrases tend to come from style-heavy writers. Substance-heavy writers tend to make unforgettable stories where you don’t necessarily remember any of the words in particular. I loved The Martian when I read it a year ago. I remember some of the structure (maybe because I blogged about it) but I don’t remember a single line from it.

Sometimes particular stories will speak to you in a certain way. Just because you normally write very straightforward sci-fi space operas doesn’t mean you can’t do a bunch of clever stylistic embellishment in a complicated, self-referential time-travel story.

As with most things in life, it can be good to experiment. You might discover that you can find joy in more kinds of stories than you previously realized. Or you may find that a particular story calls for a particular style.

Storytelling Class — Scenes

Every once in a while, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This time, our topic was scenes.

We always start with two questions: What did we read and write recently?

What Did We Read?

I’ve recently been reading the Maus graphic novels, the Timeshift anthology of time-related sci-fi, and Mort (a Terry Pratchet Discrworld novel) at bedtime with the kids.

Freya has been reading the first Wheel of Time book. She said it was a little slow at first, but she’s enjoying it now that she’s halfway through.

What Did We Write?

I’ve only been writing Razor Mountain recently, and trying to get ahead on blog posts. Freya hasn’t written any more of her book recently, but she has been writing poetry, including one about all the many fragrances of bath bombs.

What’s In a Scene?

Today’s topic was the structure of scenes. A scene is the smallest “unit” that we typically break stories into. A short story might have only a couple scenes, while a novel can have dozens or hundreds.

The beginning and end of a scene are often delineated physically on the page with a line break, chapter break, or asterisks and similar markers. However, it takes more than that to make a scene feel cohesive. There are a few different tools that can help a scene feel like a single unit of story: setting, characters, and theme.

Setting

A scene is typically a section of the story that occurs entirely in one setting. In this case, I use “setting” fairly broadly. It can refer to a specific location or a specific time period. Most of the time, a scene will take place in one location and cover a specific, contiguous period of time. For example, two people meet in a coffee shop, have a conversation, and then leave.

In some cases, some characters may enter or exit in the middle of the scene, or the scene may start in the middle of the action, with the characters already in their places. In these cases, it’s usually the static setting that holds the scene together. All the action happens in the same place, over a specific span of time.

You can think of this in terms of a stage play. The scenery for the scene is ready and the lights come up. Are the characters already on the stage? Do they enter or exit during the scene? Eventually the scene ends and the lights go down so the props can be replaced and a new scene can start.

Characters

It’s also possible for a scene to move across multiple locations (in time or space) or take place in multiple locations simultaneously.

For example, in visual media like TV, film and comics, it’s common to have a “split screen” scene where a narrator in one location (in space or time) narrates action set in a different location. This lets the writer play with juxtapositions or relationships between the narration and the action. Imagine a scene where a person talks about falling in love while a montage of scenes with the happy couple flash by. Then imagine how the mood changes if the character is instead talking about slowly falling out of love.

In a plot like a heist, there might be a single scene that jumps between several bank robbers in different areas of a bank, each one carrying out their part of the bigger plan. Everything is happening at the same time, or in sequence, but in many different locations.

Fuzzy Edges

While most scenes have an obvious beginning and end, not every scene is so clearly delineated. One scene may blend into another. Often, this takes the form of “zooming in” or “zooming out,” and may involve a change of perspective.

For example, the opening of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy begins with a description of our galaxy, the evolution of the human race, and the problems that beset us. Then it “zooms in” to one woman in particular, who has an important revelation. Then, because it’s Douglas Adams, we are told that the story isn’t about this woman at all. It’s about a terrible, stupid catastrophe and the book called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Then, at the start of the next chapter, it does the same thing, zooming in on the protagonist’s house, and eventually the protagonist himself.

This example shows nicely that this sort of zooming out can happen in location (zooming from outside the galaxy to a particular café in Rickmansworth) but also in time (across the entire evolution of humanity to the modern day).

“Zooming” can also encapsulate a change in the level of specificity, where the author glosses over less important details until reaching a place and moment in time where the details are important. This is often done for the sake of continuity. A character might spend one scene talking with a friend, then have to drive across town to speak to another friend. The drive isn’t very interesting. So the author describes the first conversation in detail over several pages. A short paragraph describes the uneventful drive, and then there are several more pages of detail for the second conversation.

Theme

These aspects of location and character are the logistics of a scene. The level of zoom or specificity are stylistic choices. But there is one other thing that can affect whether a scene feels satisfying and complete: the theme or arc of the scene.

Each scene needs to have some purpose in the larger story, and oftentimes scenes fulfill several purposes at once. They could provide new information to the characters or the reader. They could show some change in the character, perhaps resolving a goal or revealing a new goal. They could create or resolve a mystery. They need to drive the story forward in some way.

One of the more common challenges in fiction is when the logistics of the story require things to happen, but those things don’t actually feel like they’re furthering the story. They are like the character driving across town between important conversations.

It’s easy to make a whole scene out of these kinds of unsatisfying story beats, and the scene will inevitably be a dull one. Sometimes these scenes can be cut completely. Other times they can be replaced with a little bit of connective tissue, like the zoom-in or a quick, summarizing description of the necessary action. Sometimes, by looking at the larger picture, you’ll find that the story can be tweaked so the boring part isn’t needed at all.

Class Dismissed

That’s all for this class. We’ve been doing fewer of these little “classes” over summer, since…well, we’re outside and enjoying the warm weather while we can. I do have at least one more planned though, before school is back in session and our schedules get busy.