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.
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.
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.