It should come as no shock to anyone that style in fiction is the arrangement of words in a story by a writer. If the writer is said to have a â€œdistinctiveâ€ style it is because the writerâ€™s voice has found expression in a way unique to the writer that resonates with the reader. Inasmuch as a story has depth, it is usually because the style can â€œmulti-task,â€ to use a horrible word, and operate not â€œjustâ€ as how a story is told but in an intrinsic way, with each sentence/paragraph performing a different function in the context of the different elements of a story (character, setting, theme, etc.).
Some styles cannot multi-task. This is not a function of the simplicity or complexity of the words chosen necessarily, but a function of the simplicity or complexity of the layering the writer wishes to achieve; some writers have no choice but to operate at a simple level, while others can create simple and complex layering as they choose. Sometimes, the inability to multi-task is due to the banality of writerâ€™s worldview. Sometimes, it is due to writing for a specific audience. Sometimes, the writer hasnâ€™t yet matured to the point where his or her style can carry the weight (or carry it in an effortless fashion). Sometimes, of course, it is a choiceâ€”and a damn good one. Nor does a multi-tasking style mean baroque or purple prose; many great multi-tasking styles are â€œinvisible.â€
(Interrogatory: What is a superior style? Superior to what? And how do you judge? Each and every story must be told in the style best suited to itâ€”whether simple and unadorned, or convoluted and ornate; some stories require both, or some hybrid. Most writers work in variations of one voice, but within those variations whole different worlds of meaning shift into focus, so this idea of â€œvariationâ€ is actually rather wide in its effectsâ€”and, thus, multiple styles.)
In relation to style, character is the arrangement of those particular words in a story that create an image of a construct, which, for the duration of the readerâ€™s suspension of disbelief, appears to share some of the attributes that we believe constitute a human being, even though the only truly empirical evidence we possess in this regard is the anecdotal evidence of inhabiting our own skins. For all we know, everything around us is a construct of a rapidly decaying mind and our body lies upon a fever-sweated cot in the corner of some stark prison in another reality altogether.
Thus, our suspension of disbelief while reading a story is a micro version of the faith we have in the people who inhabit our real world, since we have no way of truly verifying anything we think we know about them beyond, perhaps, the most basic of banal facts.
(Counter-argument: Character is style, true, but this is like saying a person is made up of atoms. Yes, well, so is this chair Iâ€™m sitting in right now. Whatâ€™s your point?)
Painters and writers are somewhat similar with regard to style, although they often have different goals with regard to the idea of narrative. Like writers, painters have a palette of colors to work with, which they then deploy to create a painting using brushstrokes. These brushstrokes are dictated by the types of brushes they use, and their personal approach to creating the brushstrokes. How they mix and layer the paint. The resulting image of a person will seem to exist independent of the brushstrokes, but it has no such autonomy (like a golem). This may not enter into a readerâ€™s thoughts about why they liked or disliked a story, even though, were that person to view a painting, thoughts about the use of charcoal rather than watercolor, oils rather than acrylics, might come to mind almost automatically.
Some, of course, believe that style is merely an overlay, or an element of a story rather than the totality of the storyâ€”in part because any discussion of style by dint of focusing on it as a subject seems to make of it a separate element. But style doesnâ€™t encrust a story, form on top of it. Instead, style permeates. It inhabits. It exists at the particle level, in each word as strung into a phrase, into a sentence, and, in some writers, in the syllable.
If you are Greer Gilman, it doesnâ€™t exist just in the syllable, it exists in every meaning and derivation of the word from the beginning of written history, and thus as you read, each word creates layers of association that constitute a special kind of style. This is a special kind of obsession, true, but beautiful.
Is what Iâ€™ve written in this short essay true? Yes and no. As a writer and reader, I hold many different constructs in my head at once, with regard to ideas about fiction. That includes multiple approaches to thinking about style. It will always be healthiest for me to do, even if the ideas may seem mutually exclusive. The point isn’t to find a path, but to open as many paths as possible.