In my last blog, I mentioned “too much” girls, ones who were too loud, too this, too that. And I saluted them for their passion, their willfulness, their agency.
Now I take a 180-degree turn to nuance, subtlety— but this time in writing style, not in humans.
Dictionary.com explains nuance as “a subtle difference or distinction in expression, meaning, response.”
It takes skill to deliver a nuanced writing style. As a result, writers hoping to write with nuance must practice and read broadly and deeply. That’s my opinion. Nuanced writing usually doesn’t happen after first or even second drafts. Nuance takes time and practice.
We live in a ham-handed culture. Think of the musical “artists” who deliver their “songs” in the rawest of terms, their videos in the coarsest images imaginable.
Some would argue that doing so reflects a culture that has gone mad or is Godless or unfair. I can see their point. We are a visual culture, especially for the young.
But in the books I choose to read, I want to revel, luxuriate in the writer’s style, one that shows readers the originator has both knowledge of and experience in the subtleties of the language. I don’t need to read writing that is painted as broadly as a coat of primer on a picket fence. Let me ponder and divine the message you’ve swaddled in the right words and images and sentences.
I’m admittedly old school when it comes to style. I took rhetoric classes in graduate school so I could make conscious, deliberate choices in my writing. One of the highly regarded books back then was “Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student” by Edward P.J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors.
In the outline below, the authors list those features to look for in analyzing style.
How many of us write or edit or read with these features in mind? Do we look closely at the words chosen? The length of sentences? The types of sentences? Are beginnings of sentences varied? Are rhetorical questions used effectively?
Are figures of speech used sparingly and precisely? Some people think that because metaphors and similes are comparing different things, they can stick in a comparison as different as possible. But as Julia M. Jorgenson says (her blog linked below), not only should writers use comparisons that fit into the world of their stories but also ones that match the story’s tone. Perhaps you compare things that are too different—like a student of mine who compared his girlfriend’s soft skin to a deer hide!
But the examples don’t have to be so atrocious. Sometimes the comparison might seem literary, but have no thought behind it. When I was young, I wrote an essay on my cat, comparing his green eyes to emeralds, but where is the thought behind that? How are emeralds, an expensive jewel, really defining my cat's peepers? Besides, it’s a cliché. Perhaps comparing the green to the color of the grass he burrowed in would have been more apt and effective, suited more to the story’s world and tone.
Finally, paragraphing is part of style – how long are the paragraphs? What transitions are used to connect one to another?
As you can see, a nuanced style takes time. The need for recognition or attention can hasten our decisions not to fine-tune our writing. Instead of letting writing “cool” for a period of time to be tweaked, thought about, edited later, many are eager to get the writing out there before it’s ready to get that rush of “likes.” But it’s better to wait, to let it cool, to make it the best it can be. That’s a tough lesson to learn, but an important one.
I read that one day Dorothy Parker called her friend and fellow writer S.J. Perelman who told her he’d call her back once he finished the sentence he was working on. When he hadn’t called in a week’s time, she phoned him again. “Why didn’t you call me back when you said you would after you finished the sentence?” His reply? “I haven’t finished the sentence yet.” If you’ve read S.J. Perelman, you’ll know that his comedic works are as carefully written as any writer of note during his time. Style is worth fretting over. As a reader, I don’t want to linger long in a book that is flat or clumsy or predictable in style, no matter the content.
I can’t remember all the examples of nuanced style I’ve read over the years, but a few come to mind.
At the end of Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” these lines are spoken between Lady Brett Ashley to Jake, a veteran rendered impotent from an injury suffered during World War I:
“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Ian Crouch in a New Yorker article (linked below) said Hemingway changed that last line several times before the book went to press. At first the line was written as “It’s nice as hell to think so” then changed again to “Isn’t it nice to think so?” The last rendition—“Isn’t it pretty to think so?”—is perfect.
Why is it perfect? The word “pretty” in the last sentence signifies that such a word belongs to another world, not this one. “Pretty” thoughts belong to the imagination, not a world where men are killed or rendered impotent in war. “Pretty” is provisional, too. It, too, will pass, and Jake is a character, like Hemingway’s own persona, who feels people should invest in things that cannot be taken away.
Another example of nuance can be found in John Updike’s beautiful short story “Pigeon Feathers,” where the 14-year-old protagonist, David, begins to question the existence of God. When his mother asks him to shoot the over-abundance of pigeons in their barn, he does so. But when his mother asks him to bury them, he discovers something important. As he prepares to lay the birds in a grave he has dug, he notes the “controlled rapture” evident in their colors—shades of blue, mottling in lavender and gray, white with a splash of salmon color at the throat.
As a result of looking at these dead birds, “exterminated as pests,” the young man realized “that the God who had lavished such craft under these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.”
How exquisite is the detail, so lovingly unraveled in such a way that readers experience the epiphany along with David.
In another short story, Updike writes that “fiddling with things like zippers caught on tiny strips of cloth” was like “squinting into a narrow detail of Hell.”
In yet another short story, “You’ll Never Know, Dear,” he writes, “Thus, the world, like a jaded coquette, spurns our attempts to give ourselves to her wholly.”
He was a master at nuanced writing.
In a most telling article titled “Elements of Craft in John Updike” (linked below), Sean Madden analyzes a few passages from Updike’s short story “The Happiest I’ve Ever Been,” illustrating how he “shows us how to seamlessly transition from present action to backstory and back again and reveal character in the process.” It’s worth reading in its entirety.
At the end of the essay, Madden sums up what he's learned from his close look at Updike's style:
1. If there’s anything you should take from this essay, it’s that sentences matter. Some writers will try to convince you that the story you’re telling is more important than how it is told, but that’s simply untrue. Good sentence writing, I’ve already conceded, isn’t necessarily the same as good storytelling, but good storytelling absolutely involves good sentence writing. After all, how can you expect to enjoy a story if the writing isn’t up to snuff? If the sentences are all criminally tortuous and obtuse? As the reader, you’ll never get past the first page. Be that as it may, it’s important when sitting down to compose a story not to get too wrapped up in writing perfect sentences, because your energy at this point is better spent getting thoughts on paper. Perfect sentences are almost always born in the editing process, when the plot, characters, and setting are all fully formed (or at least very close to it).
2. On a related note, word choice matters. Think of the strong verbs Updike uses to describe Mr. Schuman, the mention of flowerpots to support the overall portrait of Alton as a city of innocence. Updike is no minimalist when it comes to his fiction—he has a reputation for verbosity—but all of his words are nevertheless there on the page for a reason. For as densely descriptive as his writing can be, it rarely feels heavy; there exists an economy of language. That said, it’s important in our writing to seek clarity. Think of Mr. Schuman’s “red hair” and “white eyelashes,” John as a “hot” and “lumbering” Donald Duck. Even the image of the Panama basket and stone is quite clear, mainly because of the economy of language. When I was just starting out, it was hard sometimes for me to distinguish rich prose from purple prose, that is, writing so extravagant it detracts from the story (my love of Moncrieff’s translation of Proust, coupled with my newness to writing fiction, may have been to blame here). In your writing, it’s important to ask yourself: are my words facilitating the reader’s understanding of a character or setting, or are they only calling attention to themselves? Am I communicating to the reader, or am I only showing off? Most of the time, less is more.
3. Moving a reader through time gracefully is no easy feat, but if you can create some kind of constant that connects one point in time to another, be it a character trait, as with Ann Mahlon, or perhaps the perpetuation of an action or event, such as a party like Larry’s where the guests through the years are always the same, then you’re halfway there.
4. My last piece of advice is to consider the semi-autobiographical short story. Our lives, day in and day out, can be very dull (I look back at my hours logged as a legal assistant as some of the dullest on record), and when we sit down to write, we want to imagine characters who are more interesting than ourselves and who are engaged in situations more exciting than we’ve known personally. This is fine, of course. Getting outside of ourselves is what fiction is all about. But I think sometimes we’re blind to how interesting our daily lives really are, how much material our lives give us as writers to draw upon. It’s no secret that Updike’s fiction is a reflection of his life, and I take his ability to craft stories out of his personal experience as a kind of challenge. How can I turn my victories, my defeats, my philosophical musings, my curiosity about the world into compelling fiction? How much of my inner life can I reveal on the page, and in such a way that others find what I’ve written worth reading? I ask you the same question I asked Updike’s spirit almost nine years ago: just how deep is your well?
Updike believed writers “walk through volumes of the unexpressed, leaving just a faint thread.” Finding that faint thread is where the work begins.
So begin by analyzing your own writing, using Corbett’s outline as a start. And hold not only yourself but the authors you read to a more exacting standard. The time a reader spends on a book or essay or short story is valuable. The world is full of “good enough” writing; try to make yours substantively as well as stylistically distinctive, causing your readers to pause and reflect admiringly over a word, a sentence, a figure of speech, enough so they will want to write it down or circle it in order to return to it again and again for its eloquence and wisdom.