NARRATIVE STYLE, Part 1

“Proper words in proper places make the true definition of a style”.”  —  Jonathan Swift

I’m going to devote two posts to the issue of style in general and narrative style in particular.  First we will look at what some of the great writers of the past have said on the topic; then next week I will add my own two cents.

Shakespeare

William Shakespeare: a Classical Writer who does not appear in this post because you couldn’t imitate his style anyway.

The rules for a good narrative style are mostly the same as the rules for a good prose style in general, plus a few guidelines pertinent to the kind of narrator you choose (First Person, rarely; Second Person, just don’t; Third Person Omniscient, etc.).We will cover the general principles first and then have a few things to say about the specific strategies.  And since better stylists than I have already laid those principles down, we will let them speak for themselves.

  1. “Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”  —  Dr. Johnson

OK, seriously:

George Orwell:

1.  Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2.  Never use a long word when a short one will do.

3.  If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4.  Never use the passive when you can use the active.

5.  Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6.  Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

–from “Politics and the English Language”

C. S. Lewis:

CSL20

C. S. Lewis

1.  Turn off the radio.

2.  Read all the good books you can and avoid nearly all magazines.

3.  Always write (and read) with the ear, not the eye.  You should hear every sentence you write as if it were being read aloud or spoken….Every sentence should be tested on the tongue, to make sure that the sound of it has the hardness or softness, the swiftness or langour, which the meaning of it calls for.

4.  Take great pains to be clear.  Remember that though you start by knowing what you mean, the reader doesn’t, and a single ill-chosen word may lead him to a total misunderstanding. . . . Always try to use language so as to make quite clear what you mean, and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

5.  Always prefer the plain direct word to the long vague one.  Don’t “implement” promises, but “keep” them.

6.  Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do.  If you mean “more people died,” don’t say “mortality rose.”

7.  Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing.  I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified.  Don’t say it was “delightful,” make us say “delightful” when we’ve read your description.

8.  Don’t use words too big for the subject.  Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

–from Letters, ed. W. H. Lewis (1966), pp. 271, 279, 291-292.

Flaming Pen

Mark Twain:

1.  The difference between the right adjective and the next-best adjective is the difference between lightning and a lightning-bug.

Henry David Thoreau:

1.  The fruit a thinker bears is sentences.

2.  If you see that part of your essay will topple down after the lapse of time, throw it down now yourself.

3.  A sentence should read as if its author, had he held a plow instead of a pen, could have drown a furrow deep and straight to the end.

Next week: some practical application of all the above!

Inklings of Reality 2nd Edition

Check out Dr. Williams’ Books at Lantern Hollow Press:  STARS THROUGH THE CLOUDS: THE COLLECTED POETRY OF DONALD T. WILLIAMS; REFLECTIONS FROM PLATO’S CAVE: ESSAYS IN EVANGELICAL PHILOSOPHY; and INKLINGS OF REALITY: ESSAYS TOWARD A CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHY OF LETTERS.  Order them (each $15.00 + shipping) at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

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About gandalf30598

Theologian, philosopher, poet, and critic; minister of the Gospel who makes his living by teaching medieval and renaissance literature; dual citizen of Narnia and Middle Earth.

Posted on April 8, 2013, in C. S. Lewis, Donald Williams, Language, Literary Criticism, Style and Structure and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Great words from great writers. My favorite of the above is definitely the quote from Mark Twain. People too often neglect word choice and opt for the easiest answer to difficult wordings, missing nuanced and memorable phrases in favor of stooping to cliches. Of course, the real trick is being concise *and* careful in your word-choice. In practice, it would be difficult to honor Orwell’s advice at the same time as Twain’s, but then that effort would put you above the average writer.

  2. When Orwell says, “always cut it out,” he means if it is possible to cut a word out *without losing any of the meaning.* With that proviso, I think his advice can be made consistent with Twain’s. Look for more on the right word next week!

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