Depending on who you ask, only 7 core fiction stories exist in the world. Rags to Riches, Voyage and Return, so forth. Everything else written later is riffing off that universal idea handed down. 7 seems a harsh estimate, but there’s no doubt that at some point our various stories have critical Venn Diagram overlap. We’re jazzing such things up our own ways.
In adding personal spice, people tend to think large. How do I structure a plot or arc? How much of that control do I give my characters? All worthy questions. I think about how style engages readers, how it makes us stand out or herd-crowded as writers. Style is as much a choice as plot or arc, isn’t it? Even choosing a herd style is a style choice, whether we were aware of it or not.
Style can mean voice, and everyone should be seeking their best and cleanest writing voice. Style, though, can also mean microstructures, such putting a paragraph together. Or a sequence of paragraphs. Here I mean flow, where the craft of writing summons the magic part to pull a reader through a sensory experience.
And I have a strategy.
Consider this paragraph from my “Pandora, Haunted: Or, In Which Natalia Hartlowe Bids on a Delacroix” (Die Laughing, published this month by Mystery Weekly Magazine and edited by Kerry Carter):
The guys drove us into suburban communes, with tinted window views of endless apartment blocks as my sight-seeing. We pulled up at a backstreet dive restaurant. Le Centaure, blazed the red awning. Bag Man shuttled us inside past a cooking spit, past a thirtysomething manager guy with a mop of hair and scowl like he’d pre-branded us philistines, down past gloomy basement seating, past a dusty wine cellar, and into a super-damp tunnel carved through limestone. Next thing, we were ushered into a sealed-off bomb shelter and handed glasses of red wine. Electronica jazz pulsed from a DJ station. Impeccably dressed ladies chatted with tuxedoed and uniformed men of a certain age, everyone sampling hors d’oeuvres. A dozen hi-res posters of paintings and sketches ringed the shelter. Hired muscle hovered, as if to complete the dictionary illustration for hot art sale.
You don’t need much set-up here. The POV, Clio, and her boss are being driven through suburban Paris to what she’d assumed would be an auction house. The paragraph could’ve read something almost direct as that and still convey the facts. The short version probably doesn’t capture the visuals (apartment blocks, dive restaurants, gloomy basement, etc.), which make for atmosphere. There are other sensory appeals: music (ear), wine and hors d’ouevres (taste), limestone (touch), dampness (touch–and smell maybe). A short version wouldn’t have shown that this was a journey, that it took time, that unexpected stimuli bombarded Clio as she winds up not at Christie’s but a dank bomb shelter.
But those are tactics. Here’s the strategy: no two sentences in a row have the same structure. If you ever read that in my work, that was a style choice or else my exhaustion. I won’t have it, not a wooden or sameness sound.
Caution: This works for narrative passages. In dialogue, a character speaks in, well, character, which could mean a consistent way of speaking. Characters also shouldn’t be giving speeches–a topic for another time.
Take that paragraph again:
- Standard sentence with right-branch preposition (effectively a participle);
- Short and sweet;
- Short but with an odd subject — Clio is still processing surprise;
- A sprawl of a sentence with right-branch phrases showing the stages to her trek;
- Standard sentence with left branch intro;
- Short beat sentence;
- Compound sentence, with ending participial phrase;
- Standard sentence;
- Standard sentence, with metaphorical punch line.
Look, this is not a perfect paragraph. It does its job, though. With style. Long paragraphs like this are mini-stories in their own right. Same goes for paragraph sequences broken up for emphasis or against blocky text. Events in question should travel a distance, and things should end on the most powerful emotional or action note or open question. Here, “hot art sale.”
That’s it. That’s the strategy. How narrative sentences vary will depend on the humor or seriousness, the action underway, the narrator’s lens…and the writer. Here fiction allows you your art. Some fun, too. More fun than an endless subject/verb train.
So, 7 fiction stories in the world? Whatever number feels irrelevant. However many types live in theory, there are as many ways to write a story–to style it–as there are us writers.