Tough Writing–It’s All About Style: Part 1

Should a character’s emotions be often and overtly on display? Some writers think so. I was occasionally urged by my fellow writers and critique partners to make Carin — the somewhat stoic point-of-view character in my Waterspell trilogy — more openly emotional.

But many of the works I love best, like The Tombs of Atuan, the second book in Ursula K. Le Guin‘s Earthsea Cycle, are almost stark of emotion. The bare-bones style lends great power to passages like this:

“The room was higher than it was long, and had no windows. There was a dead smell in it, still and stale. The silent women left her there in the dark.

“She held still, lying just as they had put her. Her eyes were wide open. She lay so for a long time. … The glimmer died from the high cell walls. The little girl, who had no name any more but Arha, the Eaten One, lay on her back looking steadily at the dark.”

–from The Tombs of Atuan, copyright 1970, 1971 by Ursula K. Le Guin

Some might ask, “What is the little girl feeling right now?” But I am perfectly content to extrapolate from what I might be feeling in Arha’s place. I don’t need to have her emotional state — be it fear, desperation, resignation, or something else — laid out for me.

To cite a more contemporary example: Katniss, the admirably self-sufficient protagonist of Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games, faces the prospect of almost certain death. She reacts by calmly instructing her mother and sister in how to survive after Katniss is gone:

“… I start telling them all the things they must remember to do, now that I will not be there to do them for them. Prim is not to take any tesserae. They can get by, if they’re careful, on selling Prim’s goat milk and cheese and the small apothecary business my mother now runs for the people in the Seam. Gale will get her the herbs she doesn’t grow herself, but she must be very careful to describe them because he’s not as familiar with them as I am. He’ll also bring them game — he and I made a pact about this a year or so ago — and will probably not ask for compensation, but they should thank him with some kind of trade, like milk or medicine.”

–from The Hunger Games, copyright 2008 by Suzanne Collins

Readers don’t need to see Katniss’ fear. It’s palpable because it’s so carefully submerged under her tightly controlled exterior.

I’ve been watching “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft,” a course on DVD from The Teaching Company. Professor Brooks Landon of The University of Iowa talks about the “tough” style of writing:

“Kernel sentences that simply posit information without detail or explanation … state something and then leave it to subsequent sentences to add information …

“This is macho-speak that bluntly posits information without reflecting upon it or elaborating on it, and we find it exactly where we might expect it, as in the opening to David Morrell’s 1972 novel First Blood.

“[These sentences] are characteristic of the style Walker Gibson calls ‘tough,’ a style frequently associated with some of Ernest Hemingway’s best-known fiction. This style is effective when creating characters who act, but don’t think much about what they do.”

–from “Lecture Four: How Sentences Grow,” Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft, Course Guidebook, copyright 2008 by The Teaching Company

Here is an example that Professor Landon uses in his discussion of the “tough” style of writing:

“His name was Rambo, and he was just some nothing kid for all anybody knew, standing by the pump of a gas station at the outskirts of Madison, Kentucky. He had a long heavy beard, and his hair was hanging down over his ears to his neck, and he had a hand out trying to thumb a ride from a car that was stopped at the pump.”

—from First Blood, copyright 1972 by David Morrell

That opening satisfies me. I see a hint that there’s more to young Rambo than meets the eye — “he was just some nothing kid for all anybody knew” tells me that people don’t really know him, and suggests that he’ll be a hard guy to get to know. That’s fine. I have no need to explore Rambo’s “feelings.” If he shows some emotion later on, it’ll be all the more effective for coming from someone who’s generally unemotional.

(Continues in Part 2 tomorrow …)

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