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Writing - Style

( Originally Published 1922 )

Style a Reflection of Self. — As the French academician observed, "Style is the Man." Style in writing is just as true a portrayal of what a man is—how his texture of thought is woven together—as are the actions of his life. Style is a particular method of writing and no two men are gifted with the same method, just as not two people are alike. Style is a garb of many colors, a thing of many constituents. Stories may be told in a multitude of styles. Thus, a story's style may be elegant, awkward, smooth, dull, involved, ornate, poetical, simple, melodious, and so forth, all depending on the individual who impresses on it the inevitable stamp of personality. Style is like a mirror—it reflects exactly the peculiarities of each detail of its master. If a man be nervous temperamentally his style is sure to reflect those characteristics, and very likely will be choppy and erratic. A writer of nervous temperament, too, is-quite likely to have a versatile style, one possessing many different qualities.

But it is not necessary to go into a technical discussion of styles. Such a discussion belongs to the realm of rhetoric. It will be necessary only to sketch lightly the main and salient features of style, for it is true that the better the style of the story, the more pleasure will it give to the reader.

Style in Stories of To-day.—Yet, it is the truth that present-day stories have very little, if any, literary style. Out of the hundreds of stories that appear monthly in all our vast number of periodicals, but few can be said to possess a good style. Compare any of the stories which you may read in current magazines with some of the stories of Henry Van Dyke, the master dictionist, whose style is as limpid and smooth-flowing as the water in a sand-bottomed brook. But perhaps just because of the fact that so many accepted stories lack good style, the writer will decide not to bother greatly over style. The writer may determine that question for him-self. If he does not care to develop a distinctive and beautiful style, it may not much matter in the long run. Still, all stories must be told clearly, simply, and smoothly. The words of the story must be such as to bring forth mental images to the mind of the reader. Only so far as it is necessary to accomplish these things must the writer study style. The supreme duty of every story writer is to make himself understood absolutely. To write in such a manner that not one bit of doubt arises in the reader's mind as to what the author means, is a great task as well as a great duty.

In real life O. Henry was a quietly humorous and observing individual, bubbling over with good-fellowship and taking a great joy in recording the characteristic oddities of people. The following extract from one of his stories will reveal his humorous outlook on life. It is a fine example of the statement, "Style is the Man."

"A trust is its weakest point," said Jeff Peters.

"That," said I, "sounds like one of those unintelligible remarks such as, `Why is a policeman' ?"

"It is not," said Jeff. "There are no relations between a trust and a policeman. My remark was an epigram—an axis—a kind of mulct'em in parvo. What it means is that a trust is like an egg. If you want to break an egg you have to do it from the outside. The only way to break up a trust is from the inside. Keep sitting on it until it hatches. Look at the brood of young colleges and libraries that's chirping and peeping all over the country. Yes, sir, every trust bears in its own bosom the seeds of its destruction like a rooster that crows near a Georgia colored Methodist camp meeting, or a Republican announcing himself a candidate for governor of Texas."

Studying the Masters of Style.—To be certain regarding the qualities of pure, distinctive style the writer might make a study of the diction of several of the master writers, such as, Dickens, Stevenson, Addison, Kipling, Poe, Hawthorne, Conrad, and so forth, comparing their style with his and ending up by striving to imitate their peculiarities of writing. In this way he may be assisted in his choice of words. Of a like method of self-improvement Stevenson says:

"Whenever I read a book or a page that particularly pleased me in which a thing was said or effect rendered with propriety, in which there was either some conspicuous force or some happy distinction in the style I must sit down at once to ape that quality. I was unsuccessful, and I knew it; and tried again, and was again unsuccessful, and always unsuccessful; but at least in these vain bouts I got some practice in rhythm, in harmony, in construction and co-ordination of parts.

"I have thus played the sedulous ape to Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wadsworth, to Sir Thomas Browne, to Defoe, to Hawthorne, to Montaigne.

"That, like it or not, is the way to learn to write, whether I have profited or not, that is the way. It was the way Keats learned, and there never was a finer temperament for literature than Keats."

Style Should Suit the Type of Story.-Style varies according to the type of story to be written. Thus, in a story of swift, continuous action, the style should consist of short, forceful sentences. All ornamentation, figures of speech, and the like, should be eliminated. If the story is one of mystery or tragedy, the style should lean to the choice of words in which the feeling of fear or horror is aroused. Thus, in Poe's story, "The Fall of the House of Usher," his sentence structure and his choice of words are such that sensations of mystery and apprehension are produced, which sensations come not entirely from the fact that the story deals with elements of the supernatural. Again, in Poe's story "Ligeia," the style or choice of words plays a prominent part in bringing out tones of melancholy.

The Three Qualities of Style : 1. Clearness: To arouse emotion in the reader, the style must appeal clearly to particular senses, tastes, passions, and so on, for a clear appeal to any one of our five senses invariably arouses some emotion. In clearness of style are included clearness of thought and clearness of expression. We must think a thing clearly before we can express it well. To be intelligible the writer's every sentence must contain ideas clearly and logically related to each other.

As an important assistance to clearness, adverbs, adjectives, and pronouns should be placed carefully to modify the words and antecedents to which they are most vitally related.

2. Force.—When a writer wishes to be impressive, to be emphatic, to arouse emotion, and to stress sensational situations, he employs a forceful style. As Professor Genung observes:

"As related to the writer himself, force in style is the result and evidence of some strong emotion at work infusing vigor into his words. He realizes vividly the truth of what he says and so it becomes intense and fervid; he has a deep conviction of its importance, and so it becomes cogent and impressive. Along with this fervor of feeling his will is enlisted ; he is determined, as it were, to make his reader think as he does and to make his cause prevail. Every employment of word and figure is tributary to this. Geniune force in style cannot be manufactured; if the style has not serious conviction to back it, it becomes contorted ; if it has no vivifying emotion, it becomes turgid. Force is the quality of style most dependent on character."

To impart force the writer should use only those words which indicate strength, which imply bigness or swiftness of movement. He should eliminate carefully all merely superficial adjectives and adverbs. Force in the sentence is inherent in the sentence's arrangement. To employ a maximum of force, the main idea in a sentence should be arranged culminatingly so that it comes with emphasis at the end of the sentence.

3. Beauty.—Beauty means making the story a thing of delight to the ear, mind, sense of proportion, and so on. It means the elimination of all harsh words and combinations of words. The use of melodious words, of alliterative words, of suggestive words, such as, "murmuring" and "clash," having a strong resemblance in sound to the idea they express, are practices which lend to the beautification of a work. Lastly in the element of beauty comes the use of figures of speech, such as simile, metaphor, personification, etc.

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