By Erin Nelsen
Sometimes when I read a manuscript, one particular stylistic element seems poised to bring down the whole bookâ€”impossible-to-read dialect; verbose, long-winded exposition; trite or â€œsymbolicâ€ imagery; scenes so mysterious you donâ€™t quite know whatâ€™s going on; or some other literary device that simply doesnâ€™t fit. But when I tactfully mention the offending device to the author, the response is, â€œI meant to do that.â€ Uh-oh.
The impulse toward unconventional techniques is easy to understand. To write memorable, stylish prose, great authors often break the rules and incorporate uncomfortable elements into their writing. When a nontraditional method works, it garners attention for the book and adds to a writerâ€™s reputation for creativity, judgment, observation, and skill. Itâ€™s most noticeable in fiction, but itâ€™s true of nonfiction, too. Think of Jeffrey Gitomerâ€™s booksâ€”no paragraph too short, no punctuation too exciting, and over a million copies sold to date. A signature style or signature stylistic device can make an author a legend in his own time.
But thatâ€™s when it works. More often than not, a brazen stylistic device will detract from the work in question. By â€œdetractâ€ I mean, â€œMake to appear amateurish and overwrought, annoy the reader, and increase the chances the reader will abandon the book somewhere around page 89.â€ Self-conscious stylistic devices jolt the reader out of the world the writer is building, or make it hard to settle in to begin with. Itâ€™s the in-print version of breaking the fourth wall. If youâ€™re going to do it, youâ€™d better do it right.
With that in mind, here are three handy tests to help you decide whether a device works or not (if youâ€™ve got better ones, Iâ€™d love to see them):
1. Less is more. Like loud fabrics, loud literary devices are hard to mix and match. If youâ€™re going to narrate in stream-of-consciousness, do not also use screenplay-style stage directions and scene breaks. Pick the device that means the most to you. Once youâ€™ve chosen your gimmick, donâ€™t overdo it. Think of that guy you saw last weekend wearing all hot pink plaid. Did you say, â€œWow, I admire his consistency to his theme?â€
2. Make sure someone gets it. Kurt Vonnegut recommended writing with an audience of one in mind. Whoever youâ€™re writing for, test it out. If your audience doesnâ€™t like your device, you may want to consider toning it down. Even if youâ€™re not thinking of a specific person as you compose, a suitably sympathetic, unbiased reader ought to be able to get through the device without trouble (Iâ€™m thinking your editor, here).
3. Make sure itâ€™s crucial and authentic to the work. Make sure it’s not just something youâ€™re doing to show off. Christopher Bachelderâ€™s Bear v. Shark uses stream-of-consciousness narration with two-page chapters and commercial breaks as its main styleâ€”a highly disruptive format. But the book is a satire about a near future in which television screens have taken over all four walls of the room and no longer turn off, where advertising invades our thoughts and the attention span is a thing of the past. The method is the messageâ€”so Bachelderâ€™s outrÃ© style doesnâ€™t distract from his point. (Also, the book is shortâ€”the author doesnâ€™t expect us to get through three hundred pages of this bizarre prose.) If your device isnâ€™t integral to your work, youâ€™re probably better off without it.
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