When Stylistic Devices Attack! (Now with Three Handy Defenses)

By Erin Nelsen

Sometimes when I read a manuscript, one particular stylistic element seems poised to bring down the whole book—impossible-to-read dialect; verbose, long-winded exposition; trite or “symbolic” imagery; scenes so mysterious you don’t quite know what’s going on; or some other literary device that simply doesn’t fit. But when I tactfully mention the offending device to the author, the response is, “I meant to do that.” 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 writer’s reputation for creativity, judgment, observation, and skill. It’s most noticeable in fiction, but it’s true of nonfiction, too. Think of Jeffrey Gitomer’s books—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 that’s when it works. More often than not, a brazen stylistic device will detract from the work in question. By “detract” I mean, “Make to appear amateurish and overwrought, annoy the reader, and increase the chances the reader will abandon the book somewhere around page 89.” 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. It’s the in-print version of breaking the fourth wall. If you’re going to do it, you’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 you’ve got better ones, I’d love to see them):

1. Less is more. Like loud fabrics, loud literary devices are hard to mix and match. If you’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 you’ve chosen your gimmick, don’t overdo it. Think of that guy you saw last weekend wearing all hot pink plaid. Did you say, “Wow, I admire his consistency to his theme?”

2. Make sure someone gets it. Kurt Vonnegut recommended writing with an audience of one in mind. Whoever you’re writing for, test it out. If your audience doesn’t like your device, you may want to consider toning it down. Even if you’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 (I’m thinking your editor, here).

3. Make sure it’s crucial and authentic to the work. Make sure it’s not just something you’re doing to show off. Christopher Bachelder’s Bear v. Shark uses stream-of-consciousness narration with two-page chapters and commercial breaks as its main style—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 message—so Bachelder’s outré style doesn’t distract from his point. (Also, the book is short—the author doesn’t expect us to get through three hundred pages of this bizarre prose.) If your device isn’t integral to your work, you’re probably better off without it.

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