Of all the troubles a beginning writer often has, style and tone tend to be at the top of the list. Whether we call it Voice or Theme or what-have-you, fiction writing is all about that mysterious thing.
People often make the mistake of assuming that storytelling is about events. Events are easy. Events can follow a logical path from A to B to C to Conclusion. It’s not that plotting is simple. It’s just that it is the most mechanical aspect of storytelling, the most quantifiable, and thus, the easiest part to focus on. It’s easy to teach technical rules, and much of plotting is technical. It’s often the foundation where the story begins, but without Voice or Tone, a story is nothing more than that. Believe it or not, we don’t usually care about those stories.
We invest in stories because of their emotional resonance, found in their characters and the execution of the writing itself. In most great fiction, the narration itself is a character, sharing a point of view, bringing its own personality. With very rare exception, a cold, clinical narration doesn’t grab our attention, and spending five pages with a character interacting with their world is a thousand times more interesting than reading about their detailed backstory.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to teach style because style isn’t a universal element. It varies. What works in one story, might not work in another. Imitation can help a writer develop their own style, but it can just as often lead to confusion. Aping the style of your favorite writer doesn’t make you into your favorite writer.
The best way I know of to learn style is to first notice it, to see that it exists. It’s often invisible to us. We know, instinctively, that there’s a difference between The Untouchables and The Naked Gun. We can easily paint it in broad strokes, but we don’t usually give it much more thought than that. And, yes, The Naked Gun is a very silly movie, but it’s a silly movie based on many of the same tropes and ideas as The Untouchables. Understanding what makes one a comedy and one a drama, wide as they might be across the spectrum, is the foundation of style.
But talk is cheap. So let’s do some short original examples:
Herbert clawed at the door. The bites weren’t always infectious. So he took some sick days and some bed rest, and they waited. The graying skin wasn’t a good sign. The distant look in his eyes as the days went on wasn’t either. They’d hoped. And when he’d stopped talking, stopped eating, stopped hoping, she’d hoped still. She’d never stopped hoping, even as she barricaded the bedroom door and sat in the living room with that axe on her lap.
He growled. Not like an animal. Like a thing. Like a puppet of meat and bone and cracked fingernails. It’d been like this for days, and she’d hoped. But today, she was all out of hope. Today, she’d do what needed to be done. For both of them.
Axe in hand, she pushed the bookshelf aside and opened the door because the poor, pitiable thing that had been Herbert was too stupid to open doors.
Herbert clawed at the door. She ignored him. She’d spent years ignoring him before the bite, so it wasn’t difficult. She’d tended his wound, brought him soup, ignored his whining. He kept saying it wasn’t always infectious. He held out hope, the poor sap. Herbert’s life had been shit for years, and her life, by extension, had been shit adjacent. He hadn’t always been a failure, but he’d been one so long that she couldn’t remember him as anything else. She’d barricaded the bedroom a few days before he’d turned.
She should’ve killed him before that. It would’ve been easier, put them both out of their misery. If she’d ever loved him, she didn’t know why. That shambling mockery of a thing scratching at the door was no more pitiable. Having the sense to transform into a monster she could legally kill was the best thing he’d ever done with his life.
She ignored his scratching until her show was over. Then she turned down the TV, grabbed her axe, and whistling, went to commit her final act of kindness for the poor, sorry bastard.
Herbert clawed at the door. He’d been doing so for an hour now, and she’d have done something about it if she hadn’t misplaced her axe. She could hear him now, not as he was, but as he used to be, lecturing her about putting things in their proper place. He’d always been great about that. The irony wasn’t lost on her. She’d bought the damned thing just in case, as it became clearer that he wasn’t going to fight off the infection. He’d told her to, and her reluctance faded as it became clear he was right.
He was always right, always on top of everything. It was one of the things she loved about him. He’d never been romantic in a traditional sense, but he’d always looked out for her. He’d always made her life better and the course smoother. When she screwed up, he’d just smile and take care of things. The least she could do was take care of this last thing for him.
He groaned, and she wanted to shout at the door that she wasn’t happy about it either. She had no problem destroying the thing that had once been Herbert. He would’ve done the same for her. But she was running late for work and she couldn’t find the god damn axe.
Three short tales of Herbert the zombie and his wife. In each case, it isn’t the incidents that set it apart. It’s the Tone, Voice, and Character Dynamics. It’s there that stories come alive, where the Zombie Herbert’s tale can be either tragic, annoying, or slice-of-life.
Mastery of Tone and Style isn’t easy. It is perhaps the biggest obstacle a writer can struggle with. I still struggle with it. I’d never claim to be a master of either, but I do know that most beginning writers are so focused on the events that they miss what makes a story work. Rarely is it what happens.
It’s how it happens.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,