On Writing: Finding Your Style

Most books on writing I’ve read talk about developing a syle, but recently I came across the remark that “style happens.” If style is simply the way you write, how does it come about? In my case, I don’t try for a specific style, such as gritty or sentimental, flamboyant or minimal, sassy or grim or lyrical. Whatever style I have does not even come when I write, but when I edit. In paring away all the excess, I end up with a matter-of-fact style (or so I’ve been told).

I recently entered a contest to rewrite the first 263 words of The DaVinci Code. Dan Brown has a melodramatic style, one that sublimates good writing for effect. (For example, it is a physical impossibility to freeze and turn one’s head at the same time.) In editing his words, I changed the style, but not the basic meaning of the piece.

Here are Brown’s words:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Carravagio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-three-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.

As he anticipated, a thundering iron gate fell nearby, barricading the entrance to the suite. The parquet floor shook. Far off, an alarm began to ring.

The curator lay a moment, gasping for breath, taking stock. I am still alive. He crawled out from under the canvas and scanned the cavernous space for someplace to hide.

A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.”

On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.

Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils. The albino drew a pistol from his coat and aimed the long silencer through the bars, directly at the curator. “You should not have run.” His accent was not easy to place. “Now tell me where it is.”

“I told you already,” the curator stammered, kneeling defenseless on the floor of the gallery. “I have no idea what you are talking about!”

“You are lying.” The man stared at him, perfectly immobile except for the glint in his ghostly eyes. “You and your brethren possess something that is not yours.”

Here is my edit:

Jaques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the Louvre’s Grand Gallery, lunged for the Carravagio, and tore it from the wall. He collapsed under the weight.

Fifteen feet away, an iron gate dropped with a thud, barricading the entrance of the suite.

Sauniere lay still, struggling to breathe. The sacrifice of the Carravagio gave him a moment’s safety. But he needed to hide.

He inched from beneath the canvas.

“Do not move.”

He froze. That accented voice was unmistakable. How did the albino find him so quickly?

“Where is it?” the albino demanded.

Sauniere turned toward the hulk on the other side of the gate. His gaze shifted from the silenced pistol in the man’s huge hand to the pink eyes with the dark red pupils. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You and your brethren are in possession of something that does not belong to you. I want it.”

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9 Responses to “On Writing: Finding Your Style”

  1. K.S. Clay Says:

    I’m going to have to say that I think style affects meaning. I’d also say that, intentional or not, there are places where I think you altered the meaning of Brown’s words.

    For instance, Brown describes the albino being “immobile except for the glint in his ghostly eyes” which conjures up a certain mood, associations with the word ghostly. I like it, personally. When you altered it you simply took it as a description of the eyes. You said the albino’s voice was unmistakable which gets across a previous association with him but Brown made it clear that the accent wasn’t easy to place, a detail that describes the accent and the man himself rather than referring to a previous association he has with the curator.

    I won’t say that Brown’s prose is flawless. It could certainly have used some cleaning up. The part about freezing and turning his head slowly could easily have been altered to something like “He froze, then slowly turned his head” so that it’s obvious that the actions aren’t occuring simultaneously.

    I think that in editing his piece you expressed your own style and part of that was in determining what you felt was important to keep and what wasn’t. I sense a different emphasis between your version and Brown’s. If I were to do my own version I’d probably have another.

  2. Pat Bertram Says:

    Okay, you got me. I did change the meaning. But the point is still the same: in editing, I create my style. And you’re right — if you edited the piece, you would probably come up with a third version. If you ever decide to try it, feel free to post it here.

  3. Ken Coffman Says:

    DB uses words and situations for effect rather than trying to “document” anything realistic or logical. There’s nothing wrong with that if your only goal is to crank out words and make a sale. As I’ve said elsewhere: consume it, enjoy it. Just don’t try to pass off a Big Mac as Beef Wellington. It ain’t.

  4. K.S. Clay Says:

    Okay. I tried my hand at editing the excerpt. Here’s my version:

    Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway into the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the Carravagio, the nearest painting. He grabbed the gilded frame and yanked at it until it tore from the wall, causing him to stumble backward. Sauniere lost his footing. He collapsed in a heap beneath the canvas.

    As he anticipated, an iron gate fell nearby, barricading the entrance to the suite. The floor shook. Far off, an alarm began to ring.

    The seventy-three year old man, the museum’s curator, lay on the parquet floor gasping for breath.

    He was still alive.

    He crawled from under the canvas. He scanned the cavernous space.

    He needed to hide.

    “Do not move.”

    Fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, loomed the mountainous silhouette of his attacker. The albino resembled a ghost, pale skin and white hair fading into darkness while his red eyes shone. He drew a pistol from his coat and aimed the silencer through the bars. “You should not have run.” His accent was not easy to place. “Now tell me where it is.”

    “I told you already. I have no idea what you are talking about!”

    “You are lying.” The man remained immobile except for that glint in his ghostly eyes. “You and your brethren possess something that is not yours.”

  5. Suzanne Francis Says:

    There is no way I am going to even try to edit that passage. I’m not even sure what is to be gained from such an exercise. Dan Brown’s prose is Dan Brown’s prose–it works for him, and for a lot of people who bought the book.

    My thoughts on style are that it should be uniquely yours, and should have little to do with the shifting sands of “literary convention.”

  6. Pat Bertram Says:

    K.S.: Smooth edit. Reads well without any jarring constructions to pull one out of the scene.

    Ken: Thanks for stopping by; always nice to see you.

    Suzanne: You’re right — Dan Brown’s prose works for him and for his readers. What’s to be gained by this exercise? What’s to be gained by any writing exercise? It’s an experiment in style, is all. And I have to admit, the pull to edit someone else’s work was too strong for me to resist.

  7. K.S. Clay Says:

    Suzanne,

    I wondered that too at first. I realized, though, that in trying to edit the passage I learned about my own style. I immediately seized on the image I received from Brown’s passage about the man’s “ghostly eyes” and wanted to play it up. It made me realize I often do that in my own prose, find a central image and use it to convey a certain mood. I realized I found Brown’s use of the first person to convey the thoughts of a character within third person narrative jarring. Realizing I feel that way as a reader, I can avoid that as a writer.

    I think the benefit of doing it this way is that everyone starts from the same place and then realizes how unique they are as writers by looking at how they each chose different things to change. Would you agree with me, Pat?

  8. Pat Bertram Says:

    K.S., I do agree. Normally I don’t do writing exercises, but I found this one intriguing because everyone who’s done it has come up with something different. Which goes to show that much of style is in what we choose to emphasize and what we choose to deemphasize.

    In the final analysis, the exercise has nothing to do with Dan Brown and everything to do with us as unique writers.

    In my year of writing this blog, I’ve learned much about how I write and how others write, and truly, we are all unique. We all write the story only we can write in the way that only we can write it.

    Thanks, K.S.

  9. Ken Coffman Says:

    Well, we do things for different reasons, but I pick on DB because it is interesting to examine, in detail, the prose style of one of the most successful novelists of our generation. I don’t want to lead an unexamined life and I don’t want to consume unexamined prose. DB is a great example of the literary equivalent of “empty calories”. I didn’t originate this thought, but I think it’s true, you can tell he’s a hack writer by looking at the very first word he uses.


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