The series I have planned for the coming months will focus on particular elements of style–word choices, rhetorical devices, syntax, and so on–and how these elements pertain to fiction. In writing these posts, I hope to emphasize how the language choices we make in our creative writing endeavors help construct the narrative we’re creating. And, most importantly, I hope to show you how to use them to your advantage.
What is stylistics?
Stylistics is, first and foremost, an academic discipline. But wait! Before you run away screaming, I have a secret to share. You come into contact with style constantly: in speech, at university, reading the news, even on social media. It makes sense, then, that style plays such a heavy role in fiction. Have you ever given your character an individualized or societal way of speaking? That’s style. What about debated the use of a word and then chosen a synonym because it “sounded better?” Again, style. Have you shortened your sentence length to pace an action scene and to “speed up” the feel of the prose? You guessed it. Style.
Stylistics is one of those disciplines that bridges into other disciplines and is not generally studied on its own. When I studied it for my master’s thesis, I predominantly focused on stylistics as the bridge between linguistics and poetry, but many of my sources handled prose as well. It fascinated me: how style, as both a field of study and an intuitive part of our writing, is inherent to a creative text. Here we’re mostly going to be looking at the latter.
Who? What? When? Where?
In both literary criticism and linguistics, it’s not uncommon to ask common WH-questions: Why was a theme used in a particular work? Which parts of our language have changed over time? Whose choices in a novel affect the structural process of the prose and subsequently the story? However, the thing about stylistics—and, more narrowly, of style itself—is that it doesn’t focus so much on the why or what of language, but on the how. How do we use language—vocabulary, syntax or sentence structures, sound play (alliteration, assonance), meaning variations—to improve the story we’re trying to tell?
How does style apply to my writing?
You don’t realize it, but you use style subconsciously every time you choose a word, construct a sentence, or even when you adhere to specific genre standards. In the case of “how” we’re using language, this is also applicable to how we write it and how we show it through our characters and prose. For instance:
- How do we use dialogue in our stories to imitate regional dialects?
- Does a character have a particular individual dialect (idiolect) that characterizes his actions?
- How does sentence length affect the overall tone and rhythm of a piece? How does it carry the action of a scene?
- How do particular word choices influence meaning and overall meter of sentences?
- How does punctuation affect our associations of timing?
The list could go on and on, to be honest. The interesting part is seeing where and how it all connects when words and ideas and grammar meet. And how all these tiny linguistic connections build what eventually become a novel.
Think about it . . .
So what’s next? In subsequent posts, we’ll work on observing style in everyday fiction. We’ll discuss these through examples and (hopefully) understandable explanations.
Next up: How sounds works in your prose.
If stylistics is an entirely new concept to you and you’re interested in reading additional material, I point you to the following resources:
The Sense of Style – Steven Pinker
A book for the layman, so to say. Steven Pinker is a cognitive scientist who has written several books about language and the mind’s way of using it.
A Dictionary of Stylistics – Katie Wales
This was the single most useful book for my thesis. I’m pretty sure it saved my life a couple times. Definitely applicable to more than just academics. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I really love it.
Have you heard of stylistics or studied it before? Are there any particular elements of style you’d like me touch upon in the upcoming months?
Let me know in the comments below!