Words: syntax, tone, and style

This post isn’t a grammar lesson. I’m not going to discuss syntax, tone, and style at great length. I simply want to examine how these things can come together to create dramatically different types of works.

Words are a funny, funny thing. There are dozens of ways to convey the same thing. Let’s play with words.

Here is a paragraph from the book I am currently reading:

“[Todd] vanished instantly. The guard squinted at the empty space where Todd had been. He was still trying to process what he had just seen when he heard a sound directly behind him. The guard turned just in time to be hit in the face with a metal folding chair.”

Now I’m going to write the same thing in a more Boring/Slow/Wordy/Repetitive and poorly written way:

In the blink of an eye, Todd disappeared from the place where he had been standing in the room. The guard stood still, squinting at the now empty space that the younger man had previously been filling. In his mind, he tried to understand what he had just witnessed, contemplating and reviewing the event. A sound that was coming from directly behind him made him want to turn around. As he turned in the direction of the noise, a metal folding chair that was flying through the air struck him in his face.

And now Dramatic/Action Oriented/Fast Paced:

Todd vanished. The guard squinted at the place where he had stood, perplexed. A sound behind him made him turn, and something metal pummeled him in the face.

We aren’t all writing fast-paced action-thrillers. Though I intentionally made my first example a little terrible, writing at a slower pace isn’t wrong or bad. That’s where the emotion comes in. Active voice and action aren’t exactly the best tools for creating emotionally complex characters that readers can connect to. The book I’m reading happens to be a comedy too, meaning it has its own unique style compared to other books.

I’m sure you can think of even more ways to make my examples more boring or more exciting than I did. That’s the point. Every time we communicate we make a choice about how to represent ourselves and our thoughts. Writers have the (sometimes difficult) task of doing this throughout an entire novel.

It’s easy to speed type words onto a page. Revising, second drafting, and polishing a manuscript can be more of a task.

I’ve read books that started out in a completely different style from how they ended. One book I read started out like a Charles Dickens book, or maybe C.S. Lewis in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but by chapter three the funny, quipping narrative started to fade. It turned into a bland read. After chapter five, the norm became to have one to three paragraphs in the aged and witty style before reverting to a boring modern novel. If the author had chosen to write in the modern style throughout, I wouldn’t have thought the syntax was boring. Seeing the two styles next to each other however, ruined the rest of the book. The story was fine: inventive, fun, interesting. It was lost, though, because of the writing style.

So you know the style I’m talking about, here is our practice paragraph again, following the style of Oliver Twist:

The young man, whom I have afore mentioned as going by the name of Todd, vanished. When he did, the man who stood nearby watching marveled at the strange and mysterious event, the likes of which he had never in the whole of his life witnessed before, which I do not find surprising seeing as how most of those who populate this earth have likewise never before seen a person vanish directly in front of their eyes: we could talk about magicians, but that is of an entirely different matter than should be broached at this moment, thus we will not, other than to say that magic may have, in fact, been involved in the event. To return to the point, the uniformed guard, and I must say, the man’s uniform was looking especially spiffy that day, was quite, understandably, distracted by the events to which I have previously described, the disappearance of a young man who was meant to be his prisoner. A noise of the most interesting nature, I shall call it the kind of noise that should not have been there, arose from the region of the room directly opposite to the the guard’s posterior, that is to say, his buttocks. The old man turned, for he was a rather ancient and wizened looking man when held up in comparison to his recently vanished prisoner, complete with an arched back and a trembling gate, he was sure to be in the market for a cane sooner rather than later. The exact state of his health at that exact moment in time, however, which we should not speculate about further at this juncture, was about to be diminished in a kind of way, for in the space behind him as he made his about face, he found a folding chair, the likes of which were metal and moving at quite a rapid pace, aimed directly at his face.

Writing that was really fun! Though, I definitely wanted to give up halfway through and I may have picked up a knack for making crazy long sentences, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Okay, back to the point.

It’s very frustrating to read inconsistencies in voice/tone like I described, but I can see where the problem comes from. When authors try to write in unique ways that aren’t inherent or automatic to them, these fluctuating styles can emerge. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t TRY to play with our style and tone when we write. It just means that we have to be even more attentive and careful throughout the writing, revising, and editing processes. For more style/voice examples, all you have to do is read a bunch of books (Read to be a Better Writer, Oliver Twist, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).

Even if not writing in a unique way however, there are still plenty of stylistic choices we make as writers, such as active/passive voice, point of view, and how much of our narrative is devoted to description versus dialogue.

Writing can be incredibly easy. Crafting something unique or polishing and perfecting, can be a little more complicated. The important thing is to keep trying and keep writing. The simple fact that we can see our errors, faults, and inconsistencies means that we are on the right path to creating something magnificent.


2 thoughts on “Words: syntax, tone, and style

  1. That Oliver Twist paragraph killed me! You definitely have a knack for waffly Victorian prose.

    And your fast paced one is very effective. It actually solves nearly all the issues I have with the original one such as the redundant ‘instantly’ and that the character probably wouldn’t know what had hit them in the face straight away. Something ‘metal’ works perfectly.

    Really interesting and useful blog 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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