Style vs. Substance


Often an author will come up with a plot that is innovative but fail to engage the reader with the quality of their prose. Other writers can use words and construct sentences that captivate the audience, but their grasp of storytelling is weak. The panel discusses the differences between style and substance, and how an author needs to master both to write successfully.
PANELLISTS: Jack DannEllen KushnerIan R. McLeod, Geoff Ryman, Lisa TuttleWorld Fantasy Convention, Brighton 2013

This might seem like a strange subject to have a discussion about, since both style and substance are needed to be successful, but the panellists were great and some good points came out of it.

Jack Dann started the ball rolling by defining style as ‘transparency of thought’. It isn’t something you can add in during editing – as you learn the craft of writing, you are basically learning how to think clearly in words. Once you can put on paper what you mean in specifics, the person that is you comes out. All the best writers are precise – it’s the specific word that works, the specific phrase. That is your style, your voice. Style is the choices you make as a writer: which word, which character trait, which plot point. Often you don’t even know you’re making choices – you just let the story flow – but those are the choices and the style that only you as an individual writer could make.

The biggest stylistic faults are hype (over-writing) and generalities. In F+SF writing particularly, the convention is to have things like emotions and world description displayed front and centre. In literary fiction, the convention is for understatement and concealment. Genre has stylistic conventions, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong in subverting them a bit. Avoid the temptation to over-write in F+SF – assume your audience has some intelligence, and let them infer stuff from more subtle pointers.

A lot of style comes from the rhythms of sentences and dialogue. That determines character, state of mind, emotion, etc. (See previous posts on dialogue). It’s also what draws readers into descriptive passages. Mary Stewart is an excellent example of this, for me:

I am nothing, yes; I am air and darkness, a word, a promise. I watch in the crystal and I wait in the hollow hills. But out there in the light I have a young king and a bright sword to do my work for me, and build what will stand when my name is only a word for forgotten songs and outworn wisdom, and when your name, Morgause, is only a hissing in the dark.                                           – The Hollow Hills

As a final point, the panel conceded that substance can be published on its own, as style can be developed but the ability to come up with interesting ideas is either there or not. But in today’s competitive market, without both it’s going to be a tough sell.

One response »

  1. I like that point about stylistic conventions, and about treating your audience as if they have some intelligence. I think a frequent lack of that is one of the reasons some people look down on sf+f, though obviously there’s a big dose of snobbery in there too.

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