What style do you write?

Style is a little easier to observe in music than in literature. Great musicians occupy a very clear musical style. Blues. Country. Pop. Rock. Classical. Reggae. Ska. That doesn’t mean that Bob Marley never cranked out a heavy metal riff or that Slash can’t do a Reggae rhythm. But there’s something a little forced and artificial when a talented musician steps into a style not quite their own.

You might study many styles as a creator, but at some point you have to commit to making in just one. Because the techniques of your craft aren’t agnostic of style. As a novelist you can learn the general techniques of plotting, but if you want to write thrillers you’ll need to learn the unique plot structures that thrillers employ. Once you add together all the stylistic elements of a thriller, from it’s character archetypes to its thematic concerns, you end up with a lot to learn.

The “trunk novels” many young writers have hidden away are often attempts to find and then master a style. Once you get there, you may be able to go back and rework some of those novels, as Iain M Banks did with the sci-fi novels written in his 20s, that became the early Culture novels over a decade later. Most writers also have notebooks filled with book fragments that explore different styles to find the one that suits them.

Experimenting with style is a learning process. I’m never going to write a sci-fi mashup based on Moby Dick. But I have four chapters of one in an Evernote file. I learned some important things from the time I spent plotting it out, things about the different fiction styles I was mashing together. But I’m glad I didn’t try and push through to the end of it as a book. It’s not a style I love deeply, just one I was playing with.

You have to love the style you write in, much the same way you must love the house you live in, or the friends you choose to live with. You’re going to be spending a lot of time together, and if there’s no love, that’s not going to be any fun at all. That doesn’t mean it’s your job to blindly ape the style of your creative forbears. All creators rebel against the old guard of their style, in the way all children eventually rebel against their parents. But while we may not like to admit it, there’s as much love in rebellion as there is in conformity.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.


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