thoughts on some stylistic techniques in novels

So I was thinking* about just how much I love authors who are brave enough to experiment with stylistic aspects of their writing. And I thought I'd do a roundup** of some of the interesting things I've come across while reading, along with excerpts from works that incorporate them and my comments.

There's going to be a lot of generalizations in this post, but I'll just point out what I do and don't like. Keep in mind, this is just my (rather fickle) opinion :)



my thoughts: okay, so maybe I'm a *little* biased here. On principle, sentence fragments are perhaps my most favorite stylistic technique that an author can employ. There's always the risk that the prose will get choppy, but when done right, it just adds so much impact and beauty.

I think my favorite instance of it in literature is from The God of Small Things by Adrundhati Roy.

They ran along the bank calling out to her. But she was gone. Carried away on the muffled highway. Graygreen. With fish in it. With the sky and trees in it. And at night the broken yellow moon in it.

There was no storm music. No whirlpool spun up from the inky depths of the Meenachal. No shark supervised the tragedy.

Just a quiet handing-over ceremony. A boat spilling its cargo. A river accepting the offering. One small life. A brief sunbeam. With a silver thimble clenched for luck in its little fist.

And when it's applied to YA books, it can be absolutely fantastic.

Wake by Lisa McMann takes it to a whole new extreme, and I love it.


Oh baby," he whispers. Steps back. Out of the doorway. His face ashen. He walks slowly back to the kitchen. Leans over the counter. Puts his head in his hands. His hair falls over his fingers.

The bathroom door clicks shut.

She stays there for a long time.

He's pulling his hair out.
final verdict: EPIC WIN


my thoughts: I don't even like it when James Joyce does it. And in the instances I've seen it applied to young adult literature, it's been very jarring.

quote (from Ulysses by James Joyce)

--A woeful lunatic! Mulligan said. Were you in a funk?
--I was, Stephen said with growing energy and fear

Gah. What is wrong with simple quotation marks?

I didn't like it much in YA with Girl in the Arena either:

--Have you met with Uber? another reporter asks.
--No. Not yet.
--So you plan to?
--There are no plans at this time, I say.
The whole dashes instead of quotation marks might not appear to be a big nuisance in small snippets, but when it's consistent throughout a large book, it really throws me off. It jolts me out of the dialogue.

final verdict: FAIL


my thoughts: The instances I've come across have been brillamazing. I really like it as a stylistic technique--and the combined words only pop up every once in a while but they have extra impact.

Here's Cormac McCarthy in All the Pretty Horses:

The wind was much abated and it was very cold and the sun sat blood red and elliptic under the reefs of bloodred cloud before him.


And here's Toni Morrison in The Bluest Eye:

Hereisthehouseitisgreenandwhiteithasareddooritisverypretty itisveryprettyprettyprettyp

It might lose it's impact separated here, but as chapter titles and as the opening of the novel it's wonderful.

The closest thing to the whole making up new words/combining them technique I've found in YA is in Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, when a whole 2 pages in the middle of the book runs:

Must. Not. Eat. Must. Not. Eat. Must. Not. Eat.Must. Not. Eat.Must. Not. Eat.Must. Not. Eat.

It might not seem like much taken out of context here, but as it functions in the book, this shows the thought process of the main character and it just has so much impact.

The Verdict: WIN for Adult lit. Hopefully there will be some more in YA lit soon.


my thoughts: It's actually pretty cool, the two or three times I've read it in a book.

In This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald, I really liked it. That was one of my literature week books that I had to read in one day, and by the 2/3 point I was getting restless. So the dramatic form really broke it up for me in an interesting way.


CECILIA: Well, Rosalind has still to meet the man she can outdistance. Honestly, Alec, she treats men terribly. She abuses them and cuts them and breaks dates with them and yawns in their faces--and they come back for more.

ALEC: They love it.

CECILIA: They hate it. She's a sort of vampire--I think.


And Laurie Halse Anderson uses it both in Speak and Wintergirls.

quote (from Speak, Victim is the main character):

Mom: "...[l]ook at me when I'm talking to you."

[Victim mixes cottage cheese into applesauce. Dad snorts like a bull. Mom grasps knife.]

my thoughts: If it's done right, it can be awesome. There's so many different ways to experiment with plot structure and point of view and chapter divisions.

I love the headings in The Book Thief (and I love pretty much everything in that book) by Markus Zusak:

"When he turned the light on in the small, callous washroom that night, Liesel observed the the strangeness in her foster father's eyes. They were made of kindness, and silver. Like soft silver, melting. Liesel, upon seeing these eyes, understood that Hans Hubermann was worth a lot.


She was five feet, one inch tall and wore her
browny gray strands of elastic hair in a bun.
To supplement the Hubermann income, she did the washing
for the wealthier households in Molching.
Her cooking was atrocious.
She possessed the unique ability to aggravate almost anybody she ever met.
But she did love Liesel Meminger."


And then there are books that experiment with lists, which are pretty cool as well.

For the books with different types of chapters (or none at all), I'm not exactly sure. I love the how scenes are divided up in Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, by time:

[ oo8.00]

The air at the gas station is heavy with diesel and the smell of rancid deep-fryer fat from the McDonald's next door.

However, books that go on for long blocks of pages without any chapters can get a little heavy, where I'm waiting for a place to leave off and there's no chapter ending to stop at.

And the extreme experiment in structure is a nonlinear plot form. I haven't yet read a YA book other than The Year of Secret Assignments with a nonlinear structure, but I'm trying to get my hands on one.

Final verdict: UNDECIDED, mostly due to the wide range of variation.

I'm pretty fascinated by the diversity of style and techniques that authors employ. Of course, it's a bit hard to generalize when I think a lot of it comes down to execution: some authors can make pretty much any technique work, and some can't.

I'd like to see more experimental techniques in YA literature; it really can add an extra dimension into a narrative.

And here's the big question: do you agree or disagree with me on my assessments? Do you have any favorite unique stylistic techniques or do particular techniques really bother you in a novel?

*Yes, I do do that on occasion. Even though my brain is fried from SCHOOL. *weep*

**Okay, so maybe this is a plot to showcase novels I (mostly) like with awesome quotes that will hook you so hard you'll be running to the bookstore to read the books mentioned here. Most of 'em, at least.


Amelia said...

Wow, very thorough!!
I actually get distracted by a lot of fragments. If there are just a few - evenly spaced out - that emphasize a point, then it's really cool, but to have so many squeezed together would kind of bother me :]

The dialogue with no quotemarks is cool, but it takes me awhile to get used to it - THE ROAD, for example :]

The only style that I find really *cringeworthy* is stream-of-consciousness: EWWW! Joyce's ULYSSES and Faulkner's books (he does it in all of them) were so hard for me because of this.

Excellent excellent post!!

Dazzling Mage said...

Awesome post! I love that there are readers that pay attention to stylistic techniques in a book. And I totally agree with your assessments of them. Especially loved the examples you included, like Wake (LOVED IT!), and The Book Thief.

I remember discussing dialogues without quotations in a creative writing class, and our professor turned to us and said "Don't you dare." Lol, it was so funny.

I think that authors should experiment with it, but for a chapter only. I'm not a fan of it either, but if it's there, why not?

Anyway, loved reading this.

Vee said...

I'm pretty much okay with all experimentation. I thought lack of dialogue tags worked in How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff as a part of Daisy's (protag's) voice. And I lovelovelove stream of consciousness if done well (too often done shittily, though. And I don't like Joyce much, either). AND I THINK YOU KNOW I'M IN LOVE WITH SENTENCE FRAGMENTS, lol. But I seriously looooovveeee them :D (I actually also sorta like choppy writing).

Steph Su said...

FASCINATING post. For some reason I often feel that experimentation works better in adult novels than they do in YA. Not really sure why: perhaps my reading of YA comes with certain expectations and preconceptions, which I don't have for adult novels, thus enabling me to appreciate more variety in adult novels? I dunno. It's funny you say that about dialogue with no quotation marks, because in some languages (such as French), there are no quotation marks used. Everything is with dashes! *grins*

What do you think, then, of third-person present tense? I still find it very jarring. It took me a while to get used to it in Wake, but then it was alright, albeit still a little...weird. Have you read Willow by Julia Hoban? That book uses it too. Not sure how effective it is, and why one chooses to write with it.

Monster of Books said...

Ooh this was a nice, fun post to read!!

Unknown said...

Great post, made me think too :-)

- First of all regarding the lack of quotation marks, I'd just like to say, that is the way we do dialogues in Europe, so if you pick up a book published anywhere else than the UK, dialogues will be written in this style. Since I was used to this, it was the other way round for me :-) I found it strange at first when I read in English books all the dialogues between quotation marks, but now I'm used to both.

- Sentence fragments: I agree, thez can be pretty powerful and convey the tense athmosphere of the scene, and if it is justified and is essential to the story I like it, but I didn't like it the way Lisa McMann in your Wake quote did it. It felt much more as a screenplay and not like a novel. I like my novels to be descriptive and give me details about the characters thoughts and emotions, I like my narrative layered, and not just a recounting of actions the characters do.

- Combining words/makling up new words: I love this, this can really show how creative and imaginative a writer is. (I also like to use this in real life :-) )

Ok, I'll stop now, have been rambling on long enough :-)

Unknown said...

I have honestly never thought about it but now you come to mention it I love the use of sentence fragments. I do that in my writing so maybe that's why.

Mrs. DeRaps said...

I agree with you on the no quotations front. I am not a fan and find it a little confusing. I think that stylistic choices should add to the meaning, not take away, like no quotation marks. That kinda feels like someone was too lazy to proof a draft or something.

I love Laurie Halse Anderson and think that her stylistic choices ALWAYS improve my understanding of her character, plot, etcetera. Markus Zusak and Toni Morrison are master writers, and their choices are so brilliant that I'm not sure they are entirely human. Great topic, great clips of current and classic lit!

Bidisha said...

I love sentence fragments. And I've realized I use it quite frequently in my writing.
For some reason though, I just couldn't get through The God of Small Things..though I did WANT to like it.

I can't do dialogue without quotation marks too. they kind of deaden the liveliness of dialogue, I think.
Oh, and I absolutely LOVE the epistolery style :))

Sarah (Book Reviews from Inside an Igloo) said...

I totally agree with the "fail" when authors don't use quotations marks! It's distracting and just plain annoying! James Frey does this to in; "A million little pieces" don't know if you've read that or not.

Great Post though!!

Emilia Plater said...

Awesome post!! I love how LHA does dramatic form. Sentence fragments are gold, but personally I think they can get tiring if they're just listing actions, like in Wake.

Emilia Plater said...

& Holy crap you're one follower away from 500! haha

Lauren said...

I pretty much agree with you on all these, actually. I love sentence fragments, but I can't stand speech without speech marks. I do eventually get used to it in a book, but the period of adjustment at the beginning is just really distracting.

Really interesting post!

Becca Cooper said...

Lovely post! I very much agree, especially on the sentence fragments (LOVE!) and the lack of quotation marks (HATE!).

Stylistic techniques are such fun. :D

The Critic said...

It's funny, because in France they have all the book dialogue has sentence fragments. They never use quotation marks. It's hard to get used to at times but once you do, it really is fine.

Jeanne C. said...

love sentence fragments. :)

MissA said...

Interesting post.

The main character in The Disreptuable History of Frankie Landau-Banks makes up words and it's quite funny and an original concept. Frankie calls them the neglected positive. Her theory is that you add un or another prefix to make it negative (like sane, insane). she makes up several words including criminate (from incriminate, criminate means to give someone an alibi). It's an amusing concept.

I like sentence fragments, dislike dialogue with no quotation marks (interestingly enough I'm reading Year of the Horse and when the main character speaks Chinese, it's written in english in italics, but when he speaks English it's in quotations).

in which a girl reads said...

@Amelia: Thanks! And hehe, I am pretty biased with sentence fragments, I just love 'em. I really want to read THE ROAD, but ALL THE PRETTY HORSES (also by McCarthy) with the no quotation marks was actually cool. But McCarthy, I think, is the ONE and ONLY exception for me with that. Haha. Stream-of-consciousness can get pretty distracting if not done right, so I get what you mean :)

@Dazzling: I enjoyed Wake too, the style was so unique. AND THE BOOK THIEF AHH I LOVE IT SO MUCH I CAN'T EVEN EXPRESS THE BEGINNINGS OF MY LOVE. Haha. And lol at your professor. It's cool to experiment, but I just don't really like it all that much either :)

@ink: That's true, Meg Rosoff actually pulled the no dialogue tags off. Hmm. I guess there are some exceptions--but it's more the Joyceian em-dash with dialogue that bothers me. I only like stream of consciousness sometimes--most of the time I don't (I guess when it's not done right). AND YOU KNOW HOW MUCH I LOVE SENTENCE FRAGMENTS TOO! My absolute fave. And lol @ liking choppy writing. I eez choppy writer ;_;

@Steph: I think also that adult literature writers are more willing to experiment with their writing--and YA novelists aren't (generally) as concerned with crafting writing that's ground-breaking. Of course, there's a few really amazing authors (Anderson & Zusak in particular) who are creating things no one has ever seen before--but I really, really wish authors would experiment more with YA.

And I suppose if I grew up reading dash-dialogue I would like it--but on it's own--not a chance. Haha.

Imo, third present tense is the hardest tense to do write. It can come off as really self-aware. I liked it in WAKE, but HATED it in WILLOW (since I think the execution was lacking--I really didn't like WILLOW at all). It's interesting, but I've rarely seen it done right (parts of Margaret Atwood's THE BLIND ASSASSIN have it down fabulously, and also her THE ROBBER BRIDE--but Atwood is a goddess of writing and therefore an exception to everything, lol). I think other POVs are a wiser choice for the majority of authors. I LOOOVE first present tense though :)

@ Book Monster: Thanks :)

in which a girl reads said...

@Stella: I guess for dialogue it's more of using what readers are accustomed then--but still can't stand em dashes. Haha.

And I do like my novel layered as well, but I also don't mind WAKE's style. It's bare-bones but I sometimes like bare-bones :)

I LOVE combining words too. Do it all the time, haha.

@Becky: Me too! I overuse sentence fragments in my writing, just because I can't help myself. Love them more than anything :)

@Mrs. DeRaps: You're totally right about the no dialogue marks taking away from meaning--I pay too much attention to deciphering the conversation instead of just reading it. And I <3 Anderson and Morrison and Zusak. They are my idols, lol.

@Bee: You must try THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS again! It's one of my all time-faves.

w00t for fellow sentence fragment writers :)

And epistolary can be pretty cool too.

@Sarah: lol! I haven't read A MILLION LITTLE PIECES (although the sprinkles on the cover are very, very tempting) but sounds like it was another case of no quotation marks FAIL. Haha.

@Emilia: LHA does dramatic form wonderfully. And sentence fragments FTW! And HOLY CRAP it's 501 now. Whoah!!!

@Lauren: Thanks and I agree with you too--it takes an awful amount of time for me to adjust, and sometimes I don't at all. Sentence fragments FTW! :D

@Becca: I feel like starting an I <3 sentence fragments club, haha. And I agree, stylistic techniques are FUNtastic!

@The Critic: I suppose once you get used to it, it would be okay, haha. I will RESIST though until then. :)


@Miss Attitude: I've read The Disreputable History and loved the making-up words aspect of it. LOVED. So this whole making up words is an EPIC WIN imo, haha. And Year of the Horse sounds very, very interesting--I think I might tolerate the no quotation marks in that case :)

Moll said...

This is an excellent post.

I am kind of a whore for sentence fragments. I just love how they read, how the energize the prose.

I am not the biggest fan of made up words though. I find it jarring, but I am probably just too up tight. ;)

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