Three Reasons To Use A Formal Writing Style In Your Story

Although there is a lot to be said for using a more informal or more “matter of fact” writing style on your story (eg: it’s faster-paced, easier to read etc..), I thought that I’d talk about some of the reasons why you might want to use a more complex, detailed, descriptive, elaborate and/or just generally formal writing style.

But, although I’ll be talking about the advantages of using a formal style, you don’t have to use it 100% of the time. In fact, quite a few published authors will actually use a mixture of formal and informal writing depending on what they are writing about at any one moment (For example, formal narration is great for setting the scene – but less great during a thrilling car chase scene etc..). Still, there are some good reasons to use a more formal style every now and then…

1) You can do a lot more: Although I’ll talk about mixing formal and informal narration later, one of the main benefits of using formal narration is that you can do a lot more with it.

You can write long, flowing sentences that “overload” the reader with fascinating detailed descriptions that leave them in an awe-struck state of pure wonder. You can use the exact words for what you want to describe (eg: there’s a very subtle difference between something being big, large, grand, colossal, gargantuan, expansive etc.. even if these words all basically mean the same thing). You can use lots more literary and linguistic techniques to create all sorts of different effects on the reader. You can devote an entire page to the events of a single second. You can paint with words. I could go on…

One of the great things about formal writing styles is that they are something that only books can do. They deliver an experience that you can’t get from anything except a book. Whilst more informal writing styles can create something that feels like a more immersive and detailed version of a good TV show or film, reading a well-written formal novel can feel like experiencing high-definition virtual reality. It can feel like stepping back in time or becoming someone else or whatever. It’s really awesome.

Yes, actually reading formal narration requires a bit more skill and concentration. To use a computer game metaphor, it means that the “system requirements” of your story will be a bit higher. It is a challenge for the reader, and this may drive some potential readers away. But, if you want to really dazzle devoted and experienced readers, then don’t be afraid to write in a more complex and formal style if you think that it will improve your story.

2) If it feels natural: Some writers only really thrive when they are using a formal style. Whether this is due to the books that influenced them to become a writer, the fact that English lit was their favourite lesson at school or just because they’ve had a lot of practice at formal writing, some writers are at their best when using a formal style. It just feels “natural” in a way that is difficult to describe if you haven’t experienced it for yourself (and probably why, even though I’m writing this article quickly at 4am, I’m still using a formal style).

Of course, fast-paced informal writing styles are popular these days. They are fun and easy to read, and this is a good thing – especially in this distraction-filled age. But, if you try writing in this style and find that it feels flat, repetitive, lifeless etc.. when you do it, then there’s a possibility that it isn’t really your best writing style. So, if you want to write a novel that really feels like the kind of interesting, unique thing that only you can write, then try experimenting with a more formal style. If it feels more alive, interesting, relaxing etc… then it is your best writing style.

If you are this type of writer – the type of writer who loves writing long descriptions, who likes to feel the heft of an extensive vocabulary or who feels the free-wheeling thrill of giving your characters long, interesting chains of thought, then embrace it and use your formal writing skills to make your story into the kind of beautiful, fascinating, unique thing that people will want to read.

3) Time and setting: If you’re writing a story set in the past, then a more formal writing style can help to add realism and authenticity to the story. After all, even up until the 1980s/90s, many popular writers (even in “low brow” genres like the thriller and horror genres) would use a writing style that would probably be considered at least mildly “formal” by modern standards. So, if your story is set more than about 20-30 years ago, then a slightly more formal writing style can be a subtle way of making your story seem more “authentic”.

However, don’t go overboard with this. One trend I’ve noticed in modern historical detective fiction is to use just enough formal narration and/or formal phrases to give the story a historical flavour, whilst using a slightly more timeless “matter of fact” writing style for most of the narration. This allows these novels to feel historical whilst also allowing them to be fast-paced and easily-readable enough to compete with detective fiction set in the present day.

But, if your story primarily revolves around atmospheric locations and/or complex characters, then use formal narration. This type of detailed, complex narration really allows you to flesh out your characters and/or locations to a level where they feel real in your reader’s mind.

Some great – but slow paced- examples of this are a 1980s dark fantasy novel called “Kill The Dead” by Tanith Lee, a classic 1950s horror novel called “The Haunting Of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson and a gothic novel from the 1990s called “The Vampire Armand” by Anne Rice.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

How Formal Should The Narration In Your Horror Story Be?

Well, I thought that I’d talk about formal and informal narration in horror fiction today. This is because each type of narration does different things in horror stories and choosing how to blend both of them can have a huge impact on how your story affects your reader.

But, first, how do the two types of narration differ from each other?

Complex, slow-paced formal narration is perfect for scenes where you want to create an ominous atmosphere, gross the reader out with horrific descriptions and/or build suspense. The main advantage of formal narration is that it can be used to render events, locations, emotions etc… in a much greater level of detail, albeit at the cost of reading speed.

On the other hand, simple fast-paced “matter of fact” informal narration is perfect for scenes where you want to get the reader’s adrenaline pumping. If you want to add a sense of frantic immediacy or gritty realism to a scene in your horror story, informal narration is best. Likewise, because there are fewer details and descriptions, the reader’s imagination has to “fill in the gaps”. You can exploit this fact to add even more horror to your story.

Of course, most modern horror stories will use a careful blend of these two things. After all, too much slow-paced formal narration can get in the way of the story and too much fast-paced informal narration can make the story seem light, generic and/or superficial.

So, the best approach is to know when to use each type. A good modern example of this is the novel I’m reading at the time of writing this article – “The Ritual” by Adam Nevill. This is a novel about a group of hikers who find themselves stranded in a dangerous forest.

When Nevill describes the forest, he’ll sometimes use the kind of elaborate formal narration that allows the reader to picture it really clearly. Then, when he shows the characters reacting to the events of the story, he’ll sometimes switch to shorter sentences and more “matter of fact” informal narration. Yes, there are some notable exceptions to this rule, but it is used to great effect – especially in the earlier parts of the story.

The contrast between these two types of narration works really well because the descriptive formal narration emphasises the harsh beauty of the forest, whilst the gritty informal narration shows the characters’ intense struggle to survive physically and emotionally. By using slightly different narration for different types of scenes, Nevill is able to shape how the reader reacts to the story.

Another good example can be found in classic British splatterpunk fiction from the 1980s. In these stories, scenes of everyday life, dialogue, drama etc… will often be written in a relatively informal way in order to to add a realistic atmosphere and keep the story moving at a decent pace. But, whenever anything gruesome happens, it will often be described in a very formal, poetic and descriptive way.

Not only does this combine beauty and horror in a really unsettling way, but the formal narration also adds a lot of extra emphasis to the gruesome moments too. In other words, the contrast between these two types of narration makes the story seem even more gruesome than it might do if it only used formal or informal narration.

The common thread in all of this is that each type of narration has to be used for a good reason. The contrast between each type of narration also matters a lot too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

The Joy Of… Informal Storytelling

2016 Artwork The Joy Of Informal Storytelling

A while before I wrote this article, I was watching a somewhat left-leaning American news discussion channel on Youtube called “The Young Turks“. One of the things that I suddenly realised was “I wish that the news was more like the format of this show”. It’s true, the dry and formal style of the usual BBC or ITV News broadcast couldn’t be further away from the much more informal style of “The Young Turks”.

Even comedy news discussion shows on British TV only sometimes come close to the style used on this Youtube show. The presenters express emotions, they use realistic expressions, there’s hilariously crude humour, there are impassioned comments and all sorts of other things that you just wouldn’t see in a formal news broadcast or debate.

This made me think about the power of informality and how it can be applied to storytelling. The fact is that, from an early age, we’re usually told that formal is best when expressing information. Despite trying to be more informal, my writing style on this blog is still heavily influenced by the essays that I used to write during my formal education and the more formal online articles that I’ve read over the years.

There’s a lot to be said for a more formal style when it comes to non-fiction but, I thought that I’d look at fiction. The fact is that I’ve read relatively few novels and comics that use a proudly informal style and do it well. Most of these things can probably be found in the punk genre – in fact, the work of one writer in particular springs to mind. I am, of course, talking about Warren Ellis.

Whether it’s in his brilliantly hilarious film noir novel “Crooked Little Vein” or in his “Transmetropolitan” comics, he’s able to tell brilliantly complex stories that never really feel like they’re formal in any way. They’re anti-formal. Everything is taken as seriously as everything else and this is used for comedic effect, dramatic effect and all other kinds of effect.

They’re stories that take place in a world where a news article about bad political news can consist of nothing more than a single four-letter word repeated 8000 times, mirroring the thoughts of the characters (and the thoughts of the audience whenever they read bad political news). They’re set in a brilliantly informal world where this kind of thing is just another part of life.

Some examples of more informal styles can also be found in the cyberpunk genre (when first-person narration is used) or in the punk genre itself. However, when it is taken to extremes, it can often be more confusing than anything else. Both Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting” and Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker” both fall victim to this problem, since they’re both written in a phonetic style that tries to mirror the narrator speaking to the reader. But, since they use a lot of phonetic spellings and/or dialects, both books confused me so much that I didn’t finish either.

The same is true with Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange”. Although the notorious film adaptation is more well-known than the book, the book itself is written entirely in the “futuristic” slang that the characters use. It’s informal but, because of all of the linguistic experiments, it can get slightly confusing.

A good informal style feels like free speech. It feels like a compelling story that has emerged organically from someone’s thoughts. It feels like you’re being told a story by a friend or by an interesting person that you met in a pub. It’s almost like a window into someone’s thoughts. It’s a highly subjective style of writing that lets the serious parts of the story show themselves to be serious, rather than telling the audience that they’re serious by the way that they’re described.

In addition to this, a good informal style leaves it up to the reader how seriously they want to take the story. An informal story can treat trivial things with deference and serious things with indifference. It reflects how many people actually see the world, rather than how people “should” see the world.

In a way, informal storytelling goes back to the very beginnings of storytelling. It hearkens back to the days when a storyteller was someone literally telling a story to an audience, rather than someone writing a story for people to read later. This, I think, is the main reason why informal storytelling styles can be so much more powerful than formal ones.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂