Sunday, October 17, 2010

I Really Dig Those Styles They Wear*

One of the reasons that crime fiction is such a popular genre is arguably that it’s also a very diverse genre. This means that just about anyone can find something enjoyable within it. One thing that adds to that variety is the different writing styles that we see. Writing style is an important part of a novel, too; if the style fits the context, characters and story, it can add a great deal to the novel. Otherwise, it can be jarring. But the thing is, lots of different writing styles can work very effectively.

For example, one writing style that can be both evocative and tension-building is the descriptive, almost literary style of crime fiction authors like James Lee Burke. Burke’s writing style is sometimes almost poetic, and it evokes the Louisiana setting of most of his novels. Here’s a snippet from Black Cherry Blues:

“I drove back to New Iberia through St. Martinsville. The sun was above the oaks on Bayou Teche now, but in the deep early-morning shadows the mist still hung like clouds of smoke among the cattails and damp tree trunks. It was only March, but spring was roaring into Southern Louisiana as it always does after the long gray rains of February.”

P.D. James also uses a literary style of writing in her Adam Dalgliesh novels, and it can add quite a lot to the tension in the story. Here, for instance, is a bit from her A Taste for Death:

“Some premonition alerted her subconscious: earlier disquiets and a vague sense of unease came together and focussed into unease. A faint smell, alien yet horribly familiar; the sense of a recent presence; the possible significance of that unlocked outer door; the dark passageway. Suddenly she knew that something was dreadfully wrong…

There were two of them, and she knew instantly, and with absolute certainly, that they were dead.”

Of course, that literary style isn’t the only really effective way to tell a crime story. Some authors choose a style that reflects a particular place or culture. That’s what Adrian Hyland does, and it’s very successful. This kind of style places the reader and sweeps the reader into the story. Here’s an example from Hyland’s Moonlight Downs (AKA Diamond Dove):

“Still, I reflected as I relaxed at the wheel of my ute, knees on the dash, fag hanging off my mouth, they can’t be doing too badly if they can enjoy themselves this much.

Bindi’s clutch had packed it in, as a result of which he couldn’t change out of first gear. Nor could he stop since he wouldn’t be able to start again so he circled slowly a round us like a great clanking buzzard, cracking jokes and occasionally flushing the old boys out of the bushes.”

Alexander McCall Smith’s writing style also has a unique sense of place. In his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, for instance, his style is very evocative of the Botswana locale of the series. Here’s a bit from Tears of the Giraffe:

“Smoke from the morning fires, the fine wood smoke that sharpens the appetite, and he would hear the sound of people on the paths that criss-crossed the bush near his house; shouts of children on their way to school; men going sleepy-eyed to their work in the town; women calling out to one another; Africa waking up and starting the day.”

This sort of writing style adds a lot of local colour and authenticity to a story. The only risk is that the author might use terms that readers may not understand. For that reason, some writers (Hyland is one) provide a glossary, so readers can understand better.

Some crime fiction fans prefer a very spare, almost terse writing style. That’s got its benefits, too. Authors of novels with an edge of bleakness often find that the spare writing style suits the mood of the book. Here’s an example, for instance, from Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers:

“He [Wallander] was feeling uneasy. Being confronted with the old woman with the noose around her neck had shaken him. The cruelty of it was unthinkable. Who would do something like that?”

Ian Rankin also sometimes uses that spare kind of writing style. Here, for instance, is a snippet from his Mortal Causes:

“’It’s hell out there,’ one constable had already commented as he paused for rest in the canteen. Rebus believed him all too readily. The cells were filling nicely along with the CID in-trays.”

This writing style features short, almost staccato sentences and outlines rather than long descriptions to tell the story. Some readers would like more details, but crime fiction fans who like this style swear by it as a way to convey a story.

Another style that’s sometimes used to tell a good crime fiction story is what I’ll call the dialogue-driven style. We learn what’s going on through what people say to each other rather than through long descriptions. This style is an effective for authors to “show not tell,” and many readers like the way it moves the action along. Agatha Christie’s novels, for instance, often feature a dialogue-driven story. Here, for instance, is a snippet from Christie’s Hallowe’en Party:

“A murder. After the snapdragon, everyone went home,’ said Mrs. Oliver. “That, you see, was when they couldn’t find her.’

‘Find whom?’

‘A girl. A girl called Joyce. Everyone called her name and looked around and asked if she’d gone home with anyone else, and her mother got rather annoyed and said that Joyce must have felt tired or ill or something and gone off by herself, and that it was very thoughtless of her not to leave word. All the sort of things that mothers say when things like that happen. But anyway, we couldn’t find Joyce.’

‘And had she gone home by herself?/

‘No,’ said Mrs. Oliver, ‘she hadn’t gone home…’ Her voice faltered. ‘We found her in the end – in the library-…’”

Dialogue-driven stories can carry the reader along without interrupting the story. However, they don’t always allow for strong character development unless the author is talented at conveying character through dialogue.

And then there are authors who choose a dry, sarcastic or comic style of writing. Fans of this style like the way that it allows the author to tell a sometimes very bleak, sad story without leaving the reader depressed. The “light touch” can also move a story along at a quick pace. Marshall Karp uses this style; here, for instance, is a bit from his Bloodthirsty:

“If you’re looking to get rich, being a cop is not the way to go. Especially the honest variety.

Last year, I made ninety-three grand working homicide for LAPD. My partner, Terry Biggs, who is one pay grade lower, managed to make eighty-eight with overtime. Not bad money. Except that my plumber cleared one-fifty. And he didn’t get shot at. Of course, I don’t have to snake toilets. Life is full of trade-offs.”

Carl Hiaasen’s writing style also uses humour to carry the story along. It’s a slightly different kind of humour, but it’s nonetheless very effective at keeping readers engaged. Here’s a peek at Skinny Dip:

“…Joey had found herself looking forward to visiting the ship’s ‘private unspoiled island,’ as it had been touted in the brochure. Yet this, too, proved dispiriting. The cruise line had mendaciously renamed the place Rapture Key while making only a minimal effort at restoration. Roosters, goats and feral hogs were the predominant fauna, having outlasted the smuggler who had been raising them for banquet fare. The island’s sugar-dough flats were pocked with hulks of sunken drug planes, and the only shells to be found along the tree-shorn beach were of the 45-caliber variety.”

Of course, there are other writing styles that are very effective at drawing readers into a story, keeping them engaged, and adding layers of interest. I’ve only had space to mention a few. And some authors use what you might call a combination of styles. Which writing styles appeal most to you? Is there a writing style that puts you off? If you’re a writer, what kind of writing style do you find most comfortable?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beach Boys’ California Girls.


  1. My writing is sparse with lots of dialog. I don't like reading unnecessary description. That's one reason reading Elizabeth George drives me insane. If you compare her first novel "Great Deliverance" with her latest, her first is sparse and her last, full of fluff. Why? Do they get paid more for the extra words? I hope I don't need to write more than the 90,000 words per novel I write. If I did, I would create a send or third plot twist and still leave out the description I think.


  2. Clarissa - I like the balance you strike between enough description, but a focus on the plot and dialogue. You're right that too much detail slows a book down, and adds un-necessarily to the number of pages. It really doesn't add much to the plot, either. I agree; if one's going to add to a story, add a plot twist or a good scene - not "fluff."

  3. I usually prefer it when you don't notice the writing but I've just read R J Ellory's 'A Quiet Belif In Angels' and there were really so many examples of wonderful writing that I had to stop and admire the view..

    Like Clarissa, I can't be arsed with too much description, especially when it ends up like purple prose.

  4. Paul - Ellory is a very fine writer; little wonder you took the time to reflect on it. And you've got a good point, too, about not being aware of the writing. It often works best when it works so well one doesn't notice it.

    And yes, there is definitely such a thing as far too much description. It serves no purpose and pulls readers out of the story, in my opinion.

  5. But done right--as in the example of James Lee Burke--description can convey a sense of place and draw one deeper into the story.

  6. John - Right you are. Burke does that very well, too. There is a way to create description that pulls the reader into the novel and gives the reader a sense of place, time, and character.

  7. I like good description, good dialogue, good humour, good settings, good plots - whatever a writer excels at. And a varied diet suits me well, so give me P.D. James one day (for the language and characters), Val McDermid (for the excitement) the next and L.C. Tyler (for the humour) the third.

    And when they don´t excel at anything, they should read your blog post of yesterday and find another occupation! ;D

  8. Dorte - LOL- Thanks :-). I agree, too, that the best way to enjoy crime fiction is to have a varied diet of authors. That way, one never gets bored. You've given some terrific examples, too, of crime fiction writers who are good at using language, excitement and humour. That's one reason I like crime fiction so much: there's such a variety.

  9. I'm like Dorte, in that I like a variety of styles. I find I tend to not pick two novels of a similar style to read consecutively, it keeps the reading experience fresh for me.

  10. Vanda - I'm quite similar, actually. I find it can get a bit dull to read the same style of novel too many times in a row. Variety really does keep things fresh.

  11. I'm also in agreement with Dorte. I like the variety of all the styles you mentioned. That's what makes it interesting. You can take the same subject - murder - and sometimes basically even the same plot but with two different writers and you get two completely different outlooks on the same subject. One may be seen as light hearted with a mixture of humor while the other goes more into detail with the actually crime and all the technical evidence to solve it. Another great post, Margot.

    Thoughts in Progress

  12. Mason - Thank you :-). You have such a well-taken point, too. There aren't that many motives for murder, really, but if you have different authors with different writing styles and different perspectives, there is an infinite number of possibilities when it comes to the kind of murder mystery one writes.

  13. I like a variety of styles. When I am writing, it is always dialogue driven, but a tongue in cheek style is one that I personally love reading. If they author is talking about somethign quite different from anything I know, I like descriptions,but not otherwise.

    And I must commend you on the examples you have pulled out. Each wanted me to pick up the book.

  14. Rayna - Thank you :-). I use a lot of dialogue in what I write, too. I think a number of authors do that. And I agree with you that the tongue-in-cheek style can be delightful. You know, I hadn't thought about it, but you make a very well-taken point. The less familiar we are with something, the more description of it we want. That helps to build background for understanding the story.

  15. A writer's style either puts me off or sucks me in. So you can overemphasize its importance in my reading.

  16. Patti - You are far from the only one for whom writing style really matters. If the style is appropriate for the book, consistent and well-crafted, it adds so much to the book and makes the difficult seem easy. If the style is clumsy, "clunky" or inappropriate, it puts readers off.

  17. I tend to write very dialogue-driven stories; probably because I find dialogue very easy to write! However, I can't seem to stop myself from adding humour or humourous situations, just to lighten the mood. No, I don't have anyone slipping on banana peels, but when you're dealing with a rather complicated plot it helps (I hope) for the reader to have a chance to breathe or smile every once in a while.

  18. Elspeth - ...and I really do enjoy your sense of humour, too. I write a lot of dialogue myself, but I don't have the gift you do of weaving humour into your work. I agree with you that that light touch can add a great deal to a good mystery. I admire folks like you who can do that.