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Friday, June 1, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed • "Substance and Style," By Eric Dontigney 


Writing fiction is a precarious amalgamation of substance and style. It’s also a mix that almost no one gets right. You know this because at some point in every book, you find yourself losing interest. Either the prose got too florid or it got too informational. Let’s look at a quick example of each.

Florid example:

Robert gazed across the azure vastness that stretched out before him as the water curled toward the shore tipped with frothing white that looked incandescent in the midday sun. He sighed as a great melancholy swept over him, dampening his inner vision and stealing the joy from his clifftop vantage.

Informational example:

Bob stood on a cliff, stared at waves and was sad.

Neither of the examples was particularly fun to write. I don’t imagine either was much fun to read. Both conveyed almost precisely the same information. Neither belongs in a novel or short story. The pertinent question is: What’s wrong with them?

So let’s take the first passage. Setting aside that it comes off like a passage from third-rate, 19th century Brit Lit, this passage relies too much on style. It overplays description in a sad bid to overcome a lack of pertinent information. In short, it tries to do too much with too little.

The second passage/sentence fails because it relies too much on substance. It conveys information, but it does it with no real style. Sure, I know the who, what, and where, but I simply don’t care about any of it. That sentence could come straight out of a psychiatrist’s notes about a patient. It is utterly lifeless.

I’ll grant you that I set up both passages to fail, but you see this kind of writing all over the place. It’s not just in amateur fare, either. You can find passages and sentences like those above in contemporary novels sitting on bookstore shelves.

Let’s see if we can’t write a better version of those passages.

Robert stood on the cliff’s edge and watched as the waves rolled in, inevitable and coldly oblivious. The salt tang in the air reminded him of better times spent sailing on the bay with Jessica. As he thought of their small sloop and the accident, a fresh tide of depression washed over Robert.

This version of the passage is almost exactly the same length as the florid version, but it works a lot better. You sacrifice a bit of the descriptive flair to get a lot more information. You end up with the who, what, where, and why, and you care more about the consequences. He isn’t just some guy staring at the ocean and acting emo.

This is man who suffered some kind of serious loss. We know there was an accident, but not what caused it. The passage poses subliminal questions. Did Robert cause the accident? Did he overestimate his skill and take the boat out in bad weather? Did another boat capsize Robert and Jessica? Is the depression a result of the loss, guilt, or both?

These kinds of sub-surface questions help drive the curiosity of the reader, propelling them forward into the story. It’s done by marrying enough substance to enough style. I use a basic rule of thumb to evaluate the informational side of this balance.

Every sentence needs at least one piece of information I think the reader needs. If I can’t readily identify that information when editing, it’s a sentence relying too much on style.

The style side is a lot trickier, because style is personal. Some writers lean toward minimalism, while others lean toward descriptive generosity. I’m more of a minimalist. That means I’m likely to cut things others might see as style because I see it as florid.

Beta readers come in handy when you’re trying to evaluate style. Ask them to point out passages where they started losing focus or getting lost in the descriptions. It’s not a precise system, but there’s a good chance they’ll nail down the passages where you relied too much on style.

Good writing marries substance to style in some imprecise ratio that gets decided on a case by case basis. The ratio that works for one writer will fail for another. There are, however, some clues that you’ve gone the wrong way. If you find yourself reaching for lots of adjectives, you’re probably overcompensating for thin substance. If you find yourself listing facts about your characters or setting, you need more style.


Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides in Memphis, TN. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at

Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Memory Makes Liars of Us All,” in Stupefying Stories #13, his next will be “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it! 


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