Can You Succeed in Fiction With a Bare-Bones Writing Style?
In Creative Writing 101 classes around the globe, the first rule you learn is, Describe, describe, describe. Beginning writers are led to believe that you can’t succeed as a novelist or a short-story writer unless you paint vivid word pictures for the reader.
This feels like very bad news for writers whose idea of scene-setting is the sentence, “It was full dark when they reached the house.” I know, because I’m one of those writers. The prospect of writing another half-dozen sentences about whether there was a breeze and how it sounded rustling through the trees, and what kind of trees those were, and what their silhouettes looked like against the night sky (other than, y’know, just looking like trees), and what the stars looked like (other than the overused description, like diamonds against black velvet) … that prospect makes me tired.
A hero will rise … and be terse
Which is why the great crime novelist Robert B. Parker, best known for the “Spenser” novels, is such a heartening figure. I work in the same genre, crime and mystery, and if Parker’s stripped-down style pleased millions of readers, there’s hope for mine.
If you’re not familiar with Parker, he was a prolific writer — an astounding 67 novels — associated with both the “hardboiled” PI style and the city of Boston, where he lived nearly all his life, a city he obviously loved. He also, as we’ve noted, wrote in a very simple style: Short sentences and short paragraphs, usually in an accessible vocabulary. Sometimes, he’d write a sentence exactly the way an average person would think it, such as the following: “She had a lot of blond hair, combed in such a way as to show that she had a lot of blond hair.”
That sentence reads like an unstudied first thought. Many writers would have re-worded it in a way that felt more appropriate to a novel. Perhaps, She had a great deal of blond hair, and had obviously styled it for maximum impact on the eye. Or, She had a great deal of blond hair, and its elaborate style indicated she was proud of it.
To understand why Parker felt comfortable with his ‘first thought’ sentence, it helps to know that he nearly always wrote first-person narrators, ones whose interior monologues were like light banter. We’re so clearly immersed in their thought processes that the “a lot of blond hair” line feels natural. However, Parker also invested his characters with sharp wits, so he could have them think the sort of thing Spenser does in one mid-career novel: “The morning was as bright as a hooker’s promises and as cold as her heart.”
A lover of fine literature
Parker clearly didn’t write in a simple style because he had only a basic grasp of the English language. In fact, he had a Ph.D in literature, and taught at Northeastern University before leaving education to write full time. His characters quoted Hemingway, Frost, Browning, Shakespeare, as did his book titles.
There are several possible explanations for his simple style and vocabulary. First, tiven his background, Parker might have worried about alienating readers who did have a basic grasp on the language. Or he could have believed that simpler is better; that too many writers over-write (which is true).
But the sense that I get is something much more basic. I don’t think he chose his style at all. Most writers, I think, don’t exercise a lot of choice over this, any more than a person chooses their handwriting. Handwriting stems from a variety of factors: education, personality, state of health, quality of vision, and level of energy or fatigue. The factors that influence writing style probably aren’t that diverse, but it nonetheless tends to flow from your psyche the same way that handwriting flows off the tip of your pen.
Parker’s prose style never feels like something deliberately adopted. His writing is so completely itself, you feel that he couldn’t possibly have engineered it to be different from what other English-professors-turned-novelists were doing.
Which isn’t to say it sprang from nowhere. Parker was a great admirer of Raymond Chandler, completing his unfinished novel Poodle Springs and following it up with a sequel, Perchance to Dream. Chandler’s spare, wry style was, in turn, strongly influenced by Ernest Hemingway (whom, we’ve noted, Parker cited in his work). In a sense, you could say that Parker’s work was descended from Hemingway’s.
So Parker’s style follows in a strong American tradition. To those of us with a spare style, who call a tree a tree and move on, it’s a great relief to know that bare bones can be strong bones.