Writing Style - Sparse to Lush

Every writer has their own style, and that is a good thing! That gives us a variety of books to read, with a variety of writing styles. We can give our brains new inputs and enjoy the diversity. It's like enjoying the green-blue glaciers of Alaska and also enjoying the pink sands of Bermuda.

I enjoy books that run the gamut of style. For example, my favorite mystery series is the Spenser novels by Robert B. Parker. Parker is one of the most sparse writers I know. Here's the first few lines from the first chapter of Bad Business, starting with literally the first line of the book:

"Do you do divorce work?" the woman said.
"I do," I said.
"Are you any good?"
"I am," I said.
"I don't want likelihood," she said. "Or guesswork. I need evidence that will stand up in court."
"That's not up to me," I said. "That's up to the evidence."

OK so what do we have here. A "woman" without a name. And Spenser (we assume). No idea what the woman looks like, or where they are, or what they are wearing, or what the weather is like, or anything else. It is a completely blank slate. Parker does eventually start to fill in some details. They're in Spenser's office, which remains completely undescribed. The woman is finally described at the end of page 2 as "good-looking in kind of an old-fashioned way" with long, reddish blond hair. That's about what we get. No descriptions of Spenser, or the time of year, or the time of day, or anything else.

As you can see, Parker writes in an extremely sparse style. Loyal fans of his joke that the conversations Parker writes between Spenser and Spenser's best friend Hawk often look like this:




On the other extreme, I adore J.R.R. Tolkien's books. I grew up reading these over and over again. I was fairly obsessed with them. These books are not what most people would call "sparse". Here's a description of Frodo and his friends simply walking along a path -

Coming to the opening they found that they had made their way down through a cleft in a high steep bank, almost a cliff. At its feet was a wide space of grass and reeds; and in the distance could be glimpsed another bank almost as steep. A golden afternoon of late sunshine lay warm and drowsy upon the hidden land between. In the midst of it there wound lazily a dark river of brown water, bordered with ancient willows, arched over with willows, blocked with fallen willows, and flecked with thousands of faded willow-leaves. The air was thick with them, fluttering yellow from the branches; for there was a warm and gentle breeze blowing softly in the valley, and the reeds were rustling, and the willow-boughs were creaking.

Talk about a difference! There probably aren't this many words in Parker's entire first chapter. OK I exaggerate, but not too much. Tolkien adored dense, extremely detailed descriptions. He wanted to lay the entire scene out for the reader in intricate detail, to present the image of what he saw. In comparison, Parker wanted to lay out the flow of what was happening, and let the reader imagine the details in whatever way related most strongly to their inner creativity.

As I adore both writers, I would never strive to say that one style was "better" than the other. Both are different and both have their benefits. When I read Tolkien's book I know exactly what his world looks like down to the color of each outfit and the fabric they are made of. In Parker's world, I get caught up with what is being said and everything else fades into the background.

So it's intriguing to examine how I then choose to write. I find I write in a Parker style of sparseness. I am fascinated by the dialogue, by the interplay of what people say and what they feel, by the looks and glances and hesitations. I want those details to flow smoothly, without "interruption" of what I would consider less important items such as the exact color of the stream they sat next to or the exact sound of the bird that warbled overhead. I want the focus to be on the interchange between the characters and how they are relating to each other.

This probably goes along with my adoration of Mission style furniture, with its clean, quiet lines. I love Japanese Zen gardens and simple rice-paper panels. I enjoy a quiet canvas on which to paint the part that is important to me - the words the characters utter, the way they pause as they reach out, the way they lower their eyes when bringing up a topic that is challenging.

My favorite parts of my books are almost always scenes of dialogue that intermingle with movement which gives away inner feelings. For example, here is an exchange in one book. I have changed the names to not give away plot, substituting in their position in this section of the story.

"So, how are you enjoying your visit here at the keep?" asked the hostess to the heroine's rival, and the heroine wondered if it was her own wistful thinking which found a slight emphasis on the word "visit". She reached for a piece of bread from the woven basket, breaking it apart slowly.

"Your home is simply beautiful," the rival woman enthused with a smile, looking around her. "It seems the type of place one could easily stay at forever and never become tired of it."

The heroine found herself ripping her piece of bread into quarters ... eights ... her good friendís hand gently came on top of hers and she paused, taking in a deep breath.

It's challenging of course to give the full flavor of a situation in a short blurb, but the focus is on what is being said as well as what actions go along with the words. Sometimes the two are in sync - while at other times the words say one thing while the actions are conveying a different message. Subconscious gestures such as crossing arms or looking away can be quite communicative.

You'll note I didn't describe the type of bread, the details of the basket, the clothes the characters were wearing, or the noise level of the room. The reader has met the characters already so they know the basics of age, size, shape, hair color, and type of clothes they would generally wear. I leave the details of a specific encounter up to the reader to imagine in the background and maintain the focus on the words that flow between the characters and the actions that accompany them. Did his eyes dart to the side as he gave his statement of where he'd been? Do her hands twitch nervously in her lap as she hears her friend make plans to do something unethical?

That's not to say that I never describe people or locations, of course. Sometimes, if the heroine is taking her time and looking around, I let the book reflect that. Here is a scene from one of my books where the heroine is feeling reflective and heads out into the gardens.

When she pushed her way through the thick outer door, she was immediately hit by a wall of heat and humidity. The heavy air seemed to dance in waves, and she pushed her damp hair back from her face before moving on.

She ambled through the fragrant herb garden, breathing in the rich aromas of sage, tarragon, and oregano. It was intoxicating, and she sat by a bushy sage plant, ripping one of the leaves from its base, pulling it apart into quarters to inhale its aroma. She closed her eyes, drawing in its rich scent. She had forgotten how wonderful the gardens were here.

I describe details when the heroine is paying attention to the details. If the heroine is caught up in the moment of what is being said, then the book reflects that.

I am certainly not saying my style is better or worse than any other style out there. Even though I tend to write sparsely, when I read books I do adore writers who always provide lush descriptions. I also adore writers who skip landscapes and focus on high action plots. I'm a voracious reader and can probably enjoy every style that is out there.

So that being said, when I do my own writing, I tend to focus on what the heroine is paying the most attention to - usually the words being spoken and the actions that accompany them. This interplay is what intrigues me most about the stories I am presenting. Yes, in my head when I write these scenes I see them in lush, rich detail. I see the curve of the finely made cotton dress along her hips as she turns, I see the dense, fragrant loaves of brown bread as they nestle against each other in the basket. I see the quick glance of concern as the other characters react to what has been said, as one pulls back slightly, as the other leans forward as if to contradict. I then filter through all of those impressions and select out the ones that the heroine is most aware of, to help the reader to feel as if they are "there in the moment" experiencing the sequence in real time.

For example if I read the above scene at the table, in my mind it seems to roll out just as it would in real life, as if I were sitting there at the table watching the exchange. However, if I then injected let's say ten more paragraphs describing the surroundings and clothing and lighting in great detail, now it would take a full minute to read. In real life there wasn't a full minute pause while the characters took in those details. They took them in a split second as part of their normal sensory deluge. There is no way to compress those details into a split second for the reader of a book. I suppose that's where a movie version has an advantage, because the movie can convey all of the fabric and table and crowd noise details in a moment. Since I am working in the medium of words, I need to balance where I provide that "pause for details" and where I stay on line with the actions and words which are flowing through the heroine's mind.

As always I am very interested in feedback!

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