Here are some rambling notes on what I mean by style with regard to being influenced by other authors with particular styles that I want to either play around with and/or incorporate into my toolbox of techniques.
Style is a vague word that can mean a number of things. The most easily definable type for prose is in how we mean in regard to “style guides,” namely, the formatting, grammatical, syntactical, etc. guidelines for publication.
That’s not what I’m referencing.
Style with regard to how someone writes, directs, orally tells, etc. is more of a dynamic than a taxonomical category but is vaguely similar to other obscure words like voice or tone.
To use a musical metaphor, Stevie Ray Vaughn had a very specific tone to his guitar playing that was immediately identifiable even when he was playing a cover (for example Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing”).
Even though he played it note-for-note perfectly in comparison to the original, it sounded completely different due to his personal tone.
Part of that could be mechanically analyzed like the fact that he always played with the heaviest gauge strings and had the strong hands/fingers to play such strings super dexterously. But then, there are those Vaughn wannabes that can replicate that technique but still don’t sound like him. That more indefinable quality is something unique to him. The Vaughn wannabes would do better to take that technique and marry it with whatever their own personal style/tone/voice would be to make something unique and not try and replicate someone else like a clone.
Now, moving more into the realms of story, here’s another example of what I mean. In varying disciplines people debate what is a “story.” Some focus on plot, others on structure, theme, or whatever. For me, coming originally from an oral storytelling world, it’s pretty simple. Plot is the specific events, structure is just pattern recognition of certain types of plots and the way plots can be defined (3 act structure, 5 act structure, etc.) by various media (stage play, novel, film, TV, Comic Book, etc.), theme provides subtext and meaning, but story only happens when a specific iteration is told (whether that be literally told orally, written, filmed, etc.) and every time that happens it is different and is a product of the style of the creator(s).
To explain what I mean, if one reads a collection of folklore, recorded by a folklorist or other type of ethnographer one gets a very dry recitation of the plot points. Usually the voice of the teller is subsumed (this has changed in the latter half of the 20th century but was really prevalent in the 19th) and all the various tales in the collection are “told” in the “voice” of the academic, not the tellers. Those “stories” are really just summaries of plots, not stories themselves and as we’ve all experienced they are usually dry and boring as hell.
A tale that I like to tell, especially to those familiar with Scandinavian folk tales and sagas, is one that combines a couple of tales regarding how Christian Bishops would “exorcise” pagan land spirits from their homes, effectively making them outcasts and now into demonic “trolls.”
A friend and colleague of mine (who is one of the absolute best traditional oral storytellers around) tells those tales using 3rd person, past tense, omniscient and his tellings transport people to that time and almost simulate the feel of being in a mead hall with a Skald telling it to a bunch of Vikings. He even includes certain Germanic poetic devices like alliteration, kennings, independent half-lines with whole-lines that call back to each other, etc. All of that is part of his personal style.
I personally suck at 3rd person omniscient for oral storytelling. For me, I have to embody a character that is then telling what happened to them. For the story above, I embody the land-spirit, who has been betrayed by the humans he used to be considered family to. After the first tale, in which he is turned into a Troll and exiled, he travels around and encounters others who then tell him their stories of exile.
One time I told that story to a festival filled with Norse neo-pagans and I brought quite a few to tears as they lamented the betrayal their ancestors enacted upon the spirits of the land. A number of people came up to me afterwards and discussed how they wanted to become more environmental or other related things. Whether those impulses lasted more than the effects of the storytelling or not, it doesn’t really matter.
My choice of style supported my goals as to why I was telling the story (I wanted them to feel the pain of the spirits who had been treated so badly) and P.D.’s style supported his goal which was to transport people back to another time when the stories were part of the lived legacy of the folk.
For prose, literary stories (by literary I’m distinguishing it from orality, not ascribing “quality”) voice, tense, etc. when chosen purposefully are part of style.
Most literary stories are narration in essence and are not drama. By that I mean that narration is defined by having a narrator of some kind who is describing actions/events that are at least one (if not more) steps removed from the audience.
In drama (most stageplays, films, TV shows, audio dramas) there is no narrator (or at least not primarily a narrator) and the audience experiences the action, events, dialogue, etc. in real time as it occurs to the characters.
So, in literary stylistic choices there are ways to either minimize or maximize the distance between audience and the events of the story.
3rd Person, past tense omniscient, is very distant (even more so when we have nested narratives like in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). 2nd person present tense is extremely immediate but can feel like a “choose your own adventure” set of prose if not done deftly. 3rd person and 1st person present tense can feel more immediate than past tense.
Then we’ve got things like language and sentence structure. A great example of changes in language used creates a whole new style. Scholars have studied how American language changed between 1920-1927 from a more synecdocical to a more metonymic approach and how this directly influenced (and was one of the reasons it was so impactful) the new “hard boiled” writing style. This combined with a growing tendency towards more minimalist sentence structures.
The American minimalists (whether of the hardboiled variety or not) became very adept at giving a maximum of atmosphere, aesthetics, description, etc. with a minimum of words. Dissecting people like Carver, Didion, Cain, etc. is, in my opinion, one of the best “educations” in writing one can have. (And there are authors that even pay attention to other author’s cadence, use of commas, etc. to analyze their sentences.)
Part of what makes style important is not for flourish but for semiotically aiding the author in reaching their goals.
Lovecraft scholars S.T. Joshi, Sandy Peterson, and Robert Price have argued (based on some of his letters) that HPL’s lack of characterization in his characters isn’t a weakness or flaw but is actually part of his personal style that is done specifically so that the reader (who he assumes is male of course) will feel themselves in the “cypher” that is the main character. Almost like HPL is drawing the reader into one of his personal dreams/nightmares.
J.G. Ballad, in The Atrocity Exhibition specifically wrote in a non-linear manner so that the readers could approach the novel in the same way, which tied in with his goals of a shifting set of perspectives on social atrocities and the violent and chaotic way they are subjectively experienced.
Bret Easton Ellis, in Less Than Zero (the novel is awesome but stay away from the shitty movie) used a minimalist approach, with an emotionally cool voice on present tense events (the majority of the novel is told in 1st person present tense), and an almost matter-of-fact response to extreme events to create a novel where one of his main aims/themes was to demonstrate “Numbness as a feeling” and it works really well.
Clark Ashton Smith in his Zothique stories (which were as much an influence on my Crimson Tatters AD as REH was) structured the sentences in those stories (especially the early ones) to have the feel of a ritual incantation, to make it feel like these end-time stories of a decadent, dying culture were being “cast” upon the reader in a surreal and subtle way.
Tolkien himself (who so many people ape without understanding what he was doing) specifically used English words with Old English/Germanic roots instead of the Latinate/French ones that the Norman’s introduced when they invaded and fucked our language completely up. He also structured, not only his songs/poetry, but some of the main sentences with the rules of Anglo-Saxon/Old English poetry (e.g., Beowulf in mind). People consider his style to be dry, 3rd person past tense omniscient, but there is a whole lot more “style” going on underneath that for the people who know what to look for. And even that “dry” 3rd person past tense “style” was him replicating the feel of the Germanic saga writing of the 11th-13th centuries.
Now, where it can get even more experimental is when style from one medium inspires one to try and do a similar effect in a different medium.
For example, I wanted the weird surreal feel of CAS’ Zothique stories in my AD but wanted natural dialogue so I tried to create a surreal soundscape to do what he did with language (cool note: I found out that another big influence on me, the artist Moebius, was inspired by the same stories when he did his Arzach strips and tried to do what CAS did with language only in visuals).
This starts to tie into the larger concept of Aesthetics and also how vague “feelings” or “atmosphere” is what is trying to be conveyed in more than propositional or even specifically descriptive language.
There are also times where strong visual styles in film influences how I write prose or mix audio drama. I love things like trying to do what a strong color palette in film scenes accomplish in soundscape only. Usually my ambition far exceeds my grasp but I wouldn’t get where I end up (which I’m usually happy with) if I didn’t try for the impossible.
Maybe at its core, a creator/author’s style is really their voice—fully realized and used for specific effect. Some people have a lot of tools in their box they can employ depending on desired effect while others have a tighter set of techniques.
For me, as both a reader and an author, I can love a fun story without any sense of (intentional at least) style, but when style is used intentionally, those stories can rise up into something higher than just disposable entertainment. To use some semiotic terms, signs are simple things which just point to something (and literal signs are a great example such as, “Exit”) where symbols are snapshots of dynamics that constantly expand to include more (like “Dragon” or “Sword”). Symbols allow us to contemplate concepts as if they were multi-faceted gems that we can turn and look at in different ways to see different things.
Style, when used well, can cause a simple story to transcend the realm of signs and enter the more mysterious and meaningful realm of symbols or, to border the pretentious, timeless art.