Developing Your Prose Style: Form Following Function, by Jack Smith


Prose style. It’s the language of the story, involving such varied elements as diction, tone, and rhythm. Style can be formal or informal. It can be edged with irony and sarcasm, or it can be straightforward and direct. It can be opaque or accessible. It can be lyrical or jarring.

But there’s certainly another way to think of style, and that is the extent to which it is “dense” (without the pejorative connotations) or spare in terms of detail. Dense here meaning full-bodied, richly textured. Spare meaning lean, sometimes cut almost to the bone.

DENSE: James, Faulkner, Bellow.

SPARE: Hemingway and Carver. Cormac McCarthy’s work can be provocatively spare.

Certainly prose style is often a writer’s signature, yet beyond this, we do need to keep in mind that style, like any element of fiction, is not separable from the various other story elements. “The notion of appropriate prose,” states Sven Birkerts, editor of Agni, “assumes that all elements are integral, organically interconnected.” Robert Stewart, editor, New Letters, states the matter categorically: “A writer should put nothing into a story that does not have its own role in the overall impact.” Every word, that is, and every device used in the creation of the story, must somehow contribute to the whole—and relate to each part. Style, says Grant Tracey, fiction editor, North American Review, “always relates to character. A lean prose can suggest inarticulateness, repression, hard-boiled sentiment. Violence hovers. A more heavily textured prose invites a closer proximity to the character and a sense of things being shared, confessed. I know that’s simplifying things somewhat, but those are some possible moods created by these choices. Of course there are others too.”

Or, in other words, regardless of the style, dense or spare, prose style is expressive of what’s happening at all levels of the story. “Form must follow function,” as Caitlin McGuire, managing editor, Berkeley Fiction Review, points out—which is another way of speaking of organic unity.


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