Short, Direct, and with Style

30 Apr
Kelly Luce Exercise

Kelly Luce’s story “Rooey” was first published by The Literary ReviewIt will also appear in her forthcoming collection Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Trail.

I’ve heard it claimed that you can teach writers plot, structure, and character, but you can’t teach them to write well, with style. As evidence, look at Vladimir Nabokov. His unpredictable sentences flash between subjects (picnic, lightning) at the wild speed of genius. They are impossible to imitate, I’ve heard. But I don’t believe it, if only because there are so many great writers crafting astounding sentences.

One of them is Kelly Luce. Her story, “Rooey,” was first published in The Literary Review, and you can read it here.

How the Story Works

Great sentences—and great lines of poetry—often work the same way. They strive for leaps in logic, for the unexpected juxtaposition of images. Readers are expected to keep up, to make the connections without the aid of explanation. Keep this in mind as you read the first paragraph of Kelly Luce’s story:

Since Rooey died, I’m no longer myself. Foods I’ve hated my entire life, I crave. Different things are funny. I’ve stopped wearing a bra. I bet they’re thinking about firing me here at work, but they must feel bad, my brother so recently dead and all. Plus, I’m cheap labor, fresh out of college. And let’s face it, the Sweetwater Weekly doesn’t have the most demanding readership or publishing standards.

The leaps of logic begin in the first sentence. The comma acts as a pivot point. Death we understand, but what does it mean to not be yourself? The first two examples (foods, humor) make sense within our common understanding of grief, but the third (“I’ve stopped wearing a bra”) is strange by almost any measure. The leaps continue: dead brother to cheap labor. By the end of the paragraph, we’ve moved from death and identity crisis to newspaper publishing standards.

The speed of those leaps is what gives the story its style. The sentences are not long or grammatically complex. They do not suggest but, rather, state things outright. Very often, beginning writers believe that good sentences are overwritten and overly subtle. The truth is usually quite the opposite. If you don’t believe me, here is part of the first page of Nabokov’s Lolita.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child.

Though Nabokov is known for his “poetic” style, the sentences are short, direct, and to the point. Their beauty is in the phrasing and the speed at which they move from “four feet ten in one sock” to loving “a certain initial girl-child.” That is fictional style.

The Writing Exercise

To be stylish, you need to know what your story is about. If you don’t know, then your sentences won’t know, either. If that makes you despair, don’t. The search for a story’s about-ness is often also a search for its style. Let’s start searching. We’ll write two paragraphs:

  1. Who is your story about? Why is the story about him or her or them? To answer the first question, begin by describing the person as plainly and directly as possible. Keep the second question in mind. Make it your goal to answer it by the end of the paragraph. So, you’ll likely move from literal description to a statement of causation: Because of her, I… or If it hadn’t been for him, she… (For a model, look at the example from Lolita.)
  2. What event is at the heart of your story? What are the implications or ramifications of that event? What is the story about? To answer the first question, state what happened (Since Rooey died… or When Billy got married…). Then, move onto the ramifications. What happened next? How did this event ripple forward into time? Make it your goal to answer the final question (what the story is about) by the end of the paragraph. So, you’ll move from what happened to why we’re reading the story. (For a model, look at the example from “Rooey.”)

Have fun!

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