Style is your literary fingerprint. It distinguishes one writer from another, otherwise everyone would sound the same. Some writers develop a style so individual and distinctive that their work is immediately recognisable, even without sighting their name on the page.
You need to distinguish between ‘subject matter’ and ‘style’. You may not like what is being said – but allow yourself to appreciate the manner in which it is being said.
The following segments are taken from The Best American Short Stories of 1988, one of the best annual anthologies available. Every year, since 1978, a guest editor is invited to select the best short stories published within the SectionedStates and Canada for that year. The result is always gratifying for readers, the standard incredibly high, the variety enormous.
They are all opening paragraphs to short stories. Notice how the writers set the mood of their stories right from the beginning. If your attention, as a reader, is not captured quickly, you will not persevere. After all, there are millions of stories out there waiting to be read. Why waste time on one that strikes a dull note from the very start?
The old days, the Chicago days, rooms full of the smell of chicken paprikash, coffee, roasting pork, simmering prunes and apricots. Dark rooms full of dark furniture, of horsehair, claw feet, doilies, crucifixes with palm fronds stuck behind them. Of trunks and chests that women opened – Ma Kish, Aunt Jewel, Mrs. Starcheski from next door – and took things out, their heads laid to one side: lace dickies wrapped in tissue, tea towels, starched and ironed, with crocheted edging, tiny vases of pink crystal, stroked, offered. Here. For your hope chest.
Mary Ann Taylor-Hall, Banana Boats
I got a roommate, he’s tall and skinny, when we get in arguments he says, ‘I went to Millsaps,’ uses the word like what he thinks a battering ram sounds like. He’s a real jerk, I could break both his arms just like that! If I wanted to. I’ve got a degree in English Literature from Jackson Sate, I was the only white on campus, I can’t use ‘I went to Jackson Sate’ like a battering ram, but I could break both his arms. I got a doctorate, it took me three more years. I teach out at the Junior College – Freshman Comp. Heroes and heroines of Southern Lit, Contemporary Northern Lit, that sort of crap. Piss-Ant studied geology, ‘Pre-oil’ he calls it facetiously, makes quite a ton of money. I swear I could tear an arm off his frail body and beat him over the head with it, I’m 5’6” tall eighteen inches shorter than he but I’m thirty pounds heavier, an even 195, I played for the Tiges three years and can dead lift 700 pounds and run a marathon in under three hours six minutes.
Rick Bass, Cats and Students, Bubbles and Abysses
One gray November day, Elliot went to Boston for the afternoon. The wet streets seemed cold and lonely. He sensed a broken promise in the city’s elegance and verve. Old hope tormented him like phantom limbs, but he did not drink. He had joined Alcoholics Anonymous fifteen months before. Christmas came, childless, a festival of regret. His wife went to Mass and cooked a turkey. Sober, Elliot walked in the woods.
Robert Stone, Helping
The story is that my father was shot down over Japan in 1944 about three days after I was born, and that my mother gave me to his parents as a sort of consolation prize. We won’t go into the logic of this: I mean the business of why SHE was giving THEM a consolation prize. Or why, long before you could tell whether my consoling functions were really working, she’d already found herself a rather glamorous Colonel to whom she got married six months later. Work out for yourselves whatever theories you feel comfortable with regarding motives, but just take it from me, that was the story.