Origins: Aaron Allston talks “Mood and Style”

Imagine if Jacen Solo sounded like a character from one of Jane Austen’s novels.

That didn’t settle well with me either. Fortunately, that’s a problem editing can fix.

At his Mood and Style seminar at Origins Game Fair on Friday, Aaron Allston cited this example from his career when discussing “style chameleons.” A writer becomes a style chameleon when his writing style matches or resembles another author’s style. This usually happens when a writer reads a book with a strong style and then goes to write.

Copying another author’s style doesn’t work. No one wants to be that person who sounds like a bad Mark Twain or Michael Stackpole. Emulating another writer stifles writing.

Everyone falls into this trap. I asked Allston after the panel how he fights back. His solution? Read a “palate cleanser,” a novel where the author uses a transparent prose.

“A transparent prose doesn’t call attention to itself,” Allston stated. Particular phrases, wording and other quirks with the words themselves shouldn’t draw attention away from the story. The goal is to use a transparent prose.

Allston offered a variety of techniques for good quality writing. Start with strong writing. That doesn’t mean action-packed writing. One of the key parts of strong writing is to avoid the clutter. As stated by many writers, show, don’t tell. Allston used an example stating, “I was sad” versus “lip trembling.” The latter provides a clear picture to the reader and conveys the emotion of the scene clearer.

This rule relates to the whole passive/active voice issue that plagues journalists everywhere. Passive voice (the use of “to be” verbs), slows down writing. Pick up any textbook. It contains sentence after sentence of passive voice. While there are times to use “to be” verbs, relying on them too much will stilt writing. Allston also recommended that writers avoid the present participle.

One common temptation when writing is to increase the word count for the sake of it. Focusing on word count can become an enemy. Adding in unnecessary adjective and adverbs may add pages, but it’s boring and kills style. Allston recommended keeping paragraphs short unless necessary and avoiding long sentences. He cited that 12 words is the length for human retention.

Descriptions can harm an author’s style. It’s easy to tell someone that she should feel scared, but that doesn’t create terror. Allston used the rather graphic example of how his back felt during a plane ride (I’ll spare the squeamish of the details). Instead of saying that she was dizzy, say she felt as if the room were spinning around her.

Perhaps it’s because I have to use he said/she said when I write articles, but I cannot stand adding in those two words unless there’s no other alternative. Dialogue attribution is a must and one of Allston’s points about strong writing. The easiest form of dialogue attribution appears during a conversation between two people. All the writer needs is a mention of who talks every four or five statements. Instead of saying he said/she said, or other euphemisms, use descriptions of what the person’s doing.

Tracy pointed to the crates against the wall. “It’s in one of those.”

Use particular word choices in dialogue to establish character and provide attribution, Allston said. He used the example of writing a character using particular Southern phrases he spoke. As he was the only one in the scene who spoke that way, readers knew who was talking without direct attribution.

One way to establish mood in a story is through structure. Allston said that shorter paragraphs could tense a reader up without him realizing why he feels that way. The ways details come forth to the reader also affect the mood of a scene. If the reader knows that the killer stands outside the kitchen door with an axe moments before the main character, it creates dread, suspense and tension, for example. If the killer pops out without the reader knowing he was there, it creates surprise and fear.

Allston listed multiple examples of how dialogue can establish mood. Two characters using banter while running from danger removes some of the nervousness from the scene. I can’t help but think of the way Gary Ross used Caesar Flickerman during The Hunger Games movie. Flickerman provided commentary during the Games, making it appear more like a sporting event than a gruesome fight to the death. During the clip of a past Games when he discusses how thrilling the moment is when a tribute realizes he is the victor removes the horror of watching one child beat another one to death with a brick. It captures the way that Capitol and its citizens view the Hunger Games. His words change the mood of the scene to horror at how casual the Games appear to Capitol.

Allston not only gave tips of how to establish your own mood and style, but also described what happens when a writer makes mistakes. He’s advice is to write first, edit later. Editing is when it’s time to take out present participles, rewrite “to be” sentences and fix other style problems.

One aspect of Allston’s seminars that I appreciated was how frank he was. There was no sugarcoating, no softening of the blow. This especially came into his Ruining Your Career Before it Gets Started seminar. More on that one later. The best advice isn’t dragged down by fluff and pageantry.

Just like strong writing.

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Filed under Allston, Origins2012, writing

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