Moods in White, Black and Grey: Finding a Style
Just as every book has its own ideal structure, the same is true for style. Some authors have a style uniquely their own; you can recognise their work from just a few sentences, as with J.G. Ballard or William Burroughs. Other authors operate more closely to the universal style or ideal of well-made prose. But within these two parameters, a book, a short story, needs to be expressed in the language most suited to its expression. Decisions as seemingly mundane as first person or third person, past or present tense, will make a vast difference to the finished narrative, and its effect on the reader. But a writer’s personal style really comes into its own when we get down to the molecular level of a story – choices of rhythm, syntax, sentence and paragraph length, poetic symbolism, and so on. The words, and how they fit together.
Now some of my books have played with experimental forms and language, while others have placed themselves closer to the centre of the narrative tradition. In this way, I like to explore the varied possibilities of storytelling. So for me one of the first decisions to make is this: “Just how far out, or far in, do I want this story to be?” And when I say decision, it’s very rarely a cut and dried, spark of inspiration moment: no, questions and answers about style arise, hopefully in a natural and organic way, from the very process of writing itself, from the intense period of exploration that marks the beginning of a new project. I hate to give a story too much sentience, but it really does feel as though the narrative creates a style for itself, if we, as writers, are open to the process of change. Sometimes, a tangential idea occurs, and we find ourselves at a dead-end; at other times, the tangent leads to a major insight: “Oh! So that’s what this book is really about!” Now I can really get down to the business of writing.
I wanted A Man of Shadows to be a part of the noir tradition, so that governed a lot of the initial style decisions, especially in creating the overall mood of the book. I wanted to tell a good story, mixed with lots of atmosphere. Style creates mood; that’s a major relationship in any narrative, especially in the reader’s mind. So whenever I’m writing I try to stay conscious of the fact that how I’m describing something is just as important as the person, act, thing or emotion being described. I went back to my favourite crime writers, those who take time out from the plot to paint faces, figures, buildings, natural events, and so on. And almost always in this tradition the poetic moments feed into the emotional core of the characters: they represent the inner lives of men and women who are very often hiding their true feelings. It’s a style that 1950s crime novelist Ross Macdonald excelled in, as the neon-lit city streets, the night sky, the rain, a distant storm, the smoke from a grating, are used to reveal the secrets of extraordinarily twisted, clouded minds. This desire led me to place the action in the past: I felt that digital culture and technology just didn’t contain the atmosphere I was searching for. So I went for the late 1950s: old enough for generating mood, modern enough to allow the technology I needed to exist.
But A Man of Shadows isn’t only a crime novel; it also contains elements of science fiction and fantasy. At first, a single idea creates the location; a city of lights, where it never goes dark, and the vast, overarching neon sky hides the real world from the inhabitants. This, and the invention of thousands of new time lines, go a long way to creating the atmosphere of the city. Strictly speaking this part of the book isn’t crime noir, but closer to crime soleil, the films and novels that featured desperate characters trapped under the desert sun. But here the sun is entirely artificial, and there are millions of them, all shining down relentlessly. Later on in the book, the mood changes as more fantastical elements are introduced. All these changes have to be handled with care, so they aren’t too jarring for the reader. I paid especial attention to the transition points, in terms of mood and the character’s feelings at the time of change. And once my hero has left the “Dayzone” behind, and enters the realm of night, of darkness, the mood changes into pure noir style. I found, quite naturally once the book was well underway, that my writing style changed to match the mood of the city I was describing: in the intense light, where everything is seen, the language is fairly plain, based on pure observation. However, at moments of intense personal introspection the language heightens, as though a small section of night has entered the soul. But later on, in the zone of darkness, I found myself delving at times into a more poetic expression, while still moving the action along. The final portion of the book takes places in a nebulous region where ambiguity holds sway, and here again the language transformed to capture this mood. I’m talking here of subtle changes, rather than obvious shifts: after all, this is not an experimental novel, it’s a plot based crime novel. But the tiniest changes in mood all help to make the world and the characters more real in the reader’s mind.
After a certain amount of writing is done, and the pages are flowing along nicely, I find that a book’s discovered style becomes second nature. The story has found its true spirit, and any new plot swings and changes of temperament can easily be handled in the appropriate manner. For me, this gradual discovery of a narrative’s unique style is one of writing’s great mysteries, and one its most enjoyable aspects. It keys into society’s central need for collective storytelling, while at the same time arising from the heart of an individual being. It makes one author’s books different from another, or it places stories in known and much loved patterns of genre and tradition. And it all starts with the simple but often mindboggling question: “How can I best tell this story?”
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