Fashions in writing

This is an interest article by Anne R Allen: Writing Rules vs. Writing Fashion: Should Writers Follow Fashion Trends?

Fashion dictates a good deal of what gets published these days, and it’s constantly changing. Write like Thackery, Kipling, or Walter Scott and you’re unlikely to find a publisher or an audience. That’s because writing fashions have radically changed in the last two hundred years, even though the language itself has not.

I would have said, Jane Austen. I clearly remember reading Temeraire and thinking, “My goodness, no one ought to use this many semicolons, though I grant Novik is getting that to work.” And I said that even as an avowed fan of semicolons.

Out of curiousity,, since Temeraire is set in the “same time period” and uses much the same style, I went down and got Pride and Prejudice off my shelf and looked. Nope, I had been wrong — Naomi Novik was using semicolons in exactly the same way that Austen had. That was one of the most obvious examples of changing fashions in writing that I’d ever noticed.

You’ll notice the difference in writing fashion if you read a bunch of contemporary novels and then pick up a classic. I did this recently with a collection of Dorothy L. Sayers stories. Almost every line of dialogue had a tag that included a dreaded adverb.“I’ll have a champagne cocktail, said Montague Egg urbanely.”

Oh, now I’m inclined to go pick up Gaudy Night. It’s been a couple of years since I read that, and (like practically everyone else?) it’s my favorite of the Lord Peter novels. I did find that the Lord Peter novels written by Jill Patton Walsh went sharply downhill. The first, Thrones and Dominions, was quite good, I thought. By the time I’d gotten to The Attenbury Emeralds, I wasn’t so impressed. I haven’t read the fourth of Walsh’s Lord Peter books. If anyone has, what did you think?

The linked post then goes into dialogue tags — I completely agree with contemporary style that movement tags are excellent and, by the way, no one does dialogue tags better than Sarah Addison Allen. I mean, yes, one can come up with any number of authors who do a great job with dialogue tags — Lois McMaster Bujold is another who springs to mind — but I specifically noticed how that Allen’s use of dialogue tags is particularly elegant and smooth. Honestly, these are two wonderful authors to use if you want to look at the effective, smooth use of tags in dialogue.

Oh, this is interesting:

Traditionally, italics were only used for emphasis. But in a lot of contemporary fiction, italics indicate inner monologue. This is a convention that first appeared in “pulp” fiction, but it has become fashionable in YA fiction.

It seems to me that I remember italics being used for inner monologue WAY back when I was a tot. Or at least, when I was a teenager, and starting to pay attention. If this is in flux, I think it’s been in flux for a long time! I guess I’ve done it both ways. Except I define “inner monologue” rather strictly and seldom consider someone’s internal reaction the same thing as direct, reported thoughts. Not sure. Here is the example provided in the linked article:

1) Serena opened the door and showed me a tiny, windowless room. With sudden force, she shoved me inside and slammed the door shut. I’m going to die in this dungeon. There is no way out. That woman is out of her mind.

2) Serena opened the door and showed me a tiny, windowless room. With sudden force, she shoved me inside and slammed the door shut. I was going to die in this dungeon. There was no way out. That woman was out of her mind.

I prefer the second. I think it’s substantially more effective than the first. What do you all think?

Let’s see, what else?

Use of the word “that.” Use of adverbs and adjectives. Short sentences. I agree with Anne R Allen about every single thing here. I do check in on her blog from time to time. Posts like this are why. By all means, click through and read the whole thing if you have time.

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11 thoughts on “Fashions in writing”

  1. For italics indicating thought, I don’t see the point in 1st person narratives bc the entire narrative is the narrator’s thoughts. However I still think it’s effective in 3rd person, to distinguish clearly between narrative and internal thoughts. Bujold uses it this way too iirc!

  2. The style for non-fiction has changed greatly, even since Tuchman. It’s much closer to newspaper style now.
    Part of that is Tuchman, of course. But narrative style is out of fashion more generally.

  3. Mary Beth, yes, I think that’s what immediately struck me about the examples. So much would be italicized in a first person narrative! It does make a lot more sense to use italics this way in third-person narratives.

    I just got the sequel to Sword Dance, btw — I will want to re-read Sword Dance first, though!

  4. Coincidentally the Teen recently started opining vigorously on use of italics to indicate internal thought. Hates ’em. I remember back when I was much younger than I am now, I also decided I didn’t like them. Especially don’t like wall o’text italics which is what set me off in the first place. I much prefer basic third person narrative to convey thoughts.
    So, as a consequence, we’ve been doing comparative readings of original fiction where the author only uses them for emphasis vs the internal narrative version (what few examples of the latter we can find available, as we don’t seem to own many. Have resorted to fanfics a couple times.).

    Conclusion: 1) internal narrative italicized is less effective at conveying pretty much anything. It flattens. That’s why in the quoted example above the second is more effective at conveying the character’s state and conclusions. possible #2) the writers who don’t use italicized internal narrative seem better craftwise, although we’re still working that out. Better at subtle signaling may be the root of it. And it may be a readers’ taste thing.

  5. The Teen tells me to add that it is jarring to switch from 3rd person into 1st to get the internal monologue, and then back again to rejoin the normal narrative. I notice the example in the OP is all first person so that doesn’t apply, but everything else we’ve looked at has been third person.

  6. I think I’ve seen italics used effectively for thought in some books where telepathy played a part: the telepathic communications were in italics.

    I agree, using it only for emphasis is much better than just italicising everything someone thinks, but making an occasional very literal thought italic can help when the grammar would look wrong for the usual reported-thought construction in close third person. For me it signals the shift in grammar is acceptable, as that is how the person thinks that sentence; it’s not a mistake in the narrator’s grammar.

  7. Yes, Hanneke, you have to do something to signal telepathic speech, and italics works well there. Or I think so, which is why I do it that way.

    I think you’re thinking of the shift from past to present tense when someone thinks a direct thought. Yes, it’s crucial to switch the grammar and therefore that’s an appropriate time to italicize — or you can revise to prevent the thought from being quite that direct — that part has to do with whether you’re writing third person with some distance, or very close third person.

    Elaine, I think The Teen might mean that it’s jarring to make that switch UNLESS you italicize the internal speech? Or does she consider it jarring all the time, no matter what?

  8. I think alternative quotes work well for telepathy and foreign language, especially
    «Amharic» quotes. (I had to look that up.)

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