Writing: why picking the wrong style can throw a reader out of a book

At the weekend, I tried to read the new Star Wars novelization. From the word ‘tried’, you might already have guessed that I failed out of it.

Now, it’s probably a great book for some people, but those people don’t include me, unfortunately. I got so frustrated that I ended up setting it aside, and feeling glad that it was a library book so I didn’t feel like I’d wasted money on a book I couldn’t finish.

The problem, for me, was the style. It was overly florid and flowery, which didn’t fit well with the actual content of the book. It jarred. The excesses of description and internal thoughts slowed down the action in key places, while somehow skipping lightly past other parts that needed emphasis. The author had also changed the dialogue–which I know he’d probably based on scripts rather than watching the finished movie, but still–so that it didn’t read naturally for any of the characters.

In short, the style the book was written in, florid and flowery, was a bad match for the subject matter. It wasn’t necessarily terrible, and might have been great for a different kind of book, but it didn’t work for this particular book.

Today I began reading The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan. This is a reread, although it’s been years since I last read, so I knew what kind of book I was getting. I was expecting epic fantasy and all the elements that inform the genre. The prose wasn’t quite as overwrought as that Star Wars novel, maybe, but it certainly isn’t sparse. It’s highly descriptive, a little bombastic in places…and it fits this type of book perfectly.

This is why style and content matter in fiction. It’s all about getting the tone right. Something that jars for one type of book will sit perfectly in another, and there are genre conventions around tone and style that are tricky to break and require lot of talent do well. Pratchett’s comedy in an epic fantasy setting works so well because he’s bloody good at it, and even he took a few books to really nail the tone he was aiming for.

Doing it badly is painful for the reader. That SW novelization slowed the action down in the wrong places due to the excesses and skipped over more thoughtful passages. It sent the pacing haywire. Jordan’s prose is descriptive and expansive in places, but he reigns it back for the action. His style doesn’t get in the way of the pacing; it enhances it.

That should be our goal as writers: to get tone, style, and content working so well together, even if we break a genre rule, that the reader doesn’t notice them because they’re so absorbed in the narrative.