An Author’s Look At “Style” For Writers And Readers

Author of nine Margot O’Banion & Max Skull mysteries, Kit Sloane’s offbeat stories chronicle the intricacies of Hollywood filmmaking from the point of view of her protagonist, feature film editor Margot O’Banion and her significant other, director Max Skull. She was the first fiction editor of Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine from 1996-1998.

A longtime member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and Mystery Women of the UK, Kit graduated from Mills College, Oakland CA with a degree in Art History and was named one of Mills College’s Literary Women for 2007.

The next time you pick up a book or turn on your electronic reader ready for a great story, remember this:  You are simply looking at little black symbols on a white background.

That’s all we writers have at our disposal to create something for you readers to, hopefully, enjoy reading. We don’t have soaring soundtracks behind our words, (at least, not yet!) Writers don’t have animated action figures or bright colors to create atmosphere and mood. We don’t have dynamite actors or special effects. All we writers have at our disposal are those little black characters on a blank white page. Sure we can choose the font, but you get the idea!

With that blank, white page in mind, I have a few ideas that can add to the reader’s involvement and enjoyment of our stories. I’m not talking gimmicks here. I like “traditional” mysteries, generally the British model, and that’s how I write. I’m a great believer in atmosphere and locale achieving the status of yet another character in the story. To my taste, stories using talking animals or pages of recipes or patterns for knitting are, largely, gimmicks. Of course, you can enjoy a good story about animals or enjoy a character who knits or cooks or whatever, but it’s the story line that will hold your interests, not, generally, the extra-added features.

Now I like a solid story that includes diverse, problematic characters, and, of course, lots of atmosphere. So here I’m talking about using those little black characters to convey all sorts of feelings, from emotions to suspense and everything in-between, that can create what we’ve learned to recognize as “style.”

I think that no matter what profession or hobby your characters are into, it’s the treatment of “insider information” that can really add to the story, the “I didn’t know that!” factor that can stay with a reader long after they’ve put down the book.

My characters are in the movie-making business. Fortunately, so is my daughter, an art director in Hollywood. Her profession has given me access to observing and hearing about things I would never, otherwise, be privy to. Every business and profession has these insider aspects. Whether it’s the slang, the humor, the technical side, the gossip, all these can be considered fair game for the writer setting their story inside a particular backdrop. Of course, a certain amount of discretion must be exercised. No one is going to enjoy having their innermost secrets or complaints printed up in black and white.

I include insider aspects of moviemaking to enhance the stories I write. In one (Extreme Cuisine) I had a movie scene being directed by one of the characters and I wrote it in screenplay form using movie dialogue and screen directions. This really popped the words off the page and made the scene fun to read. I often use that scene when doing a reading, too.

In another story (The Fat Lady Sings) that concerned a company putting on a Gilbert & Sullivan production filled with mayhem, I had a policeman character, an operetta fan, occasionally and unselfconsciously break into song with lyrics that fit the action. It worked and melded story to action just right.

I suggest sidestepping “rules” as an aid in conveying something special to the reader.  We’ve all heard about the “must have a body in the first chapter” kind of rule and rules like this are just meant to be broken. But don’t break rules just for a lark (and never mess with correct punctuation!) Still, don’t be afraid to defy the “rules” when you want to convey something special beyond the traditional written word. In Location, Location, I used a 16-line sentence (yes, the editor went crazy, but eventually gave up and left it in) to convey how the characters felt after a 14-hour, totally frustrating day traveling on location in Panama. Even he admitted it worked!

When writing your story, imagine what you can add to the printed words. In my last book, The Magicians, a story that took on a reality TV production, I researched special language reality TV people use and inserted some of these terms like the “frankenbite,” which is TV jargon for taking various clips of people talking at different times, and editing certain words together to make a conversation. Fake, sure. But millions of people watch and believe these productions!

By delving into the nuances of a profession, any profession, you are adding to the “authenticity” of the writing and, often, this can lead to interesting scenes. One personal favorite of mine was when I ended the book with the first scene from the movie my characters were just beginning. The last line of a 75,000 word book is “And action!”

In my latest book, Close-Up, I got the idea for the story from simply listening in to the cameraman and the makeup artist talking about one of the actors. They discussed something I’d never thought of considering. That was all it took to set me off!

So, all you writers, take those little black symbols and have a great time creating a story. Try new things and see if they work. They don’t call it “creative writing” for nothing!