Hunger Mountain - Vermont College Journal of the arts
SEARCH THE SITE:  

Idiosyncratic Tone in the Novel

by Wendy Voorsanger

Introduction

My novel is set in a time and place—1850′s west—that’s already solidly ingrained into the American consciousness as a mostly historically inaccurate and over-dramatized milieu. For three years, I spent enormous energy creating the historical details—believable characters, a rich sense of place, credible plot. All this realism came at a cost. My novel was missing tone; that sort of unusual, quirky aesthetic that subverts convention and adds fizz to a story. Without a distinct tone, my novel developed a smooth, realistic veneer with too little texture underneath. So six months ago, I set out to learn everything I could about literary tone. I sought to infuse my writing with some artistic spark, or meaningful spirit, to make it unique and enticing, while avoiding self-conscious language and unnecessary lyrical back flips.

What is Tone?

Tone is the emotional color or musical pitch of a novel. It’s typically a feeling or atmosphere a writer establishes and maintains through an entire piece of writing. It’s not what is being said or done—it’s how it’s said or done. It’s the words on the page: their rhythm, grammar, diction, sound, and sequence.

In his craft book Narrative Design, Madison Smartt Bell says, “tone is the sound of the inner voice of a novel and in every case, the story is colored by the idiosyncrasies of the narrative voice, and how these idiosyncrasies strike the reader.” According to the Literary Terms and Poetry Glossary, tone is defined as “the manner in which an author expresses his or her attitude; the intonation of the voice that expresses meaning.” Tone is different from style. Style is the way writers put words together in units of thought—sentences—and the way they link sentences to make larger units—paragraphs, novels—to produce a particular tone. Tone is generally the effect of these sorts of literary techniques on the level of a work’s overall meaning. Writers convey tone through style. For example, the writing style in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying consists of first person stream-of-consciousness from the point of view of multiple characters, a non-chronological plot structure, and very long complex sentences aside short nonsensical sentences. These stylistic literary techniques give the novel its morbid irony, its sad, poignant cynical tone.

Why is tone important?

Tone is important in literature because it suggests an attitude toward the subject. It creates a feeling and emotional response in the reader and advances the meaning of a novel. Tone makes a story memorable, stirring, and relevant. It can heighten the theme and reinforce the plot.

Wallace Stegner said in his Paris Review interview that in order to create a sense of credibility in his novels, he tries to get “the tone and the quality of mind that will persuade a reader to see and hear a real and credible human being, not a mouthpiece or a construct.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez said that he had an idea of a novel, but something was missing. He said,

I was not sure what it was until one day I discovered the right tone—the tone that I eventually used in One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was based on the way my grandmother used to tell her stories. She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness. When I finally discovered the tone I had to use, I sat down for eighteen months and worked every day.

He’d found the perfect tone for One Hundred Years of Solitude: a blend of the magical and the real.

How Do Writers Create a Unique Tone?

When I sought ways of infusing a unique tone in my novel, I realized not many writers discuss specifically how they arrive at a particular tone, a process which appears to be the result of some mysterious alchemy magically borne out of all the mechanical literary techniques writers are supposed to employ. So I decided to study two novels known for their distinct, idiosyncratic tone—Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy and The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. I examined these novels for the specific literary techniques that contributed to the tone of each work and discovered that both authors used three common techniques:

  1. Titles
  2. Diction
    1. strange and archaic words
    2. untranslated words
    3. vernacular
    4. heavily-laden words
    5. strong verbs
    6. abstractions
  3. Metaphors and similes

Although there are plenty more, I narrowed my study to these three because each one directly contributes to achieving an idiosyncratic tone in both the novels under discussion.

Achieving Tone in Blood Meridian

The first novel I examined, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, follows a fourteen-year-old teenage runaway called only ”the kid” in a dramatic objective third-person point of view as he drifts through the Southwest during the mid-nineteenth century. The kid joins an outlaw gang of Indian hunters hired by a Mexican governor to scalp Apaches for a one hundred dollar bounty apiece.

Blood Meridian has a fairly traditional, chronological plot structure that starts with the kid hooking up with the gang and then experiencing events in a linear fashion throughout twenty-three chapters. But the plot is anything but traditional. Blood Meridian is one novel set in the west that subverts the archetypal hero versus villain, good versus evil. It subverts most of the expectations of the western genre by using tactics that keep the reader off balance. It explodes myth, the idyllic dream of Manifest Destiny through a dystopian western universe: evil wins through pervasive, extremely distasteful violence. There are no lovely ladies. No romance. Nobody finds gold or builds a new town. It’s a catalog of brutality, depicting, often times in explicit detail, all manner of bloodshed and cruelty in an unromantic, barbaric frontier. It’s horrific depravity that confronts not only the slaughtering of Indians and Mexicans, but also Americans killing Americans, pedophilia, and child killing.

The bulk of the novel is devoted to detailing the group’s gruesome activities and bizarre conversations. Although the kid is attracted to extreme violence, he rarely initiates it himself, usually doing so only when urged by others or in self-defense. The violence becomes exponentially more extreme and unrelenting when Judge Holden, often referred to as “the judge,” joins the gang as the magnetic center. He’s an erudite nihilist, sadistically violent, cunning, educated, and deeply philosophical. He’s capable of ruthless violence and remarkable delicacy; a savage savant with weirdly paradoxical behavior.

Blood Meridian has been described as both nihilistic and strongly moral, as a satire of the western genre, and a savage indictment of Manifest Destiny. Some describe it as one of the most grotesquely violent and bloody tellings of the west, while others describe it as a hauntingly beautiful and masterful tome of human warfare. The idiosyncratic tone in Blood Meridian can only be described as dark, and darker, brutal, and bleak.

At the end of the novel, the kid is wandering across the American West. Decades are compressed into a few pages, speeding up the plot. The final chapter is even farther in the future, where the kid is now referred to as “the man.” Cut to a saloon, dancing and wild fiddling, drunkards and whores. A confrontation occurs between the judge and the man in the outhouse, and what happens is unclear. The judge either kills or rapes “the man.” The act itself isn’t clearly described, just commented upon by a saloon patron, who says, “Good God almighty.” Then the judge is dancing in the saloon again, saying he will never die.

It turns out Blood Meridian is the perfect novel for a conventional writer like me to study. The language, which sets the tone, is simply astounding. You can flip open the book to any page and find an unusual writing style that’s inventive far beyond the Western lyric tradition. McCarthy’s sentence structure and word choice work together to create an aesthetic that is the distinctive tone in Blood Meridian.

So, exactly how did McCarthy infuse Blood Meridian with its idiosyncratic tone? Through titles, diction, and metaphor and similes.

Titling the Tone

The first thing that speaks to tone is the title of the novel. The title is an important part of the language choices a writer makes and an opportunity for the writer to name the tone directly or indirectly, and to stir a feeling in the reader immediately.

The title Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness In the West (the full title) sets an unmistakable tone of darkness. In addition, each chapter begins not with a traditional title, but with a list of events that will happen. For example, the chapter 12 pre-summary reads:

Crossing the boarder — Storms — Ice and lightning — The slain Argonauts — The azimuth  — Rendezvous — Councils of war — Slaughter of the Gilenos Death of Juan Miguel — The dead in the lake — The chief — An apache child — On the desert — Night fires — El virote — A surgery — The judge takes a scalp — Un hacendado —Gallego — Ciudad de Chihuajua.

This summary offers plenty of clues that the chapter will have some horrifically violent and strange stuff. McCarthy sets the brutal tone of impending doom with brutal words: scalp, dead in the lake, slain, death. The violent and strange word phrases are clear, matter-of-fact and divided by a simple dash, reinforcing the bleak tone of the novel.

The double-barreled title and chapter pre-summaries are meant to give the novel a vaguely antiquated tone. McCarthy is also creating a parody of dime store westerns that’s meant to be over-the-top and somewhat comical.

Diction

The next literary technique setting the tone in Blood Meridian is diction, or the choice and use of words and phrases. McCarthy’s diction is the tone of Blood Meridian. He seems to have meticulously chosen each word to intensify the strange, dark tone of the novel, and the desired effect on the reader.

Strange and Antique Words

McCarthy builds the dark tone by using both strange and antique words. I had to look up many—parfleche, gobbet, spancel. A few appear to be made up. Then there are the weird choices—rooty, paps, supernumeraries. In other instances, words are juxtaposed together in peculiar combinations, like grand horror, scurvid cur, death hilarious. The words often have twisted up placement, with nouns in place of adverbs and adjectives, and vice versa; or common verbs are used in an unusual way; or phrases have no verbs—all intensifying the tonal feeling. For example, McCarthy writes “and all the horseman’s faces gaudy,” as opposed to “the horseman’s gaudy faces” or “the horseman had gaudy faces.”

McCarthy arranges these unusual words and phrases into well-formed, artful sentences that heighten the tone in Blood Meridian. He also forgoes quotation marks and apostrophes, leading to a sparse, yet expansive language that’s hauntingly resonant.

Untranslated Spanish

McCarthy uses untranslated Spanish to produce an unsettling edge to the tone. Sometimes he throws in a single Spanish word within an English sentence, like “The old malabarista was on his knees where he’d been flung.” Or a Spanish phrase, “Cuatro de copas,” he called out, or “El jefe,” said the judge. The addition of Spanish gives the feeling that there’s some strange conversation happening. Notice in the following quote how McCarthy uses no punctuation to set off the dialogue:

Cuatro de copas, he called out.
The woman raised her head. She looked like a blindfold mannequin raised awake by a string.
Quien, called the juggler.
El hombre…she said. El hombre mas joven. El muchacho.
El muchacho, called the juggler. He turned the card for all to see.

Heavily Laden Words

Words laden with blood, violence, and darkness also help establish the tone. That might seem obvious. But McCarthy’s word choices aren’t just your run-of-the-mill words that signal violence like blood, kill, scalp. Although he uses those words too. McCarthy’s words cleverly hint and suggest violence, often when he’s describing something that’s seemingly ordinary. For example, with emphasis added, “The wind sent the weeds to gnashing.” “The little Spanish ponies sucking at the thin air.” Others are: pyre, smoking, sizzled, stank, spurting, jerking, reddening, dragging. You get the feeling.

McCarthy often alternates between the exquisite beauty of the flora and fauna and grim violence. For example,

They rode on and the sun in the east flushed pale streaks of light and then a deeper run of color like blood seeping up in sudden reaches flaring planewise and where the earth drained up into the sky at the edge of creation the top of the sun rose out of nothing… [emphasis added]

Notice the heavily laden words italicized here. Using violence and nature together as in this quote creates a tone that acts as an external manifestation of the bleak emotional lives of the characters and conflicts, and intensifies the strange, dark feeling of the novel. In addition, this sharp juxtaposition intensifies the violence.

Strong Verbs

That brings me to the fourth element of diction in Blood Meridian: strong verbs. This novel is filled with intense verbs that enhance the relentless, incessant, pounding of the dark tone. Let’s look at an example:

Glanton’s horse reared and Glanton flattened himself along the horse’s shoulder and drew his pistol. One of the Delawares was next behind him and the horse he rode was falling backward and he was trying to turn it, beating it about the head with his balled fist, and the bear’s long muzzle swung toward them in a stunned articulation, amazed beyond reckoning, some foul gobbet dangling from its jaws and its chops dyed red with blood. Glanton fired. [emphasis added]

Here, McCarthy uses powerfully violent, action verbs—flattened, reared, swing, dangling, dyed. The verbs pull the reader from one violent act to another, which helps to reinforce the tone of darkness and brutality. McCarthy uses the two instances of past progressive verbs was falling and was trying to turn purposefully to show activity was in progress when another activity occurred simultaneously (beating the bear), to reinforce the feeling—the tone—of confusion, violence and chaos.

As the scene unfolds, the bear escapes with the man. The end of the paragraph reads:

…Glanton cocked the pistol a third time as the bear swung with the Indian dangling from its mouth like a doll and passed over him in a sea of honey-colored hair smeared with blood and reek of carrion and the rooty smell of the creature itself. The shot rose and rose, a small core of metal scurrying toward the distant beltways of matter grinding mutely to the west above them all. Several rifle shots rang out and the beast loped horribly into the forest with his hostage and was lost among the darkening trees. [emphasis added]

Notice how McCarthy describes the surrounding nature with a participle—darkening—not an adjective. He doesn’t write dark trees. Green trees. Mean trees. His gives the trees action: They are darkening. This verbal adjective phrase layers and animates the tone of foreboding. And he uses the verb dangling again here, to denote something so dreadful (a man dangling in the bear’s mouth). McCarthy is deliberately creating an odd, brutal tonal mood by coupling the natural world and violence with powerful, active verbs.

Abstractions

McCarthy also intensifies the tone in Blood Meridian by creating a unique arrangement of abstractions and uniting fragmentary concepts. For example,

The trail of argonauts terminated in ashes as told and in the convergence of such vectors in such a waste wherein the hearts and enterprise of one small nation have been swallowed up and carried off by another the expriest asked if some might not see the hand of a cynical god conducting with what austerity and what mock surprise so lethal a congruence.

McCarthy fills this passage with imagery and fragments that create a rich abstraction: “convergence of such vectors,” and “what mock surprise so lethal a congruence.” The sentence alternates between biblical and Gnostic motifs: “terminated in ashes,” “swallowed up,” “cynical god (lower g) conducting with what” (what is acting as an abstraction here), “austerity,” “as told,” implying a sermon. Notice there is no grammatical pause between the phrases, “carried off by another,” and “the expriest asked.” These sorts of abstractions create broad associations, and at the same time focus the tone of confusion and violence.  In addition, they add a tone of intellect, a high-mindedness, which contrasts somewhat comically with, as well as heightens, the bodily violence.

Use of Metaphor and Simile

In describing what happened with the Indian and the bear, McCarthy uses metaphor and simile to solidify the tone. “…the Indian dangling from its mouth like a doll.” And, “The bear had carried off their kinsman like some fabled storybook beast and the land had swallowed them up beyond all ransom or reprieve.” The strange similes of the doll and the storybook beast enhance the feeling of terror. The metaphor, “the land had swallowed them up” bolsters the tone of darkness. McCarthy doesn’t write: It was horrible. It was terrible. He creates sharp similes and metaphors to express and enliven, focus and reflect the tone of horror and terror.

Achieving Tone in The Shipping News

The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx won both a Pulitzer Prize and the national Book Award.  It’s told in an omniscient third-person point of view centered on Quoyle, a hack reporter from upstate New York, seriously down on his luck. First his parents commit suicide. Then his unfaithful and abusive wife Petal leaves town to sell their daughters to sex traffickers. When Petal and her lover are killed in a car accident the young girls are returned to Quoyle. His life is in shambles, and his aunt Agnis convinces him to return to his ancestral home in Newfoundland for a new beginning.

The Shipping News is an affecting, atmospheric novel about the idea of family and home, and of a man finding his spirit again. When Quoyle arrives in his small ancestral town of Killick-Claw, he’s a broken man. He slowly comes back to life as he writes compelling stories about the harbor happenings, connects with the vibrant Newfoundlanders, and learns about his own troubled family background. He also develops a touching connection with a local woman, Wavey, and her sad child, as well as his aunt. As the novel progresses over thirty-nine chapters, Quoyle gains in emotional strength and discovers the deep and disturbing family secret—that his father raped his aunt.

The Shipping News has been described as a vigorous novel, packed with haunting images and lyrical renderings of Newfoundland. Others have said it’s darkly comic, and irritatingly uneven in its staccato stylings. For sure, it’s a quiet, yet powerful evocation of a place and people buffeted by nature and change. The idiosyncratic tone of The Shipping News is technical, practical, direct, and closely aligned with the physical world. Due to the Newfoundland setting and the Newfoundlanders living there, the novel takes on a tonal character that’s a bit distant and remote, perhaps even a bit cold and unfeeling, yet at the same time, calmly contemplative.

Titling the Tone

Proulx sets the practical tone immediately with the title—The Shipping News. It’s the name of a section of the local newspaper Gammy Bird in the small town of Killick-Claw where Quoyle finds work as a reporter chronicling banal shipping details. The straightforward title implies that this story will reveal news of this strange place and its people in a factual, clear manner.

Proulx continues this technical tone by naming each chapter after a particular knot in the Ashley Book of Knots and providing an explanation and illustration of the knot. Most of the chapter titles, derived from this sailor’s instruction manual, directly signal the chapter contents, further infusing the novel with a practical tone. Note how chapter one immediately sets the direct, straightforward tone, “Quoyle: A coil of rope. A Flemish flake is a spiral coil of one layer only. It is made on deck, so that it may be walked on if necessary.” Yet the titles also tie in a layer of subtext adding to the contemplative tone of The Shipping News.

Diction

The Shipping News is known for its distinctive offbeat sentence structure and deliberately choppy prose. It eliminates lots of verbs, nouns, and conjunctions, creating a strange staccato-like tonal texture. This unorthodox and rhythmic diction is cold, while at the same time hard-bitten, setting the tone of the whole novel.

Newfoundlander Vernacular

Proulx once said that she slept with the Dictionary of Newfoundland English under her pillow for two years. Perhaps that’s Proulx’s secret to the distinctive tone achieved in The Shipping News. A strange speech pattern, born out of regional vernacular, emerges in the writing—one that’s based on the anglicized, Irish-English accent of Newfoundland—and creates a direct, yet distant tone. For example:

Quoyle woke in the empty room. Grey light. A sound of hammering. His heart. He lay in his sleeping bag in the middle of the floor. The candle on its side. Could smell the wax, smell the cracks. Neutral light illumined the window. The hammering again and a beating shadow in the highest panes. A bird.

The paragraph above could be said to consist of eleven distinct sentences, but only four verbs: woke, lay, smell, and illumined. Note the Newfoundland vernacular “illumined,” not the English “illuminated.” The lack of verbs doesn’t leave the reader confused. The setting is clear. The stillness of the moment is revealed. A reader can feel the dreary tone. It’s as if Proulx created a language that mirrors how Newfoundlanders would relay the facts of what happened.

Here’s another example:

Quoyle below the rock. Suddenly he clasped his hands around her ankles. She felt the heat of his hands through her brown stockings, did not move. Prisoner on the rock. Looked down. Quoyle’s face was pressed against her legs. She could see the white scalp through snarled reddish hair, fingers curved firm around her ankles hiding her shoes except the pointed toes, the leather perforated in an ornate curl like a Victorian mustache, his heavy wrists and beyond them the sweater cuffs, a bit of broken shell caught in the wool, dog’s hair on the sleeves. She did not move.

There are eight sentences, short and long situated amicably with each other for a unique cadence; five relatively short sentences and one long sentence, followed by another short sentence. The first sentence has no verb. It’s more of a note that a newspaper reporter such as Quoyle would jot down in a notebook. Right away you feel the practical tone. There is no conjunction after “stockings,” then more descriptive notes, “prisoner on the rock,” and “looked down.” Then comes a long sentence, which suggests list items describing the woman’s characteristics. Then another note, “She did not move.”

In addition, Proulx’s dialogue mirrors the Newfoundlander’s speech, by dropping the h’s. For example, “Yes, we know ‘is ways. But ‘ow many knows the time last winter, February it was, time we ‘as that silver thaw when Billy wanted to ‘ave the old grandfather clock in ‘is kitchen repaired?” These curt Newfoundlander speech patterns become the natural tone of the novel itself. The diction also blends seamlessly with the setting, with lots of sea, sailing, and fishing words.

Heavily Laden Words

Like in Blood Meridian, the word choices in The Shipping News are heavily laden. Not with blood, but with the powerful rich imagery of Newfoundland, directly mirroring the dreary, sad, meandering emotional tone of the characters and the physical place. For example:

Nothing was clear to lonesome Quoyle. His thoughts churned like the amorphous thing that ancient sailors, drifting into arctic half-light, called the Sea Lung; a heaving sludge of ice under fog where air blurred into water, where liquid was solid, where solids dissolved, where the sky froze and light and dark muddled.

Notice how both the nouns and the verbs referencing the island are used to describe Quoyle’s emotional state: clear, sailor, arctic half-light, sea, sludge, ice, fog, churned, heaving, blurred, dissolved, froze, muddled. The repetition of the word where, along with the changing elements, creates a resonant connection back to the beginning of the paragraph with the phrase “amorphous thing.” The whole sentence becomes a lyrically “amorphous thing” leading to a tonal feeling of cold quirkiness.

Strong Verbs

Proulx often omits verbs. So when she does use them, it’s with a clear sense of purpose toward the practical tone of The Shipping News. Her verbs are powerful, not like McCarthy’s violent and aggressive choices in Blood Meridian, but intensely quiet. They tend to be odd, and often paired with ordinary yet unexpectedly nouns, revealing and implying multiple layers of feeling. For example: “The hill tilting toward the water, the straggled pickets and then Dennis’ aquamarine house with a picture window toward the street.” The verbs titling and straggled cleverly allude to Quoyle’s feelings when he approached his friend’s home.

Let’s take a look at a longer example:

Everything in the house tatted and doilied in the great art of the place, designs of lace waves and floe ice, whelk shells and sea wrack, the curve of lobster feelers, and round knot of cod-eye, the bristled commas of shrimp and fissured sea calves, white snow on black rock, pinwheeled gulls, the slant of silver rain. Hard tortured knots encased picture frames of ancestors and anchors. [emphasis added]

It seems like Proulx is just describing a “perfect kitchen” in Newfoundland, but so much more is revealed in her verb choices. Almost everything in this static kitchen is described with a verb, as if the kitchen in alive. Quoyle was pulled into this kitchen directly from the sea, saved from drowning. Wrapped in a warm towel, he’s the one surveying the surroundings. The verbs curve, bristled, and fissured mirror his current emotional state, as do tortured and encased.  I also noticed the clever use of the word wrack, which is coarse brown seaweed. But it also means, “to be subjected to extreme stress or mental pain.” In the variant spelling, rack as a noun can mean “a wrecked ship,” “the historical instrument of torture,” and “a mass of thick-fast moving clouds.” As a verb, it can mean, “being driven before the wind” or “to draw off the sediment in a wine barrel.” In addition, “to go to rack and ruin,” is a phrase meaning “to gradually deteriorate in condition because of neglect.” Every single one of these meanings of wrack/rack describes how Quoyle feels sitting dripping wet in that kitchen. But Proulx doesn’t say anything about his emotional state.  She simply describes the practicalities of the kitchen décor, quietly slipping in the verb wrack to describe a seaweed decoration.  This is evidence of the practical, cool tone built into the language choices. Yet, at the same time, that one word cleverly describes all of Quoyle’s emotions at that moment. Brilliant.

Use of Metaphor and Simile

The metaphors in The Shipping News also reference concrete physical things on the island of Newfoundland, reinforcing the idiosyncratic tone of the novel. Because the syntax is fragmented and traditional sentence parts are omitted, fluidity is interrupted allowing for epigrammatic statements and odd, arresting metaphors that are original and apt. For example:

It began with his parents. First the father, diagnosed with liver cancer, a blush of wild cells diffusing. A month later a tumor fastened in the mother’s brain like a burr, crowding her thoughts to the side. The father blamed the power station. Two hundred yards from their house sizzling wires, thick as eels, came down from northern towers.

The concrete connection between the liver cancer and “a blush of wild cells diffusing,” and the brain tumor, “like a burr,” is matter-of-fact and unemotional. The phrase “the father blamed,” is contemplative, yet still distant. Notice there is no comma between “house” and “sizzling wires.” No verb. It’s a bit of an inverted sentence. By pulling back to the mechanics of what caused the cancer with a concrete yet unusual metaphor—an eel found in Newfoundland—Proulx bolsters the practical tone.

Conclusion: Adding a Deeper Layer

Examining the literary novels The Shipping News and Blood Meridian for their tonal qualities served as a powerful exercise.  In both novels I discovered tone emerging from the author’s use of literary techniques to twist and flip the ordinary into something more interesting and distinctive. Both Proulx and McCarthy shape the language—the words and sentences—to create tone, more than they use plot structure and character development towards tone.

In Blood Meridian McCarthy uses titles, diction (including strange and antique words, aggressive verbs, heavily laden words, weird abstractions), and memorable metaphor and similes. Together these techniques create an urgent and constant tone that oozes some strange, syncopated drumbeat signaling impending violence. Not just ordinary violence, but horrific violence, and bizarre. Blood Meridian, with its senseless bloody brutality, is not for everyone, but its idiosyncratic tone is undeniable—inexplicable evil, hinged between the real and the surreal, and laden with darkness, brutality and bleakness. It’s the tone that jolts readers and makes for a masterpiece of American literature.

As for The Shipping News, the language itself is the tone: quirky, cold, distant and practical. Proulx achieves this idiosyncratic feeling through a lyrical diction and cadence made up of authentic Newfoundlander vernacular speech patterns, as well as word choices and metaphors heavily laden with the physical place of Newfoundland. Proulx makes thoughtful and purposeful use of ordinary literary techniques.

The key word here is purposeful. As writers, we need to make specific and imaginative use of these literary techniques to create an idiosyncratic tone. We need to dig deeper with language for the exact, unique word, metaphor, abstraction, or verb to convey a particular feeling and attitude. We need to find a particular tone that reveals our character’s emotion. Enlivens the sense of place. Invigorates the nature of the action and enriches our stories with a deeper layer of meaning. A deeper layer of feeling. In doing so, we can escape creating a byproduct of mechanized literary learning. We can use language to create a story with an idiosyncratic tone that subverts the ordinary, engages in an unusual way, and lifts our level of storytelling to meaningful art.

Works Cited
Bell, Madison Smartt. Narrative Design: Working with Imagination,
Craft, and Form
. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000.
Hepworth, James R. “Wallace Stegner, The Art of Fiction,” The Paris
Review
. No.118. Summer 1990.
Literary Terms and Poetry Glossary. Boston. Bedford/St Martins. 2007.
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the
West
. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
Proulx, Annie. The Shipping News. New York: Scribner, 1993.
Stone, Peter, “Gabrielle Garcia Marquez, Writers at Work”, The Paris
Review
, No. 69. Winter 1981.

Visit with Wendy Voorsanger.

More craft essays and more craft shorts.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Michael Haver April 16, 2012 at 1:13 am

I’m a fan of objective third because its like, real life. I feel comfortable in this area. However, seems all the pro’s advise against it. Course except for Cormac McCarthy

Reply

Leave a Comment

All comments are moderated.
Yours will show up soon, we promise.