Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Style ... What is it Good For?

One of the many things taught to learning writers that I've never much agreed with is that you need to work on developing a style, and the sooner the better.

To me, this is dumb advice for any number of reasons.  In fact, I'm never even sure that the people handing it out are one hundred percent clear on what having a style entails.  All right, they're talking about making an effort to use language distinctively, but you can do that quite easily by relying on a few stock phrases and words of choice, and surely no one considers that a good thing?  Anyway, writing distinctively isn't necessarily a good thing either.  A lot of terrible writers have distinctive styles, but often it might be better if they abandoned them and concentrated on just writing well.  Then lastly, if you write for long enough - hell, if you do anything for long enough - then you're going to develop a style whether you like it or not.  You're a unique human being; once you've grasped the fundamentals, there's no way that that uniqueness won't start to find its way into your work, whether you want it to or not.

My own feeling has always been that I'd rather aim to do good work in all sorts of styles, and in all sorts of genres, than to worry about manufacturing one characteristic voice for everything I do.  I'm sure there are common elements between all of my Fantasy stories, for example, but I'd like to think that many of them are different to the common elements in my Science Fiction stories - because if I was writing both genres in exactly the same style then I wouldn't feel like I was doing my job very well.

Or to put it another way, I've always thought that the story should dictate the style and not the other way around.

This is one of the reasons I have huge admiration for film director Robert Wise.  Unless you're a dedicated movie nerd it's likely you won't be familiar with the name, but you'll certainly have heard of some of Wise's movies.  He directed the very first Star Trek - you know, the one with the seven hour shot of the Enterprise in dry dock - and he made both West Side Story and The Sound of Music.  Those films, however, are not why I list him amongst my favourite directors.  No, that would be because he made the greatest Haunted House movie (arguably the greatest Horror movie) of all time, in the shape of The Haunting*, and because he made not one but two of my favourite Science-Fiction films: The Day the Earth Stood Still** and The Andromeda Strain.***

Because, yes, The Haunting and Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Sound of Music, all of those were made by the same guy.  Wise also did more-than-creditable work in the Crime genre (Odds Against Tomorrow, The House on Telegraph Hill), took a stab at War movies, Westerns ... the man could do damn near anything, mostly he did it at least well, and every so often he knocked out a stone cold classic.

Knowing all this, and thinking the way I do, I was thrilled to stumble upon the following quote from Wise:
"I’ve been accused by some of the more esoteric critics of not having a style, and my answer to that always is this - I’ve done every genre there is, and I approach each genre in the cinematic style that I think is appropriate and right for that genre. So I would no more have done The Sound of Music in the thinking and approach that I did in I Want to Live! for anything. So that’s why I don’t have a singular mark but I justify that by saying that it’s just because of the number of genres I’ve done and the cinematic style that’s proper for each one. That’s in my view, of course."
With all due respect, Wise was a little bit wrong about his own work, and so were those esoteric critics; there are definitely recognizable elements across his films, however disparate they might be on the surface.  No one so talented could fail to develop a few stylistic traits and ticks.  Then again, it was a style that Wise was absolutely in command of, and he managed to stretch it to its very limits over the course of his astonishing, more-than-sixty-year career.

To me, consciously trying to develop a style is like designing your own straightjacket.  Might it not be better to spend that time figuring out just what style entails and how best you can make use of it?  Not everyone has to be an auteur, and looking at a craftsman like Wise and his remarkable body of work suggests there's a lot to be said for understanding just what style means rather than getting hung up on whether or not other people think you have it.

* Not the futile 1999 remake with the crummily bizarre CGI ghosts.
** Not the futile 2008 remake with the crummily bizarre Keanu Reeves.
*** Not the futile 2008 miniseries ... no, actually, I hadn't seen that one.  It might be great.  Still, not that one.

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