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How to Change Fiction Writing Style

by William H. Coles

STYLE is: “A particular procedure by which something is done.”

The Oxford English Dictionary.

To change your style as a writer, study to improve elements of excellent storytelling and prose writing and practice to improve those elements to reveal who you are and display your talents.


Author attitudes.

Strunk and White in The Elements of Style expressed valuable ideas for writers.

“For writers of story, writers need to place themselves in the background of their work. To do this, the writer needs to write in a way that draws the reader to the sense and style of the writing, rather than to the tone and temper of the writer.

“Change your thinking about writing if you’re a writer whose style is dependent on believing that everything that comes to mind is of interest and ought to be written on the page. Instead, the writer needs to make every word count, each word should move the story forward, and each word needs to have a purpose.”

Successful creative writers develop skills that engage readers, that please readers, that are easy to read and comprehend, and that stimulate the imagination.

HOW TO DO IT. Vocabulary, Voice, Passive/Active, Syntax, Rhythm, Metaphor and Simile, Balance of Elements.


Word choice:

Look for replacement words that accurately supply imagery, ideation, and emotion for the content and meaning of a story. There are so many word alternatives!

The Oxford English Dictionary lists twenty-seven alternatives to the noun “pleasure” such as happiness, contentment, joy, delight, etc.; forty-two choices for the adjective “perfect” like faultless, impeccable, flawless, immaculate, unmarred, unblemished, spotless, etc.; seventy-four choices for the verb “move” such as go, advance, travel, walk, carry, bring, take, fetch, etc.

Your style is dependent on your choices augmenting your reader’s experience.

Word accuracy.

Example: how changing one word can change the effect of imagery. (In the examples, either “looking” or “feeling” is used in the thousands of recordings of this song.)

Woke up this morning looking ‘round for my shoes, You know, Baby, I got those old walking blues

Woke up this morning feeling ‘round for my shoes, You know, Baby, I got those old walking blues

Robert Johnson

The word “feeling” tells us much more than “looking.” It provides touch-and-feel images that suggest it’s dark before dawn, probably a bedroom, and with the next line, “You know baby, I got those ole walking blues,” the word “feeling” helps imagine a tactile blues-drenched setting, not intangible nor abstract, and the probable emotions of a woman.

TAKE AWAY. Remember, persistent, habitual use makes a Thesaurus valuable to forming the style of a writer!


Voice is related to a narrator or character point of view. Note carefully chosen points of view for each of these stories. Broadly, voice is everything a narrator or a character thinks, acts, or says expressed in the prose.

Selection is important. Differences in “voice” are demonstrated by the following examples. Take special notice of differences in syntax, word choice, use of the passive, and voice.

1.  The Catcher In the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye is an example of first-person-narration with an intriguing and successful voice.

“Where I want to start telling is the day I left Pencey Prep. Pencey Prep is this school that’s in Agerstown, Pennsylvania. You probably heard of it. You’ve probably seen the ads, anyway. They advertise in about a thousand magazines, always showing some hotshot guy on a horse jumping over a fence.”

2.  Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle chose Dr. John Watson’s perspective, Holmes’ sidekick, as the one engaging in first person narration.

“I had seen little of Holmes lately. My marriage had drifted us away from each other. My own complete happiness, and the home-centered interests which rise up around the man who first finds himself master of his own establishment, were sufficient to absorb all my attention, while Holmes, who loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul, remained in our lodgings in Baker Street, buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature.”

3.  Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney, is an example of a story in 2nd person point of view.

“You have friends who actually care about you and speak the language of the inner self. You have avoided them of late. Your soul is as disheveled as your apartment, and until you can clean it up a little you don’t want to invite anyone inside.”

4.  Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, 3rd person point of view.

Elizabeth allowed that he had given a very rational account of it, and they continued talking together, with mutual satisfaction till supper put an end to cards, and gave the rest of the ladies their share of Mr. Wickham’s attentions. There could be no conversation in the noise of Mrs. Phillips’s supper party, but his manners recommended him to everybody. Whatever he said, was said well; and whatever he did, done gracefully.

5.  Stream of consciousness. Examples:

Stream of Consciousness is a style of writing organized around the interior flow of thoughts of the narrator or character. Just as every human’s thoughts flow, unconnected, and sometimes disorganized, stream-of-consciousness writing is often disjointed and lacks traditional sentence structure and punctuation.

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it always seemed to me when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which I can hear now, I burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as I then was) solemn, feeling as I did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen. [From Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway]

Nonsense you look like a girl you are lots younger than Candace color in your cheeks like a girl A face reproachful tearful an odor of camphor and of tears a voice weeping steadily and softly beyond the twilit door the twilight-colored smell of honeysuckle. Bringing empty trunks down the attic stairs they sounded like coffins. [From William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying]


Passive constructions have significant influence on voice and style. How an author uses passive constructions sets a unique tone and comprehension to the prose. Passive and active sentences each have uses, but excessive use of the passive is not recommended in fiction.


The passive tense is made by using ‘to be’ before the past participle of the verb. To make the past participle, add ‘ed’ to the infinitive of whatever verb tense is needed. So “stay” becomes “stayed,” or “join” becomes “joined,” etc.

A sentence in the passive voice.

A verb is in the passive voice acts on the subject of the sentence. For example, in “The ball was thrown by the pitcher,” the verb (thrown) acts on the ball (the subject) and is in the passive voice. The subject does not perform the action of the verb. Although not incorrect, it is usually less clear than the active voice. Alternating between the active voice and the passive voice is powerful enough to change the subject of the sentence and shift the verb form.

In a passive sentence, the person or thing doing the action (the agent) is usually preceded by the word "by." For example: Passive: The book was read by mom. Active: Mom read the book.

In an active sentence, the subject performs the action of the verb. Active voice is the term for a subject that/who performs the action of the verb. For example: “Bob threw the ball.” is in the active voice.

In an equivalent passive voice sentence, the subject of a sentence in the active voice (the "doer") becomes the "agent." Examples:

The ball was thrown by Bob.

The ball was thrown. (Omitting the subject obscures who committed the action.)

Be aware of active and passive and use each with purpose; your writing will become clearer, more immediate, and change a reader’s perception of your style.

Neither is right or wrong.


The progressive tense in English is formed with the participle of the verb followed by a form of the verb "be." It is used to describe activity currently in progress. Compare:

“I read.” Simple present.

“I have read.” The present perfect

“I have been reading.” Present perfect progressive.

“I am reading.” Present progressive.


Syntax is the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language.

Syntax usually appears in sentences with the sequence of subject (S), verb (V), and objectv(O). It is the arrangement of words and phrases to create sentences, a way for writers to express creativity and create interest. Words must be grammatically correct.

Over 85% of languages usually place the subject first, either in the sequence SVO or the sequence SOV.

The joy in syntax is the ability to compose sentences in a variety of different ways–rearrange adjectives and adverbs, insert phrases, use complex clausal phrases, and more.


Rhythm in a prose story is a major contributor to voice and style. Attention to rhythm in the sound of the writing makes image and idea transfer more subconsciously fluent and with less effort and misunderstanding.

The venerable Virginia Woolf wrote this about rhythm.

"Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words.” (From a letter of Virginia Woolf.)

Consider Shakespeare. “I came to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”

Compare the next two sentences written without regard to rhythm/meter that are less readable or easily comprehended:

We must bury Caesar. He deserves burial, not praise.


Caesar deserves no praise; I’ve come only to bury him.

Fiction authors have to feel the rhythm in their writing and ask if change could contribute for better comprehension and easier reading of their writing style.


Similes are metaphors that use like or as: Her eyes were as brilliant as the full moon on a cloudless night; She runs marathons like a gazelle. (A metaphor would be, She is a gazelle.)

Metaphor, which allows writers to convey vivid imagery that transcends literal meanings, creates images that are easier to understand and respond to than literal language. Metaphorical language activates the imagination and the writer is more able to convey emotions and impressions through metaphor. Example:

Like a seed in the ground, creative capacity lies dormant, filled with potential that can give rise to unexpected blossoms that create turning points and sustain constructive change. (origin unknown)

Useful accurate metaphor is difficult in fiction stories. Authors need to achieve a metaphor that makes sense and is easily compatible and understandable to: context, point of view, imagery, setting, characterization, voice, and plot. Unintegrated metaphor breaks the fictional dream so valuable to many fiction stories.

(Writer John Gardner introduced the concept of the fictional dream, the idea that fiction creates a dream state for the reader so the reader won’t "wake up" from reading disrupted by distractions in the story like bad metaphor and will continue to read and believe in the fictional world the writer has created.) The Literary Lab, December 4, 2009

A poor metaphor is too inept in comparisons; it is too clumsy, too esoteric, needs too much explanation, or becomes absurd.

TAKE AWAY: You can practice metaphors daily to challenge your imagination: X is like Y, or P is Q. It can be enjoyable–you don’t need to write, just think.


Dialogue, narrative, exposition, imagery, abstract vs concrete, punctuation, verbal accuracy, point of view, are different fiction elements of a story. Relative size and positioning, as well as quality of these elements, will directly affect readability, comprehension, and enjoyment without altering your personal influence as a writer. Change a writer’s style!


Writers of fiction need to advance their careers by continuous change. Writers are rewarded by thinking about what style is, then strategizing a plan useful in both creating and revision to continuously explore what change in style will do for their acceptance as writers, for memorability, and for their readers’ pleasure.


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Read other Essays by William H. Coles