Changing Literary Styles (Part One)

Hey, SE Readers. Joan with you today on this first day in June. Reading is still one of my favorite past times. There’s nothing like curling up on the sofa on a rainy day with a good book in hand.

Since becoming an author, I tend to read with a more critical eye, looking for ways I can improve my own work

Writing styles have changed over the years. Our vocabulary and choices of words are different than what they were a hundred or more years ago. People’s attention spans are much shorter, perhaps in part to the introduction of television in the mid-twentieth century. These days texting and instant messaging have become the norm. We like to keep communication short and sweet. Things that were once acceptable in writing are frowned upon these days.

Consider the opening paragraph from Last of The Mohicans, written in 1826 By James Fenimore Cooper.

It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America, that the toils and dangers of the wilderness were to be encountered before the adverse hosts could meet. A wide and apparently an impervious boundary of forests severed the possessions of the hostile provinces of France and England. The hardy colonist, and the trained European who fought at his side, frequently expended months in struggling against the rapids of the streams, or in effecting the rugged passes of the mountains, in quest of an opportunity to exhibit their courage in a more martial conflict. But, emulating the patience and self-denial of the practiced native warriors, they learned to overcome every difficulty; and it would seem that, in time, there was no recess of the woods so dark, nor any secret place so lovely, that it might claim exemption from the inroads of those who had pledged their blood to satiate their vengeance, or to uphold the cold and selfish policy of the distant monarchs of Europe.

Would you read that book? I’ve tried several times, but always give up after the first couple of pages. When writing, I try to keep my paragraphs at four or five sentences maximum. Cooper’s opening is four sentences, but all are lengthy. The last one is seventy-two words. We don’t need to bore our readers with unnecessary words or long, complicated passages.

J. R. R. Tolkien published The Hobbit in 1937. It’s still one of my favorite books. Let’s take a look at a scene from the first chapter.

“Good Morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green.

But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat. “What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”

“All of them at once,” said Bilbo. “And a very fine morning for a pipe of tobacco out of doors, into the bargain. If you have a pipe about you, sit down and have a fill of mine! There’s no hurry, we have all the day before us!” Then Bilbo sat down on a seat by his door, crossed his legs, and blew out a beautiful grey ring of smoke that sailed up into the air without breaking and floated away over The Hill.

“Very pretty!” said Gandalf. “But I have no time to blow smoke-rings this morning. I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.”

“I should think so—in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them,” said our Mr. Baggins, and stuck one thumb behind his braces, and blew out another even bigger smoke-ring. Then he took out his morning letters, and began to read, pretending to take no more notice of the old man. He had decided that he was not quite his sort, and wanted him to go away.

But the old man did not move. He stood leaning on his stick and gazing at the hobbit without saying anything, till Bilbo got quite uncomfortable and even a little cross. “Good morning!” he said at last. “We don’t want any adventures here, thank you!

The passage held my attention but notice the number of exclamation marks. Tolkien got away with it, but the use of them today is discouraged. I’ve even heard it said never include more than one in a book.

They are looked upon as a sign of weak writing. If you feel you need to use one, examine the passage to see if you can do a better job with description.

Occasional use of exclamation marks, especially in dialogue, is okay, but remember they are often seen as a sign of shouting. You don’t want your characters yelling all the time.

We’ll look at examples from other authors in my next post. In the meantime, what’s your take on these passages? How would you write them differently? Please share in the comments.

52 thoughts on “Changing Literary Styles (Part One)

  1. Pingback: Changing Literary Styles (Part Two) | Story Empire

  2. I love The last of the Mohicans and have read it a few times, Joan. I find it easier to read than a lot of other classics. I also love The Hobbit. You are right the some readers don’t like complexity, but I also think that there is a much wider range of readers now as most people can read as opposed to in the past when reading was the realm of the rich and highly educated. A winder range of readers allows for a wider range of authors and books.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I applaud you for reading Last of the Mohicans. That’s one time I prefer a movie (1993 version) over the book. I also have difficulty with some of the other classics and I know my attention span isn’t what it used to be.

      Good point about there being a wider range of readers these days. And speaking from a reader standpoint, I’m thrilled to have the variety we have available.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a great post, Joan. One book about writing points out how to hook the readers with the first word and first paragraph. It also talks about the POV making the distinction of the narrator/writer’s POV and the character’s POV. Some classic literature has long narrative. Dialogue is recommended in nonfiction such as memoir to make it interesting to the readers.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Literary styles have most certainly changed! And, I agree with you that TV played a big part in that. Earlier this year, I read “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway and I kept thinking, to myself, “When is something going to happen.” But, I kept turning the pages because it was Hemingway he teased me making me think that on the next page something would happen. It’s interesting to see how it’s all evolved. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. LOL. Maybe my attention span HAS shortened, but I read every James Fenimore Cooper book in that series in Middle School. Loved every single one of them. Loved Pride and Prejudice, too, but bought cliff books for Charles Dickens. I barely made it through David Copperfield, then fizzled. No one would buy those today. Not sure I’d read them anymore. Styles have changed a LOT. But I’m still a sucker for densely packed prose and English mysteries and Regencies.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. My grandmother was named after Cora in Last of the Mohicans. I always thought it was a beautiful but mysterious name.

    ANYWAY, to answer your question, I’d whittle down Cooper’s first paragraph to the last sentence and simply change a word or two to orient the reader, something like:

    In North America at that time, there was no recess of the woods so dark, nor any secret place so lovely, that it might claim exemption from the inroads of those who had pledged their blood to satiate the Colonists’ vengeance, or to uphold the cold and selfish policy of the distant monarchs of Europe.

    As for The Hobbit, the dialogue sounds too genteel for a laid back bloke like Bilbo. I’d Huck Finn it up a bit with contractions and slang. I’d probably leave Gandolf’s stilted language alone though, to distinguish his age and wisdom.

    Good post! (I use exclamation points all the time . . . maybe I should cut back.)

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Excellent post, Joan. I really dislike reading writers when they go the exclamation mark route. The mark is very disruptive and doesn’t really serve a purpose after a while. Your two examples ( Tolkien vs. Cooper) made your points pop. Cooper puts me to sleep. (has ever since grade school.) Thanks, Joan

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Reblogged this on The Write Stuff and commented:

    Joan Hall has a very good post on Store Empire today, dealing with current trends in writing styles. It’s interesting and informative, and I highly recommend you check it out. Most writers will want to stay on top of these trends in order to help their books become as popular as possible. Stop by and see what you think, then please consider sharing so others can enjoy this one, too. Thanks, and thanks to Joan for helping us see just how much writing styles have changed over time. 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I agree that writing styles have changed, and that some writers will want to keep up with those changes. But by the same token, I think we have to find our own voice, and it doesn’t always match the latest trends. For me, I was raised reading classic books, and my very favorite books to this day are those with elegant, beautiful descriptions, which are also frowned upon.

    I think being self-published gives us a bit more latitude, though I don’t mean we shouldn’t strive to learn all we can about writing well for today’s market. But sometimes, your target audience isn’t all that trendy or up to the minute. They may prefer a different style of writing. So in addition to finding your own voice, you also might want to consider who you’re writing for. Will my books hit the top best seller lists across the country? No. (For several reasons, I’m sure.) But am I finding an audience that enjoys my style? So far, so good, happily.

    I do try to learn more about the craft all the time, but I am wary of being constricted by some of the newer rules. I will never completely give up adverbs, for instance, and I doubt I will ever write a book without exclamation points, particularly in dialogue. It’s how my characters speak, and while I’m trying to use them more judiciously, giving them up entirely will never likely be a choice I’ll make for my own work.

    I do fully understand these are things most writers will want to do, especially if the trends work with their writing goals. You’ve done a great job of pointing out exactly how it is today, which I think we all need be aware of. After all, nobody wants to sound like Cooper anymore. And I would never argue that trends are wrong, just that they may not be right for all of us. I know at least some of them aren’t right for me, but I still want to know and understand them. That way I can pick and choose which I want to follow and which I want to ignore, possibly at my peril. 😀 Thanks for explaining so well! Good post, and I’m sharing. There will be far more folks taking close note of these than deciding they aren’t for them. Well done, Joan. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • Good points, Marcia. I’m a bit of a rebel, so I’ll do a few things that aren’t the norm. For instance, some people don’t like and won’t read prologues. I say if they’re in a book it’s for a reason.

      Do I use adverbs and exclamation points? Yes but not so much as to distract the reader.

      We absolutely need to find our own voice and our target audience but need to be aware of what’s acceptable to readers.

      Nope would not ever want to write like Cooper.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree with you 100%, Joan. Rebel when it’s important to you, I say, and perhaps not when it really isn’t going to matter. As for prologues and epilogues, I mention my use of them and how much I enjoy reading them in my next SE post. For me, if an author wrote it, they probably had a reason, so I’m going to read it. I almost always find them worth it. Prologues have definitely evolved over the years, though, but mostly in a good way, I think. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      • Hahahaha. Well, even I wouldn’t use as many exclamation points in a book as I use in my texts and posts. I tend to speak in excited exclamations! See? 😀 Like you, not shouting, just excited. About everything! 😀

        Liked by 2 people

  10. I do like dense, lengthy prose (I’m weird), but I found the opening of Cooper’s book very dry. It must be sacrilege to say that, LOL!

    Not only do we write differently today, but we speak differently, too, and I think that has contributed to why reading tastes/style have changed. In Cooper’s time, people spoke more formally. And how about some of the letters they penned? Even the average person could be long-winded and flowery with correspondence. I guess it’s no surprise, writers were more so. That said, I’ve read the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings multiple times, but I don’t think I could read JFC’s classic even once.

    Liked by 2 people

    • My WIP has some scenes dated in the 1880s. I’ve struggled with the dialogue portions not to sound so twenty-first century.

      Like you I’ve read Tolkien’s work several times. Just can’t do Cooper.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. This makes a good point to our followers. Styles change, and we should be a bit malleable to that. I wrote a line in one of mine recently that used an interrobang. It’s a combination of question mark and exclamation point. Think of someone yelling a demanding kind of question. (?!) I’m sure my critique partners will call me out if they hate it.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Both great examples of how literature styles have changed. If I see too many exclamation marks in a row, I have to stop reading. There are lots of better ways to show a character yelling or shouting. I find that after reading so many, the brain stops noticing them as exclamations and thus they lose the power they should have. I once read a book that ended every, and–yes–I mean EVERY, sentence with ! Even the book blurb was full of them. Great post, Joan 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  13. There are some classics I love. Whether because of or in spite of the language, I couldn’t say. But Cooper’s opening is far more tedious than Tolkien’s, which I suspect everyone will say.

    I’m not a fan of a lot of exclamation points, but I think more than one in a book is acceptable. Especially when shouting. And my characters seem to be in situations where they shout. A lot.

    Looking forward to the next part of this post.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’ll use exclamation marks on occasion. And I certainly don’t stick to the one per book rule. Tolkien’s writing is such that it held my attention, exclamation marks or not.

      I can read some classic literature, but some of it bores me. I know I’m probably in the minority, but I can’t read Pride and Prejudice. Probably because I had to read it in school. Skimmed through enough of it to do a book report and swore I’d never open the pages of that book again. I’m not even remotely interested in watching the movies.

      Liked by 2 people

  14. I admit my mind wandered through the first passage. The second one is from one of my favorite books:) Good example of needing to get a readers attention

    Liked by 3 people

    • I loved the 1993 movie, Last of The Mohicans. But I can’t read Cooper. I have a problem with lots of classic literature but I think this one tops the list of most difficult to read. (Or the most boring read.) I still love the Hobbit. And Tolkien’s writing was good enough that I tended to overlook the exclamation marks.

      Liked by 2 people

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