Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

I'm told my stories sound too formal, but I'm following rules and advice I've learned over years of literature classes. What am I doing wrong?

An analysis of the symbols in Flannery O'Connor's short stories is a very different kind of writing than what's found in her fiction. Both academic writing and fiction demand a high level of precision and clarity, but the voice you use to achieve those qualities is different. In academic writing, you often write more formally, taking the first person “I" out of the analysis and avoiding contractions and colloquialisms. On the other hand, the voice you use in fiction will depend upon who is telling the story.

In Lou Mathew's short story “Crazy Life," Dulcie has to go through security when visiting her boyfriend in jail. Her voice is casual:

She checks me out and then pats me down. Then she starts poking in my hair. They always do that. Some pachuca thirty years ago supposedly had a razor blade in her beehive and they're still excited about it. They never do it to any Anglo chicks.

A classics teacher at a prestigious boy's school will sound more formal, as the narrator of Ethan Canin's “The Palace Thief" does:

I gave service there to the minds of three generations of boys and always left upon them, if I was successful, the delicate imprint of their culture. I battled their indolence with discipline, their boorishness with philosophy, and the arrogance of their stations with the history of great men before them.

Third person narratives also sound different. Some are very casual, like Thom Jones' short story “I Want to Live!" A woman reacts to her diagnosis of cancer:

What was he saying? Breast and uterus? Double trouble! She knew it would be the uterus. There had been the discharge. The bloating, the cramps. The fatigue. But it was common and easily curable provided you got it at stage one. Eighty percent cure. But the breast—that one came out of the blue and that could be really tricky—that was fifty-fifty.

Some are more formal, like Charles Baxter's “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb." Here, Harry finds a piece of paper scrawled with that very phrase:

In the parking lot next to the bank, Harry Edmonds saw a piece of gray scrap paper the size of a greeting card. It had blown up next to his leg and attached itself to him there. Across the top margin was some scrabby writing in purple ink.

It may take some practice to loosen up from that formal voice and follow the demands of your specific story. But once you do, you're bound to find that the possibilities are rich and exciting.