Friday, February 3, 2017

“You Did What?” – Strange Choices Made Right

We’ve all read that one book that has weird things in it.
I’m not talking about some horror book or science fiction short story, I’m talking about weird stuff. Lemony Snicket having two pages in his book that are just black, or a page filled with “ever”s.
Or Maggie Stiefvater writing the occasional one-word paragraph without punctuation, or having a chapter that’s just one word.

I’m talking about weird choices in style or format or structure.

Weird things.
WeIrD tHiNgS

Yeah those things.
I’ve written books with potentially “weird” things in them, characters with strange thought processes that come out as interesting stylistic choices. I’m sure you have, too.
When do those things work, and when do they not?

Picking Weird by Genre

One of the most important things about strange choices is making choices that will still appeal to your target audience. If you’re writing an old west romance, you’re not going to be able to get away with a page of “ever”s. If you’re writing a contemporary supernatural fiction targeted at teens, you’re much more likely to be able to get away with things like no punctuation, single sentence chapters, and so forth.

There’s something interesting about making weird, abnormal choices: there’s literally no rules. In fact, making those choices means that you’re breaking rules more often than not. It’s saying “hey let’s do this thing that’s not usually acceptable in the English language and in the general sense of story and see who it goes”.
At the same time, however, there also comes a time when those weird choices become too weird. When the audience goes “what the heck are they doing here this isn’t right at all stop please stop”.
When are those times?
The thing is, there’s no solid line for it. No one actually knows when that line is crossed, or where. It’s a wavy line, in many respects, and each rise and fall of the wave represents a different target audience, a different genre, or even individual people.
Therefore, I can only provide a few general tips on which types of choices to make at any given time. And a few tips on how to do it well.

Formatting 101

What’s weird formatting?
Well, it’s anything that’s got to do with things like
Chapter length
Chapter headings
And more

Hey look an example of several of those things.
In general, you shouldn’t mess with capitalization and punctuation. Your editor will scream at you, or at least they’ll want to. At the same time, however, it can also be used to great power and emotional creation if done right, toward the right audience. I already pulled out Maggie Stiefvater as an example, and here’s why: in The Raven Boys Cycle, she often does… weird things. She leaves off a period, “forgets” to capitalize something, randomly indents a word or three a little too far, or has them justified completely to the right.
For dramatic effect and emotional stirring.
It’s not done so the reader can say “well that’s weird, I like it”. No, it’s because a missing period indicates something. It creates a sound of panic, dread, and unfinished thoughts in your head.

I recommend never messing with those types of things if you’re targeting certain audiences. If you’re writing toward an older people group or toward a very young people group, it’s going to make them disgruntled or confused.
They like what they like, or they haven’t learned the rules well enough to understand why they’re being broken. It’s why The Raven Boys Cycle works so well. It’s targeted at a younger group of people who are still old enough to pick up on the nuances of broken rules without being perturbed by them being broken.

What about the other things on that list?
Chapter length and chapter heading really depend on your genre more than anything else.
High fantasy, for instance, usually have interesting chapter headings, whereas some older historical fiction doesn’t even have chapters. Some contemporary or supernatural fiction will have extremely short chapters (and sometimes, for emphasis, chapters that are literally two sentences or less), whereas historical fiction or science fiction can have very long chapters.

While these are general rules of thumb, here’s something to know: you can always experiment with these. Someone’s probably already done it, and you can always try. If it gets shot down, well fine. Maybe it’s not time for that choice in that genre yet. It’ll come someday.

Style 101

While one might consider all of these things “stylistic choices”, I wanted to highlight this one as a separate section for this one reason: you can make interesting style choices that are separate from formatting and character voice (which I’ll get to in a moment).
For instance, one of the most common “weird” style choices is word choice. Choosing words that no one else would usually choose. One instance might be the use of archaic words in a contemporary genre where those types of words aren’t usually utilized. Most contemporary novels use rather plain words, simple words, words that flow and give off a relaxed vibe.
But… what if you suddenly threw your readers for a loop and gave them the word “petrichor” or “balder” or “esoteric”?
Would they put the book down?
No, probably not.
Will they be confused?
Is it worth it?
Depends on what you do with it. After all, if you just continually use the word in random contexts without ever showing what it means, then your reader will be confused.
However, you can use interesting and odd words to great affect when you also show what they mean. The same follows for any odd style choices you may make.

Character Voice 101

I wanted to save this for last because it’s the most difficult to describe and advise on, as well as the most difficult to pull off.
Basically, it’s this: using a character’s voice to change the format and the style. It’s getting so deep into the mind of a character that the narrative molds to its every form – even the odd forms.
This is so incredibly hard to describe, so I’m just going to give you two examples: the first is that of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These two books have incredibly intricate and detailed voice, which come from both author and character. As they twine together, they form what most would consider an odd and risky choice: there’s a lot of odd grammar and spelling choices as well as interesting descriptions and dialogue that might be considered “bad”.

The second example I’d like to give is from my own work, Agram Awakens. This character – named Denlun – is an odd fellow who is a “crossbreed”. He’s got some interesting physical problems, as well as mental issues.
The strange character choices I make with him are threefold: one, he has this repeated “thought” in the form of two words which are repeated every few paragraphs. They’re a form of mental state, showing constantly his state of mind. Two, he picks out weird details (part of the way his brain works) and lingers on them, often in a strangely philosophical way.
And finally, he’s just… odd. His body doesn’t work the way ours does and he tends to focus on things that the reader doesn’t know if they actually care about.

Overall, the idea of weird choices is a good one. It can make you stand apart, and make your book shine in a new and unexpected way. Pulling off those good choices, however, can be a challenge.
Do you choose to accept that challenge?


  1. Weird stuff is... weird. Honestly, I've never read anything with a two sentence chapter (interesting idea though.) It is hard to choose weird stuff and make it work, but it can be so worth it. Maybe I should take a swing at it. Thanks for posting!

    1. I've only read one or two things with that short of a chapter (actually, one of those things had a single-word chapter...), but it's such an interesting idea.

      Do take a swing at it, I feel like you'd be good at it. ;)