Not big words, but the right words
I once had a reviewer compare my style of writing in my novel In The Sticks to Dashiell Hammett’s writing style in The Maltese Falcon. Although I was flattered by the compliment, it seemed ludicrous since I had done everything I could to write the book with no discernible style. William Faulkner once said of Ernest Hemingway, “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” Hemingway’s response: “Poor Faulkner, does he really think that big emotions come from big words. He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler words, and those are the ones I use.”
Faulkner and Hemingway had two very different writing styles. Faulkner was a true wordsmith, very stylistic. I can still quote passages from his writings that I read in college. The words flowed together until it seemed like poetic prose (and the word alluvial did send me to the dictionary.) Hemingway’s style, on the other hand, is often defined as the complete absence of style, simple, basic, unemotional. Today’s writers follow Hemingway far more than Faulkner, because today’s readers demand it. A writer can no longer spend a page describing a character.
In The Maltese Falcon, Hammett spends a paragraph describing an ashtray. It is wonderfully done, but the modern reader is used to having things happen fast. Movies and television move along at an incredible pace. The reader wants the story to keep going, especially in mysteries. Although a brilliant writer, Dashiell Hammett’s long descriptions make his readers constantly aware that they are reading a story. Modern mystery readers want to be lost in the story–be part of the story. This calls for tight writing. Every adjective, every noun and every verb has to be chosen carefully. Instead of a page or even a paragraph to describe something or someone, the writer has a sentence or two. This calls for roughing out the description and giving the reader an emotional clue to ignite their imaginations. To paraphrase Hemingway, writing is not about big words and sentences; it is about the right words and sentences.