Changing Literary Styles (Part Two)

Hey, SE Readers. Happy Friday. Joan with you today with the second in a two-part series on changing literary styles.

In the first post, I used examples from James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans and Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Today we’ll look at two of my favorite authors.

I first read Agatha Christie in high school. Her Hercule Poirot stories are among my favorites, particularly Murder on The Orient Express. She was a master at writing intriguing plots, throwing in enough twists to keep readers guessing until the end.

I recently read, And Then There Were None for the first time. Initially published in 1939, it’s the world’s best-selling mystery, having sold over 100 million copies, and is one of the all time best-selling books among all genres.

As I started to read, I realized how much writing styles have changed.

The driver said, addressing his remarks to Mr. Justice Wargrave as the senior member of the party: “There are two taxis here, sir. One of them must wait till the slow train from Exeter gets in—a matter of five minutes—there’s one gentleman coming by that. Perhaps one of you wouldn’t mind waiting? You’d be more comfortable that way.”

Vera Claythorne, her own secretarial position clear in her mind, spoke at once. “I’ll wait,” she said, “if you will go on?” She looked at the other three, her glance and voice had that slight suggestion of command in it that comes from having occupied a position of authority. She might have been directing which tennis sets the girls were to play in.

Miss Brent said stiffly, “Thank you,” bent her head and entered one of the taxis, the door of which the driver was holding open.

Mr. Justice Wargrave followed her.

Captain Lombard said: “I’ll wait with Miss—”

“Claythorne,” said Vera.

“My name is Lombard, Philip Lombard.”

The porters were piling luggage on the taxi. Inside, Mr. Justice Wargrave said with due legal caution: “Beautiful weather we are having.”

Miss Brent said: “Yes, indeed.” A very distinguished old gentleman, she thought to herself. Quite unlike the usual type of man in seaside guest houses. Evidently Mrs. or Miss Oliver had good connections….

Notice the inconsistent way of punctuation when using the dialogue tag—sometimes with a comma, other times a colon. It’s important to note that the overuse of colons and semi-colons is frowned upon in fiction these days. Too many of them stand out to the reader and pull them away from the story.

Watch for the number of times you use, “he said” or “she said.” Interspersing dialogue beats with dialogue tags keeps the story flowing and also shows action.

I also found it challenging to determine which one was the point of view character. I finally decided it was Miss Brent’s, but I also considered she used third person omniscient. Only the most skilled writer can successfully pull off the use of omniscient POV without appearing to head-hop, but that’s another topic.

Mary Higgins-Clark is just about my all-time favorite author. With fifty-one books, all New York Times bestsellers, she was known as America’s Queen of Suspense.

Late last year, I reread Moonlight Becomes You. Published in 1996, it’s still a favorite of mine. The following is the opening paragraph from the first chapter.

I hate cocktail parties, Maggie thought wryly, wondering why she always felt like an alien when she attended one. Actually I’m being too harsh, she thought. The truth is I hate cocktail parties where the only person I know is my supposed date, and he abandons me the minute we come in the door.

The first thing that struck me was the use of adverbs. There’s nothing wrong with the paragraph, but today an author would be encouraged to show Maggie’s emotion. Have her smirk, roll her eyes, or even tap her foot. Any of these actions would indicate her displeasure over the situation.

I’m not saying you should never use an adverb, but strive to show your readers rather than bore them with unnecessary telling.

As a reader, what’s your take on these passages? As a writer, would you do it differently?

61 thoughts on “Changing Literary Styles (Part Two)

  1. Pingback: Using Omniscient Point of View | Story Empire

  2. Very interesting post, Joan. The only really ‘old’ book I’ve read that stands out for its different language is The Hobbit (and LoTR). It’s very interesting seeing how things change and evolve over time.

    Your comment “Only the most skilled writer can successfully pull off the use of omniscient POV without appearing to head-hop, but that’s another topic.” really intrigued me. I have long struggled to understand how “omniscient POV” actually differs from “third person limited POV with heaps of head-hopping”. Can there truly be omniscient POV, or it it a case of multiple POVs with lots of head-hopping? I do hope you do a post on this – I’d love your take.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sorry I’m late. I’ve read both of these books within the last two years and was surprised by the writing styles in both. I enjoyed them both, but honestly, not as much as current fiction. I’ll probably get up virtually beaten up for saying this, but I saw so many glaring issues in And Then There Were None if I’m judging by today’s standards of writing (some of which I think are too rigid (one in particular which I need to do an SE post about). Anyhoo, I was shocked. Especially with the heading hopping.

    Then I read the Mary Higgins Clark book, and again found it paled by today’s writing standards. I know times have changed, and there is no doubt in my mind that both of these women would have surpassed the rule thresholds today had they been held to it in their eras, but it’s mind boggling to think that fiction–that was once judged as paramount in its day–would fall short if judged against the current parameters. Amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mae, I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who noticed the head-hopping. Omniscient point of view is hard to pull off and this one didn’t succeed. (Not sure she even tried.) Both authors were tops in their genres for their time. I believe both would have conformed (for lack of a better word) to today’s standards. Moonlight Becomes You was an easier read but still so much has changed since the 1990s.

      I agree that some writing standards are too rigid and I would love to read what you have to say about them.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You know, Joan, this takes me back to my original and on-going stance on writing. You can learn to write well but that is only helpful if the story line is strong and appealing. If the story line is original and catches readers attention, the writing doesn’t have to be perfect. Most readers don’t pick books apart over writing styles like authors and writers do. They just enjoy a good story or not. I am not meaning to understand the usefulness of a good writing style, I am just highlighting the fact that it is still all about the story in the end.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Aah, your part two is here, Joan. Thank you for sharing about the punctuation when using the dialogue tag. When I studied about writing, there was a two-page on the rules with examples. I follow them closely. The POV is another style I learned to refine. Thank you for this article, Joan!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I confess to not having read either of these books. From reading the passages, though, I can see how we have evolved in our writing approach. That said, when I read, I’m typically focused on the writer. I want to know him or her, I want to understand why he/she wrote the book. The story is often less important to me than the person who wrote it. I’m intrigued by individual differences, by what defines the writer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting, Gwen. I hadn’t thought of looking at a book that way. For my own books, I’ve used personal experiences and real-life events into the story. I suspect a lot of writers do the same thing, as well as allowing things they are passionate about shine through.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I very much agree, and it is those aspects of our lives that enrich our books and add depth. Irrespective of the genre, writers give voice to life’s questions and sometimes suggest answers. It’s quite a journey, isn’t it?

        Liked by 1 person

  7. There is no question that writing styles have changed greatly. The Mary Higgins Clark excerpt is riddled with what I call “Filter Words” – felt, wondered, etc. Those are a big no-no these days. I would say those writers would have a difficult time getting published in today’s times. Great post, Joan!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I think that if you are writing in first person, you can use adverbs a little more loosely, especially if you are “speaking” to the reader. I don’t have an issue with well-placed adverbs. It gets tiring to read (and write) that a character sighed or rolled his eyes, etc. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. When I was at school (in the UK) we were drilled in the use of adjectives and adverbs and expected to use them as much as possible to indicate how good we were at writing. These were, of course, the days when smoking cigarettes was considered stylish, foreign vegetables like red peppers viewed with suspicion and women knew their place. The overuse of adverbs today can break the spell a book was weaving and, in some instances, irritate me to the point of abandoning the tale. I found these excerpts fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. These were two terrific examples of changing styles. That Taxi scene was confusing for me. I use italics for internal thought and an absence of dialog tags when I can get away with it. I think tags get in the way and are only needed if there is no other way to clarify who is talking. Well done, Joan

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Styles change, but good writing is still good writing and tells a good story. It would take me a while to get into some of the old books, but after I did, I’d still enjoy them. That being said, no editor would buy a book written that way today. Good examples.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’ve always been a fan of Agatha Christie as well. I’ve never read Mary Higgins Clark and I’ve never really paid much attention just seeing how writing styles were changing. Your examples do illustrate it well. When it comes to internal dialogue and thoughts, I tend to use italics to set it apart.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Such clarity in those two examples. I can’t imagine writing in the first style. Not even the second. When you’re in deep POV, if someone thinks something, we know who thinks it without being told. She used the “thought” tag twice in the opening paragraph.

    Kind of makes you wonder what future writing styles will look like, doesn’t it? Great post, Joan.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Reblogged this on The Write Stuff and commented:

    Check out Joan Hall’s “Changing Literary Styles Part 2” on Story Empire today. Interesting examples of past works by two of her favorite authors will show you just how differently various writing aspects used to be handled. The times, they are a-changing, and these are some of the things we should all be aware of. As usual, I hope you’ll consider sharing this post on your favorite social media so others can enjoy it and learn from it, as well. Thanks, and thanks to Joan for another job well done! Great post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Interesting post, Joan. I was never a fan of Agatha Christie, though I admire her success greatly, so for me, the entire opening sequence was pretty boring. And the dialogue tags made it more so. But I thought this years ago, before I had started to learn about such things in any detail, so I’m not a fair judge. Her writing style just never pulled me in like many writers from yesteryear did. (As always, I think of Daphne du Maurier, my favorite of all time. Her books are dated, too, but she still captures my heart with her words.)

    I’ve read several of Mary Higgins-Clark’s works over the years and remember enjoying them a lot more, though the passage you quote here doesn’t do it at all for me. Internal dialogue is tricky, for sure. At first, I used Italics, too, and definitely prefer that to the “I thought” tag. After a book or two, I started letting the internal dialogue speak for itself, by making it obvious it isn’t being said aloud. I found a lot of authors I enjoy do it that way, and I’m working on getting better at it. Of course, the reader has to know whose head they’re in for it to work, but mostly, it’s my preferred method now. Having said that, it’s still tricky to do well, no matter which method you use, but even though I don’t mind some carry-overs from past trends, generally speaking, a tag for internal dialogue is one I don’t think I’d ever use.

    Good post today! Makes me want to work even harder on some of these things, for sure! Just because I’m dated doesn’t mean my writing has to be. 😀 Thanks, Joan!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I loved Mary Higgins Clark. Never noticed things like this until I started writing. Agatha wrote some much better books. I read all of this one. Despite that confusing passage, I wanted to keep reading. And in true Agatha fashion, she kept me guessing as to the murderer’s identity.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I know she’s considered the Queen of Mysteries, for sure, and I honestly suspect the reason I never got into Agatha’s work is simply because I’ve never been a big fan of straight-up mysteries, per se. I enjoy my mysteries more when they are part of a larger or broader tale, I think. But obviously, anyone who achieved the kind of status as Agatha Christie has done something very, very right. 😀 One of these days, I may just have to give her another go. I’ve learned that whether or not a book resonates with me is often impacted by where I am in my own head at any given moment. Sometimes I give them another chance and find myself carried away. 😀 Your examples really brought home your points about writing styles changing, though. Excellent post! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • I would recommend Murder on The Orient Express. The 1974 movie was great and closely followed the book. Don’t bother with the 2017 remake. Except for Johnny Depp’s performance it was horrible. But I prefer mystery/suspense. Much like Mary Higgins Clark.

        Liked by 1 person

  16. I wouldn’t write in either manner because I’ve been absorbing online advice like a sponge (and trotting it out to my writing group) since I started writing…
    But I firmly believe that a good story can overcome most writing styles. Only editors and other writers notice how the story is written.
    Look at Tolkein’s impenetrable prose. It sent me to sleep often, but I still read it all through three times (I’m referring to Lord of the Rings, of course. I read The Hobbit first, and have always preferred it; Gollum was the stuff of my nightmares. I don’t think I have the patience to read it now – and at 70, life’s too short.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m not sure I could read Lord of the Rings these days. The movies are pretty close, so I’ll stick with those. I did read The Hobbit again a few years ago, but it’s a much easier read. (That movie sucked.) I agree a good story can overcome many flaws and unorthodox writing styles.

      As writers, we need to develop our own voice and it sounds like that’s what you’re doing. Thanks for stopping by today, Cathy.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Boy has writing changed! A bit that stuck out for me was ‘she thought to herself’ … this always has me rolling my eyes because who else can you think to but yourself? Unless it’s story about mind readers, lols. Great post and good points, Joan 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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