Definition of Style

In literature, style comprises many literary devices that an author employs to create a distinct feel for a work. These devices include, but are not limited to, point of view, symbolism, tone, imagery, diction, voice, syntax, and the method of narration. Style is a fundamental aspect of fiction, as it is naturally part of every work of prose written. Some types of writing are required to have a certain style, such as academic or journalistic writing. However, every work of creative writing takes on its own style.

Common Examples of Style

Orators are often noted for the unique style in which they speak. One of the most famous speeches of all time, Martin Luther King Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech, was written beforehand. Yet the most famous part of the speech—the repetition of “I have a dream”—was actually not part of the planned script and was instead Martin Luther King Jr. speaking extemporaneously in a style similar to that of a preacher. Here are some excerpts of famous speeches that have distinct styles of their own:

  • “We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…”—Winston Churchill
  • “I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.”—Wiliam Faulkner
  • “I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”—Martin Luther King Jr.
  • “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”—John F. Kennedy

Significance of Style in Literature

As stated above, the definition of style is such that it occurs in every work of prose ever written. It is sometimes used to talk about poetry and drama as well, though it’s more commonly discussed when analyzing works of fiction. Authors make thousands of choices when writing a work of fiction, and even the very smallest choices, such as choosing to include or exclude conjunctions affect the style of a work. Style choices also include the prevalence or absence of metaphor, repetition, foreshadowing, irony, and so on. Choosing between a character driven novel and a plot driven novel is also part of an author’s style.

Authors are often known for their distinct styles, such as the direct and simple style of Ernest Hemingway or the stream of consciousness that Virginia Woolf used. There are also authors such as James Joyce whose style varies widely from work to the next. For example, Joyce’s collection of short stories Dubliners is written in a fairly straightforward manner, especially when compared with the nearly impenetrable Finnegan’s Wake. An author’s style can also vary widely based on genre. For example, the style of a thriller will be very different from a fantasy novel written for young adults. Style dramatically alters the reading experience for the audience.

Examples of Style in Literature

Example #1

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland.

(“The Dead” from Dubliners by James Joyce)

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

(Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce)

In these two contrasting examples of style, we can see a great leap from James Joyce’s earlier works to his later works. His writing style in Dubliners is descriptive yet quite direct. However, in Finnegan’s Wake, Joyce’s writing is almost unintelligible. This line is the first in the novel—note that it doesn’t even start with a capital letter—and already Joyce has used several barely understandable words.

Example #2

In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.

(“Shooting an Elephant” from Facing Unpleasant Facts by George Orwell)

Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.

(1984 by George Orwell)

Here is another set of styles from the same author. George Orwell wrote many essays about his experiences, and uses a very drily witty style. However, when writing perhaps his most famous work of fiction Orwell is decidedly not witty and instead writes in a very cold and blunt style.

Example #3

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

(Emma by Jane Austen)

Jane Austen was noted for her novels dealing with manner and class. This style example comes from the opening description of the eponymous Emma, and shows Austen’s interest in social standing.

Example #4

He was completely integrated now and he took a good long look at everything. Then he looked up at the sky. There were big white clouds in it. He touched the palm of his hand against the pine needles where he lay and he touched the bark of the pine trunk that he lay behind.

(For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway)

Ernest Hemingway was particularly famous for his straightforward style. In this passage from the end of For Whom the Bell Tolls, we see hardly any adjectives even though it is a descriptive excerpt. Hemingway’s style was to describe scenery only in the briefest way and without any unnecessary adornment.

Example #5

Her sandals revealed an ankle bracelet and toenails painted vermilion. The sight of these nails gave Briony a constricting sensation around her sternum, and she knew at once that she could not ask Lola to play the Prince.

(Atonement by Ian McEwan)

Contemporary writer Ian McEwan is known for his psychologically astute and highly detailed style. In this example of style, we see the narrator Briony assessing another character in such detail that she makes judgments and decisions based on these miniscule details. Often the details are what end up changing the course of events drastically in McEwan’s works.

Test Your Knowledge of Style

1. Choose the correct style definition from the following statements: 
A. A rarely used literary device that does not make much of a difference in a work of literature.
B. A fundamental aspect of works of prose that envelopes the usage of many different literary devices, such as voice, tone, and imagery, and syntax.
C. A literary device that is only used in poetry and that refers to the aspects of the poem that make it universal.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Consider the following excerpt from a work of fiction by James Joyce:

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love.

Based on the styles of his works in Example #1 above, would you guess that this excerpt comes from Joyce’s collection Dubliners or from his novel Finnegan’s Wake?
A. Dubliners
B. Finnegan’s Wake
C. It is impossible to tell, as Joyce’s style is so similar in the two works
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]Answer: A is the correct answer. The style in this story, from Joyce’s collection Dubliners is very direct and easily understandable, unlike Joyce’s style in Finnegan’s Wake.[/spoiler]

3. Consider the following excerpt from a novel:

This is the pre-verbal language that linguists call Mentalese. Hardly a language, more a matrix of shifting patterns, consolidating and compressing meaning in fractions of a second, and blending it inseparably with its distinctive emotional hue. … So that when a flash of red streaks in across his left peripheral vision … it already has the quality of an idea … unexpected and dangerous, but entirely his, and not of the world beyond himself.

Based on the above examples of style, which author do you think wrote this passage?
A. Ernest Hemingway
B. Jane Austen
C. Ian McEwan
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]Answer: C is the correct answer. This passage is from McEwan’s novel Saturday and exhibits the same level of psychological depth and detail as Example #5 above.[/spoiler]