Unfortunately, a more typical title might be “Form versus Content.” How often teachers and critiquers isolate these components, as in “You have a beautiful voice, but I can’t relate to any of your characters,” or “An outstanding plot, but your sentences are wordy and clumsy.”
Of course there’s some truth in “Sounds good, but what does it mean?” Or “I wish your vocabulary matched the appealing plot twists you offer.”
So to a certain extent, everyone knows what everyone means by dividing fiction into what you say versus how you say it. But pause to reflect on novels you love, the ones you’d reread over and over if you had all the time in the world. Would you really separate what happens from how a talented author captures it? Aren’t form and content interwoven?
Unless an author consistently provides both, one senses something missing, no matter how powerful the voice or plot. To illustrate, most people enjoy gazing at bodies of water, just as those people enjoy light wherever it appears. But the synthesis of light shining on water grips more intensely than water or light alone.
Add two powerful elements, and the whole becomes far more than the sum of its parts. In We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes James Baldwin’s prose this way:
Baldwin’s beauty—like all real beauty—is not style apart from substance but indivisible from it. It is not the icing on the cake but the eggs within it, giving it texture, color and shape.And here are two examples of that beauty:
Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.
Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
If language and idea are inseparable, where would you start synthesizing?
~ Probe your novel’s structure deeply.
The more familiar with your plot and characters then the more nuanced both become.
~ Don’t get stuck in synonyms.
Sure it’s fun to substitute “crimson” for “scarlet.” But maybe a more useful task is finding the perfect word to transport readers where you want them to go.
~ Visualize the scene.
Incorporate your other four senses, as well. You’ll not only write a better scene but discover the words to convey it.
~ Fix every mediocre sentence.
Whenever you revise the words, you’re not just smoothing but envisioning more deeply.
Tip: Use style to enrich content—and vice versa.