Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The agony of establishing unique house styles

Back when I worked as a journalist [shortly before the dawn of time], newspapers had their own style guide. These were strict rules on how copy should be written by reporters. I spent several years at New Zealand's biggest selling paper, The New Zealand Herald. At the time it had a rigid, conservative style, so a quote might appear something like this: 'The economy continues to struggle,' said the Prime Minister, the Rt. Honorable Sir Robert Muldoon.

Style guides were so important the company that owned the paper even printed them into a little blue book. Each new arrival on the reporting staff got given a copy, and was expected to know and apply it to their work. Took a while, but you got the hang of it eventually. Of course, this was several centuries ago when we wrote our stories on manual typewriters and a fresh sheet of carbon paper was preciously guarded. Like I said, before the dawn of time.

Nevertheless, I always recall that little blue book when I start a new writing project. Finding the house style of a particular script or novel is never easy. Not only do you have to channel your own, unique voice as a writer, you also have to discover the vocabulary that suits your story. I spent all of yesterday writing just a page and a half of script for my BBC Sharps entry. It's not that I don't know what happens in my story, that's all planned.

No, most of the day was spent finding the appropriate prose style for my script. This is a highly visual story, where dialogue takes a back seat. Therefore the prose I chose for my action text is crucial to establishing the mood and propelling the plot. On a punchy, violent story I'll go for terse, crisp words. This story's more lyrical, with splashes of magic realism, so it needs a different style, words and phrases that match the tone and intent of my tale.

Where blazing sunlight might have done the job in another script, here I find myself reaching for warming bolts of afternoon sun. When noises might have deafened or drowned out words, this script features a chaotic symphony of sound and fury. Even though I only wrote a page and half yesterday, I woke up this morning feeling more confident about the day ahead, a new house style within my grasp. If only the story came with its own little blue book.

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