Reflections on Teaching Style in Short Stories

PALS Note: We are kicking off the new year with a guest post from Larry S. Su, who is a professor of English at the City Colleges of Chicago. Su shares his approach to bringing students’ attention to style in fiction with William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” as an example.

When discussing a short story, students usually understand the literary elements such as conflicts, characters, setting, point of view, theme, and style. Often style comes last on the list, and when it finally gets its turn for discussion, the class is almost approaching its end, leaving little or almost no time to analyze the author’s use of language, thus leading to students’ neglect or ignorance in this very important aspect of the story. However, style is an integral part of the story. Without a good understanding of it, students’ understanding of the story’s other elements is hampered. In this short essay, I’d like to share some of my experiences in teaching style in short stories.

Style is often described as the author’s characteristic way of using language to create literature. It is the writer’s habitual use of certain rhetorical patterns, including sentence length and complexity, word choice and placement, and punctuation. The definition does not sound complex; however, it is not easy to do an analysis of style in a story. Other than the lack of time as mentioned above, there are three other reasons why style is often under-discussed. The first is students’ lack of interest. To discuss style is not as interesting as discussing the story’s conflicts, characters or themes. It seems that students are always invested more in discovering and debating what happens in the story, how the characters engage in conflicts, and what the story tells them, than in discussing how the author puts words and sentences into best use for thematic and stylistic effects. Second, as native speakers, students often take language for granted. They often do not pay much attention to how literary language is different from the colloquial language. Even if they notice some differences, they often gloss them over. Third and the most important, students do not have the terms or vocabulary to discuss style. The limited knowledge they have about grammar and punctuation is not enough to help them appreciate the author’s literary language and be able to discuss its effectiveness and creativity.


Look at an episode from William Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning”:

The nights were still cool and they had a fire against it, a rail lifted from a nearly fence and cut into lengths—a small fire, neat, niggard almost, a shrewd fire; such fires were his father’s habit and custom always, even in freezing weather. Older, the boy might have remarked this and wondered why not a big one; why should not a man who had not only seen the waste and extravagance of war, but who had in his blood an inherent voracious prodigality with material not his own, have burned everything in sight? Then he might have gone a step farther and thought that that was the reason: that niggard blaze was the living fruit of the nights passed during those four years in the woods hiding from all men, blue and gray, with his strings of horses (captured horses, he called them). And older still, he might have divined the true reason: that the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father’s being, as the element of steel or powder spoke to other men, as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth the breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion. (239)

Here is how I draw students’ attention to the passage’s stylistic features: This passage has both the boy’s observations and reflections. While the observations are from the boy’s perspective, the reflections are from the point of view of a much older Sartoris who is sophisticated enough years later to interpret his father’s proclivity for fire. The majority of the passage is on the older Sartoris’s meditation on his father’s addiction to burning other people’s properties. To accommodate such a perception, the words are formal and in places abstract and philosophical. For example, the fire is described as “neat,” “niggard,” and “shrewd”; the fires are his father’s “habit and custom always”; in his father’s blood there is an “inherent voracious prodigality with material not his own”; the fire is the “living fruit of nights” to help his father to pass the four years of the Civil War; the fire speaks to “some deep mainspring of his father’s being…the one weapon for the preservation of integrity.” Such words, chosen with precision, aim to explain why fire is important to his father’s being and how he develops that character in his life. In other words, the fire is in his genes. He lives by it and will perish by it. Notice the elevated status of words like “inherent voracious prodigality,” “divined,” “being,” and “integrity” and how they help to capture his philosophy of life and his practice of it.

Syntactically, the sentences are long and complex with many clauses and phrases as modifiers, showing again Faulkner’s effort to use as accurate words and appropriate syntax as possible to reveal the father to readers. The passage uses three subjunctive clauses in a row: “The boy might have remarked,” “he might have gone a step farther,” and “he might have divined the real reason” to show discrepancy between Sartoris’s current status of mind and his future mental capability. Namely, as it stands now, Sartoris, young as he is, is not able to understand his father’s behavior, but when he is an adult, he will be able to make the connections and understand his father’s real motive for burning barns. This cluster of subjunctives shows in gradation Sartoris’s growth of intelligence and his final understanding of his father. Through his older and mature eyes, the readers can also gain understanding of his father’s complexity. This is Faulkner’s masterful use of style in action. Commenting on the mixed consciousness of the two narrators, James Ferguson writes, “The tensions between the awareness of the boy and the information supplied by the authorial voice undergird and emphasize the conflicts between youth and age, innocence and sophistication, intuition and abstraction, decency and corruption, all of which lie at the core of the work” (96). Thus the two perceptions and styles complement and enrich each other, helping readers to gain a deep insight into his father’s psyche.

Faulkner also uses several figures of speech in the passage. For example, he personifies the fire as “neat, niggard, and shrewd,” a characteristic similar to that of his father who, before he commits his last burning, is “still in the hat and coat, at once formal and burlesque as though dressed carefully for some shabby and ceremonial violence” (249). Faulkner also uses several similes and metaphors to compare Abner’s desire for burning as “the living fruit of nights…the deep mainspring of his father’s being…as the element of steel and powder…as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity.” Such similes and metaphors make specific and understandable the abstract qualities of Abner. The images of living fruit, mainspring, steel, powder and weapon get deep into his father’s psyche: His strength, pride, resilience, and power. The passage as a whole stands out as a testimony of not only Abner’s multidimensional and complex personality but also Faulkner’s masterful command of style to bring Abner vividly to readers.

The detailed analyses I outlined above should be practiced in the beginning weeks of the semester so that students know how to conduct a stylistic analysis. Here I offer five suggestions:

First, read it aloud: Short stories are written not just to be read silently; they should also be read aloud so that readers can better appreciate the author’s use of syntax, rhythm, rhyme, tone, and irony.

Second, instructor-led discussion is very important: As has been mentioned before, students often lack experience and practice in discussing style of a particular story; therefore, it is important for the instructor to demonstrate by many examples how to conduct a stylistic analysis of a short story, how to select certain sections of the story for a close analysis of its diction, syntax, and use of the figures of speech. Such discussion and practice should be conducted daily in the discussion of the story. Or at least the instructor should lead students 3-4 times so that they eventually know the steps and can do the analysis themselves.

Third, analyze the style of a particular work: Choose a story that you particularly like and analyze its choice of words, its use of sentences—length, variety, complexity, simple, compound, complex — and the creative use of language such as simile, metaphor, personification, symbol, etc. Discuss how style is an integral part of the story and helps readers understand the story as a whole. Such exercises seem to take students away from the heated discussions on the conflicts, characters, and themes; students might show lack of interest in the beginning, but they really call students’ attention to the author’s style, and once they understand its importance and master the skills to do stylistic analysis, they actually enjoy it.

Fourth, assign compare and contrast exercises on style. Choose two writers that are similar or different in style. Stand them side by side and make a chart of their similarities and/or differences in word choice, syntax, and creative use of language. Suggested writers of similar writing styles can include Anton Chekhov, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, or Carver; writers who focus on the exploration of characters’ inner worlds can include Nathaniel Hawthorne, Willa Cather, and Faulkner. Writers who push language to its limits and exploit its liberty and creativity can include Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison. Writers with contrasting styles can include Faulkner and Hemingway.

Fifth, use creative writing exercises to practice style: Either imitate the style of a particular writer or design assignments that give students opportunities to practice style. For instance, “Barn Burning” is mostly told from Sartoris’s point of view. How about narrating it from the father’s point of view? What kind of sensibility, diction, syntax, or tone should be used? The same can be done with “A Small, Good Thing.” What if it is told from a third person omniscient point of view when the narrator is given the privilege to get into the emotions of the couple and is able to describe in explicit details their devastation and loss? Or design a creative writing assignment to ask students to describe a college campus as seen through the eyes of three new campus community members from different groups. Use words and sentences that are appropriate to their educational levels and range of life experiences.

Contributor Bio:
photo-4Larry S. Su, PhD, is professor of English at the City Colleges of Chicago teaching American literature and composition. The literature courses he has taught include Survey of American Literature, Appreciation of Novels in English, Early 20th Century American Literature, Contemporary American Literature, and Introduction to Literature. He has published seven academic articles, two book reviews, and over a dozen essays.


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