bookmark_borderExercises in Style

I started an exercise similar to Raymond Queneau’s “Exercises de Style” but much simpler, taken from John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers“.

“Take a simple event: A man gets off a bus, trips, looks around in embarrassment, and sees a woman smiling. (Compare Raymond Queneau, Exercises de Style.) Describe the event, using the same characters and elements of setting, in five completely different ways (changes of style, tone, sentence structure, voice, psychic distance, etc.) Make sure the styles are radically different, otherwise, the exercise is wasted.”

To this I added the condition that any element I define has to be true or possible in any variation so that the reality remains consistent; I can’t introduce a unicorn to write one fantasy story because that unicorn will exist in all versions.

The first was a basic depiction followed by ones playing with POV because these are the easiest way to explore backstory and to understand the two characters. After six variations I had established:

  • The bus and sidewalk are nearly empty
  • It is mid afternoon in June.
  • The weather is moderate.


The man is in his twenties,

  • wears a suit,
  • is nervous and distracted
  • is on his way to a job interview.

The woman is in her twenties,

  • has just purchased a new pair of shoes
  • is wearing a short black skirt
  • enjoys the feeling she gets from knowing she looks good.

And she is the reason the man stumbles.


Somewhere around version 10, 11, or 12, I stopped pushing for “radically different”.

Prior to this exercise I thought that a simple situation such as this one can only be written a few ways and then all that’s left to do is just polishing with line edits. But maybe that’s not true. That’s what I’m trying to discover now. Maybe this is in the realm of things that I can’t see, things that I’m missing, things that I’m not aware of, things that are hard to learn because I don’t know they exist. Possibilities outside the realm of my awareness.

So I’m sticking with third person POV, mostly staying outside of either characters’ heads. If I can define a new narrator’s voice by personality, age, attitude, or angle on the situation it’s not too difficult, but am I then limiting it so that there are only a few different ways?

Is it only the range of narrative voice that I’m exploring?


It is possible that, without being fully conscious of it, I’ve developed a writing voice, a style, one that has some flexibility and can adapt to at least a few different situations, but one that that is ingrained enough that I don’t see other alternatives.

A few years ago in a writing group a woman said that she’s still developing her writing voice. In my head I thought, that’s not my goal. I don’t want a writing voice; I want many so that I’m capable of writing in many different situations. Yet, maybe I’m more stuck than I thought.