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Storytelling—A Style Guide

Supplemental Texts: The Elements of Style, William Strunk, Jr. (1920); Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition (2005)

I. Introductory. This guide aims to give in brief space the principal requirements of style in storytelling. It aims to lighten the task by concentrating attention on the basic principles and rules of usage most commonly violated; this style guide thus covers only a tiny portion of a much larger field of violations. The experience of this writer has been that, once past these essentials, storytellers profit most by individual edification based on the unique problems specific to their own violations.

II. Elementary Rules of Usage (Part I)

1. Place a comma before a conjunction introducing a co-ordinate clause.

The situation was perilous, but in silence there was safety.

The early records have disappeared, and the entire story can no longer be constructed.

The dam has broken, and the flood is inevitable.

III. Words and Expressions Commonly Misused. Many of the words and expressions listed here are not so much violations of misuse as they are of style, careless writing, or nonexistent eyewitness testimony:

All right. Idiomatic in common speech as a detached expression used in the sense of “Unharmed,” “Agreed,” or “Go ahead.” Better avoided altogether.

Don’t tell anyone, all right?

You weren’t actually “raped,” so you were all right.

You don’t remember everything, so you must have been all right.

You were not all right.

Anybody. Not to be written as two words; holds equally for somebody, everybody, and nobody.

Somebody did something to you.

You didn’t want everybody to know, so you never told anybody.

Nobody would have believed you, anyway.

Don’t. Contraction of do not.

Enormity. An outrageous, improper, vicious, or immoral act, as in ‹ the enormities of unaccustomed power ›; ‹ other enormities too juvenile to mention ›.

Most. Never to be used for almost.

Most every woman Almost every woman

Nauseous. Nauseated. The former is the cause of nausea or disgust; the latter is affected by same. These terms are not interchangeable.

Prove. The past participle is proved.

In the absence of physical evidence, eyewitnesses, or confessions [see II. Elementary Rules of Usage (Part I)], nothing can be proved.

If a violation cannot be proved, it is reasonable to conclude it never happened.

Tortuous. Torturous. The former is marked by devious or indirect tactics; also, distortion, over-refinement, or twisting of meanings or legal definitions in order to dismiss or condone a violation. The latter causes intense agony or pain as from burning, crushing, wounding, punishing, coercing, or affording another sadistic pleasure. Do not confuse the two; if uncertain avoid altogether. Even if certain, best practice is to avoid.

Violation. To break or disregard, as in the law; to do harm to the person or especially the chastity of said; i.e., rape. Easily misused due to ongoing disagreements over what constitutes rape; e.g., rape is always a violation, but not all violations involve “actual” rape in a strictly legal sense.

Worthwhile. Overworked as a term of vague approval and (with not) of disapproval. The use of worthwhile before a noun (“a worthwhile story”) is, of course, indefensible.

The question of whether a story is worthwhile is entirely the province of the teller.

Colloquialisms. Slang and dialect are best avoided as showy or flashy and are difficult to write convincingly. If used, one may avoid drawing unwanted attention by not enclosing in quotation marks or italicizing.

Have you seen Mike Hunt? No? Well, I’d like to see yours, the boys joked.

New in town and friendless, you jacked your dead grandfather’s booze for them.

They told you it tasted like water, so you chugged it.

You blacked out.

Numerals. Do not spell out dates or other serial numbers. Write them in figures or in Roman notation, as appropriate. Exception: When they occur in dialogue, most dates and numbers are best spelled out.

You can’t remember if it was 1981 or 1982.

“There were two boys.”

“You think you were eleven years old.”

Exclamations. Use sparingly, so as not to overwhelm the reader or dilute emotional impact.

Boys will be boys!

Please, stop!

Don’t!

V. Elementary Rules of Usage (Part II)

1. Serial commas. In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.

Thus write,

stolen gin, no one home, two boys

cold, wet, and prickly grass

your secret skin exposed, baby soft, and unprotected

because to write more may compound the violation.

2. Use the active voice. The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive:

You will always remember the night two laughing boys left you pants-down and unconscious on a stranger’s front lawn.

This is much better than:

The night you were left pants-down and unconscious on a stranger’s front lawn by two laughing boys will always be remembered by you.

The latter sentence is less direct, less bold, and less concise. If the writer tries to make it more concise by omitting “by you,” it becomes indefinite: is it the writer, the violators, or the world at large that will always remember this? This is a critical point, because if you cannot express the relevant details of your story in concise, concrete terms, it’s possible to conclude the violation never occurred.

VI. Style Reminders

1. Do not overwrite, overstate, or utilize overwrought language.

2. Do not explain too much.

3. Be clear.

4. Do not inject opinion.

5. Explain enough.

VII. Elementary Principles of Composition.

1. Omit needless words. 

You, too.


Julia Tagliere‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Writer, The Bookends Review, Potomac Review, Gargoyle Magazine, Washington Independent Review of Books, SmokeLong Quarterly, numerous anthologies, and the juried photography and prose collection, Love + Lust. Tagliere won the 2015 William Faulkner Literary Competition for Best Short Story, the 2017 Writers Center Undiscovered Voices Fellowship, and recently completed an M.A. in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. Tagliere serves as an editor with The Baltimore Review and is currently working on her next novel, The Day the Music Didn’t Die.

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