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  • Writing in StylePattern Languages and Writing Short Fiction
  • Alex Mitchell (bio) and Kevin McGee (bio)

This article explores the problem of how to help people write stories in a particular style. To examine some of the issues that arise when creating and using a tool that describes the features of the style, and that also informs writers how to produce works in that style, we have investigated the adaptation of pattern languages (Alexander, Ishikawa, and Silverstein 1977) for purposes of writing short fiction. As part of our investigation, we created a simple pattern language for short stories in the style of American author Raymond Carver, looking specifically at the stories in his collection What We Talk about When We Talk about Love (1989). Then we conducted studies involving people using this language to write short fiction, testing our hypothesis that pattern languages can be productively brought to bear on the study of writing practices and, in particular, the practice of writing stories in a specific style. [End Page 139]

The term style can be defined in many ways. According to Geoffrey Leech and Mick Short, style refers to “linguistic choice in general” (1981: 32) or, in a more restricted sense, to “those aspects of linguistic choice which concern alternative ways of rendering the same subject matter” (31). When we refer to style in this article, however, we have in mind a broader use of the term: what Carver describes as a writer’s “unique and exact way of looking at things . . . the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes” (1986: 22). Seymour Chatman characterizes this signature as “the constellation of idiosyncratic practices that distinguish the work of artists, [which] an audience experienced in an artist’s work can recognize” (2001: 26). Given that an author’s style may change across the course of his or her career, we focus specifically on Carver’s style as seen in What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.

The remainder of the article is structured as follows. We present a brief overview of related research on writing stories in a particular style, followed by an explanation of how we derived a pattern language from Carver’s fictional designs. We then discuss the specifics of our study, showing how our characterization of Carver’s style as a pattern language facilitated our efforts to help writers to adopt that style in their own writing. We conclude by suggesting areas for further exploration.

Related Research on Writing in Style

There are numerous writing guides that outline procedures or protocols for writing stories. For example, “fictional truth” and “significant detail” are proposed by Tom Bailey (2001) as concepts crucial to the writing of short fiction. The notion of the “hero’s journey,” originally proposed by Joseph Campbell (1949/2008), is applied by Christopher Vogler (2007) to the Hollywood film. The “Dramatica” methodology for writing stories that are classified as “grand argument stories” gives details as to how to plan such a story (Phillips and Huntley 2004). A detailed breakdown of how to write in a style appropriate for a variety of genres is given by H. Thomas Milhorn (2006). There has also been much work on the use [End Page 140] of imitation to help writers explore style (Loux 1987; Delbanco 2003; Geist 2004). Finally, in perhaps the most concrete set of guidelines, Jerome Stern (1991) provides a collection of pattern-like “shapes” for authors to follow.

In this article, however, we propose a more systematic approach to the study of issues that arise when people are asked to write in a particular style. Here we focus on the creation and use of “design patterns” for story writing. Design patterns were originally developed by Christopher Alexander and his colleagues for use in architecture (Alexander, Ishikawa, and Silverstein 1977; Alexander 1979) but have since been adapted to various other design fields, such as interaction design (Borchers 2001; Tidwell 2005), game design (Björk, Lundgren, and Holopainen 2003), and software engineering (Gamma et al. 1995). Design patterns can be used to specify and create artifacts in a particular style. We have adapted patterns to the writing of short fiction in order to study what...