Style does not always have to match a story's content. You can describe ragged people in tidy prose. You can describe a corporate takeover in the comfortable slang of a night watchman. Sometimes, a contrast between style and content works to a story's advantage. The opening of A Wrestling Season, a novel by Sharon Sheehe Stark, presents a simple situation. Trover, a middle-aged lawyer, does not want to go to his father's funeral. His wife makes him go anyway:
In the end, of course, they all went, as Trover knew they would from the start. He knew as much even as he addled and deviled and danced his dances. . . . What was he if not a hostage, as always, in the heart of his own family? As they peeled out between the two large fields, he noted dimly the plucked and stubbled landscape and that their man Sprecher was out in the cold, mowing yellow grass. Wasn't this November? Wasn't it going to snow? And how suddenly open the land was, haze in the distance, the horizon revoked and nothing, nothing, mediating between him and the unopposable outwardness of things. He closed his eyes.
The surface of this situation is ordinary enough, but the author's lyrical style infuses this ordinary character with an almost mystical quality. We understand that Trover is a man capable of depth and feeling no matter what his outward appearance may show.
Marlene Buono, in her short story "Offerings," does something similar, only in reverse. The situation in the story is mystical, but prose is simple. The two-page story gives us a woman who collects apologies, placing them in her pockets, sewing them into her hems, fashioning them into paper birds. The story ends with a visit to her husband's grave:
She opened the hatbox she had brought along and lifted out an apology that she had meant to give her husband before he died. It was an awkward shape and she rarely looked at it because it filled her with shame. She deftly folded the edges until the perimeter of the regret was smooth. Emily studied the apology before each fold, carefully coaxing it to forget its graceless form and accept her design.
She took an hour to give it the wingspan it needed. When she placed the finished apology on the tombstone she watched it unfold its wings and fly.
In the first example, an ordinary situation is made magical with lyrical description. Here, a surreal situation is made accessible by direct, unadorned description. We understand that Emily has an ordinary person's regrets and sorrows, no matter how extraordinary her actions seem on the surface. In each case, the story's heart is revealed through contrast.
Whether to contrast content and style depends on your intention for the story. Suppose you are writing about a vivacious, successful actress who will discover, over the course of the story, that she has lived life only through her stage roles and that her real life is little more than empty gesture. A bubbling, florid style would match her outward appearance, but a pared-down style would honor the subtext, which is the emptiness of her soul. Let's try the pared-down style first:
Version One:Esmerelda stood outside the theater, studying her own image. The poster was finely printed and resembled the old-fashioned movie posters her friends were fond of framing for their living rooms. Her hair in the poster was blonder than in real life. Her smile was broader. Her fingers were longer. The poster was no mirror. She could not see herself there.
This style creates an intriguing narrative tension. Something is just slightly askew here; the character does not quite fit the spare prose that describes her. You're implying a seriousness, even a foreboding—a hint that the journey of this story will turn inward, perhaps in ways that Esmerelda is not ready for. Even her extravagant name is made more ordinary in the context of these simple sentences and everyday words. This descriptive contrast invites the readers to peer behind Esmerelda's glitzy facade.
A more flamboyant description, one that is more in keeping with Esmerelda's outward exuberance, delivers a somewhat different expectation:
Version Two:Esmerelda skittered over the dirty Forty-fourth Street sidewalk in shapely black stiletto heels, listening to the sparks of sound that followed her like an echo. She stopped just below the lighted marquee, the sequins on her dress making shimmering tracks along her body as she moved under the light. She gazed at the poster that bore her own image. Blonder, longer-limbed, infinitely happier, her poster self smiled into the night with the arrogance of a Park Avenue pigeon. Go around me, her poster self seemed to say, glinting strands of hair flying away from her head like molting feathers. Just try to make me move. The other Esmerelda, the flesh-and-blood Esmerelda, the Esmerelda who had spent four tumultuous hours deciding on a dress, lifted her face to the marquee and fixed her eyes straight into the icy light of a hundred tiny moons.
In this version, which features long, looping sentences and lots of imagery, there is not much contrast between who Esmerelda is and how you present her. This already flamboyant character becomes larger than life, promising a big, bright story. Careful, though: an oversized character combined with oversized prose might be too much for the readers to swallow. Esmerelda might end up looking like a character in a soap opera.
Let's make another try at contrasting style and content in this story about an ordinary supermarket clerk:
Version One: Abigail dragged a box of cornflakes across the scanner and let it float down the stainless-steel chute. Spreading her fingers, she palmed a dappled cantaloupe and swept it twice over the tiny window until she heard the beep. She watched the cantaloupe roll down behind the box, squat and graceless and yet possessed of a liquid slow motion. Next, she hefted a can of peas, its multicolored label pulsing with images of nature's bounty. Everything today was color and shape: the dangerous red of the Cortlands, the tidy domes of the egg cartons.
Here, a lyrical style contrasts with a mundane setting. Readers get a sense that something extraordinary might happen to a girl who sees beauty in a can of peas. Notice how much movement you've built into the description: the box "floats"; the label "pulses"; the cantaloupe is "possessed of a liquid motion." Notice also the colors and shapes: "squat and graceless"; "dappled cantaloupe"; "dangerous red"; "tidy domes." What a feast for the senses! The readers prepare for a story in which something interesting is going to happen, no matter how little potential the character, an ordinary check-out clerk, seems to have.
What happens if you match style and content here?
Version Two: Abigail scanned several items: a box of cornflakes, a can of peas, two cartons of eggs. Then she scanned a pound of fish, a bottle of bleach, and a bag of apples. She watched the scanner light up with each pass of her hand.
This pared-down style dulls an already dull situation. What happened to Abigail, who had so much promise just a moment ago? She disappeared along with the descriptive flourishes. This passage contains no adjectives, no adverbs, no color, no sound. Content and style match too well: the result is a monochromatic description, the literary equivalent of a one-color painting.