Four Classic Writing Techniques That Belong in the Past

Classic Books

If you went to a typical school in the western part of the world, then you grew up studying the classics: books by authors such as Bronte, Shelly, and Dickens, just to name a few. And it’s tempting for today’s unpublished writers to imitate them. After all, classics are supposed to be the best books ever; that’s why they’re taught in school.

However, these writers were masters of their craft in their own time, not ours. Today, writing like the greats is a sure-fire way to NOT get your books published or delight your readers. Let’s look at some writing conventions from the past that should not show up in a modern book.

1. Using Names That Imply Something

Uriah Heap.
Holly Golightly.
Lady Chatterley.

Just mentioning these names conjures up mental images. Uriah Heap sounds villainous, and he is. In fact he’s considered one of the best written villains in the Dickens world. Holly Golightly brings to mind a woman who doesn’t take anything seriously and who is a bit self-centered and childlike. Lady Chatterley creates a mental image of a somewhat uppity woman (the “Lady” part) who talks too much.

Writers of the past used names like this as a way to create an impression of a character before you even met them. While the readers of yesteryear reveled in this, modern readers are too savvy for this trick. It makes them feel talked down to.

There are a few exceptions:

  • Readers of children’s literature have no problem with a name like Draco Malfoy or Ron Weasely. Since the Harry Potter books appeal to a child’s playfulness, adults don’t feel patronized. They know the story wasn’t written for them.
  • It can also work if the character is a known non-human trying to fit into a human world. Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation is a good example.
  • Adult readers might accept suggestive names if a good explanation is provided. An example is the book Green Lake by S.K. Epperson. It has a character named Earl E. Birdie. Epperson explains Birdie’s weird name by hinting that his mother wasn’t all there.

Otherwise, expect pushback from clever fans.

2. Making Villains Ugly and Heroes Beautiful

Prior to the modern age, the accepted cultural belief was that God granted beauty and health to His favorites. Therefore, if you were not beautiful or had something else “wrong” with you, God was singling you out for punishment.  This is why people amused themselves by visiting freak shows, asylums, and making fun of those who were different.

This belief became a type of writer’s shorthand. Villains are ugly while heroes are beautiful. J.R.R. Tolkien was particularly prone to doing this. However, the Lord of the Rings was written in a time before the cultural shift away from this practice. To stay true to their source material, the movie adaptations had to depart from modern values.

Using beauty or ugliness as a shorthand nowadays is not only lazy writing but also perpetuates the belief that those who are not beautiful are somehow “less.” Even J.K. Rowling came under fire for using the Dursley family’s weight to make them less likable. Her critics have pointed out the Dursleys were dislikable without fat shaming.

3. Instilling a Fear of Foreigners

Prior to the late twentieth century, the world was a larger, more mysterious, and more dangerous place. Most people rarely left their hometown, let alone their country. People, cultures, and objects from other lands were considered exotic, forbidden, and a little scary.

This is why writers could explain something strange by saying it was from the Far East, Africa, or from any other of a dozen places people saw as shrouded in mystery. For example, the Monkey’s Paw (from the story by the same name) was said to be from India, a place shrouded in mysticism, romance, yogis, and bizarre rituals. Whatever was done to it “over there” is what gave it the power to grant wishes.

Stories such as Tarzan, King Kong, and Mighty Joe Young took advantage of the fact that hardly anyone knew anything about Africa and even less about gorillas. It wasn’t asking an audience too much to believe in over-sized or almost-human gorillas. After all, no one knew anything to the contrary.

Although we are still fascinated by cultures outside our own, they are no longer frightening and a source of amazement. Explaining a strange thing’s origin as merely foreign isn’t enough for today’s readers to believe in that object’s or person’s power. For an object or person to have the same air of mystery our ancestors enjoyed, its power needs to be based on advanced technology, magic, the past, or a parallel universe.

4. Including Pages of Description

If you’ve ever read a classic novel, you probably noticed it droned on about scenery for many pages. This worked well in a world without TV, the internet, or even photographs. Past generations needed long descriptions of scenery to imagine a world they’d never seen.

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the Captain spends several paragraphs describing the frozen north as he struggles to be the first to reach the North Pole. Since no one had actually been there yet, it wasn’t something the average reader could picture. This is why he talks on and on about the endless ice, the sun that never sets, and the harsh climate.

Moby-Dick goes into great detail about life on a whaling ship. That benefited the many people who were oblivious to that lifestyle. However, today’s reality TV shows, specialty sites, and an endless parade of YouTube videos fill in the knowledge gaps about alternate jobs or lifestyles. Though some details are interesting, using as many details as Moby-Dick did is like writing a primer.

Today, thanks to TV and the internet, a few well-chosen words are all that’s needed. Modern readers know enough about the world to fill in the blanks themselves.

Times change. Tastes change. While the basic rules of storytelling never change, readers’ expectations do. When you rely on conventions from the last century or earlier, you risk not only alienating readers but also promoting harmful stereotypes.

About Devlin Blake

After writing over a dozen books in various pen names and genres, Devlin Blake now helps emerging writers with their skills and confidence so they can write faster and complete that dark story. If you’re looking for an easy way to plot your story,you can pick up a FREE copy of Plotting Alchemy here.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

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  1. Cay Reet

    I liked how William Goldman subverted the ‘long descriptive passages’ trope in “The Princess Bride” by actually claiming there were three pages of description of what the nobles packed for a voyage and unpacked later in his frame story for the novel.

    Yes, describing everything in detail was important in the past, because people couldn’t just google it and look for details or pictures. Most people also didn’t travel far in their lives (I once heard mentioned they travelled no more than about 10 kilometers from their birthplace their entire lives, unless they had specific jobs which demanded travel), so they enjoyed ‘seeing’ foreign places through the novels they read.

    • Tyson Adams

      One of my favourites as well. I love that it is the “completely abridged” adaptation of S. Morgenstern’s earlier version.

  2. 3Comrades

    Some of these are an issue with me. My parents often read classical books to me before I could read myself. Not only did this make my manner of speech awkward at best, but often pushes me to use outdated techniques.

    I will argue that there are many good characters that are ugly in old literature, probably more than today since ugliness was considered tragic and thus something they often gave to their hero.

    • Devlin Blake

      I agree. We didn’t have cable when I was young, so I grew up talking like the books I read. When I stated school, I realized that wasn’t how most people talked.

  3. Foxcalibur

    So, this article was delicious social justice meat (or I guess flavored tofu?) between two pieces of moldy “useless best-practices” bread. Or rather, numbers 2 and 3 are great advice for anyone not looking to perpetuate outdated worldviews, while 1 and 4 were community-college-creative-writing-class, wrongheaded procedural nonsense about what one writer thinks are “rules.”

    In general, whenever I see “Don’t write in this style!” I eyeroll pretty hard, especially when the style has worked brilliantly for other writers in the distant and near past. I mean, you list Frankenstein right there. Frankenstein drinks the milkshake of most terse, action-only sci-fi to this day, partly because of its excellent long-form descriptive passages. Literature is also full of meaningful names for a reason: people like them.

    The real “rule” is: If you use a technique, use it well, because people will notice a lesser version of other work. If your character has a meaningful name, “Michael Carpenter” is probably a better bet than “Holly Paladin.” If your story has long descriptions, make them meaningful and fitting to the overall tone, and not just an excuse to fill pages.

    Pointing out dated and toxic tropes is great, but don’t point at perfectly valid techniques that might work really well for some writers and say “This is bad writing.” You’ll end up discouraging some truly beautiful work.

    • Tyson Adams

      “Valid techniques”? I think you’ve missed the points being made whilst defending outmoded writing practices. I mean, you suggested Frankenstein was “action-only”, which only tells me you haven’t read many actual action-packed novels.

      E.g. the pages of description of a garden in The Picture of Dorian Grey whilst beautifully written is long winded, boring, and distracts from the narrative. This is bad writing in a modern context, except for very specific genre markets.

    • 3Comrades

      I adore Frankenstein but where are the action scenes? Sometimes the monster describes being attacked but most of the time when the monster does show up, Frankenstein faints and gets sick for a long time because he is so scared. Henry is his nurse maid.

      Sure, he does rip up the bride but even then we don’t have an epic battle. It’s more a psychological piece then an action novel, something that there were many of during that time, so I doubt Shelley was at all aiming for action-packed. I mean most deaths happen “off camera.”

      But cultures and ideas change and most people don’t like the classics because they are boring, not because I think the books are actually boring but the techniques used clash with what most modern readers enjoy. David Copperfield is the funniest book I ever read, but most people won’t enjoy it not because they aren’t intelligent but because the writing is outmoded. I was raised on classics and that was a Bad thing. My vocabulary was awkward and my cultural understanding was skewed. Media and literature are made for people of that time, whether they realize it or not. Some things don’t translate unless you study history or cultural practices of that day.

      It’s why I think we need to destress classics in schools and look to modern books more often’ so the emotional frequencies can at least match those of the students more readily.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, Frankenstein is anything but ‘action-packed.’ I would say both “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “Dracula” have more actual action in their pages. “Dracula,” however, is also guilty of long descriptive passages and, since it’s written in diary style (which was already ‘dead’ when Stoker started writing it), also a pretty fragmented story.

      Long, descriptive passages aren’t “Bad Writing” in the sense of something unreadable, but they will put a lot of modern-day readers off, simply because readers don’t demand or expect such passages any longer.
      That’s not true, of course, if you’re writing something that is set in another world (Sci-Fi and Fantasy come to mind). In this case, you have to describe surroundings and objects much better, because they can’t just be googled.

      As far as the names are concerned: yes, giving a character a name which suggests his or her role in a story is usually frowned on today. You can do it in moderate ways or if you try to write a parody or a pastiche. Funnily enough, I read recently that Ian Flemming actually chose the name ‘James Bond’ for his suave spy, because he’d read that name on a book on British birds (Mr. Bond was the author) and thought it was boring and unassuming. Poor Mr. Bond, settled with such a name – no surprise he became such a daring spy, just to overcome it.

  4. Devlin Blake

    None of this was actually BAD writing in it’s day, and that’s the point. Times change, people’s tastes change. What’s good today is laughable tomorrow, so writers should always write for TODAY. It captures a snapshot in time not only by it’s topic, but by the way it’s told.

    • Cay Reet

      That’s exactly the point of the article I think. The things listed are BAD writing seen from today’s point of view. That doesn’t mean they were BAD writing when they were written. I quote: “However, these writers were masters of their craft in their own time, not ours.”

  5. Alice

    In regards to the first one, would you say it’s okay to give characters silly sounding or suggestive names if the story is a comedy? Or would it still come across as patronising to an adult audience?

    • Tyson Adams

      Comedy would still have to be careful of using any trope.

      Say you wanted to give your main character a silly name for comedic effect: that joke is going to wear thin by the second page. If it doesn’t wear thin it will, at the very least, become unfunny very quickly.

      A silly name for a minor character that doesn’t appear much – think Austin Powers and some of the one scene silly characters – can work. But much like in Austin Powers, you’ve got to do more than make it a single joke, possibly even satirical in nature.

      Comedy is great in that you can make fun of tropes whilst utilising them. But you have to be very careful that it is well crafted humour for it to work. Or throw in a fart joke to distract people, you know, whatever works.

      • Cay Reet

        I happily remember Cheery Littlebottom from some of the Discworld novels, but I wouldn’t use a funny name on a main character, even in a comedy. The joke would get old too quickly. Miss Littlebottom is just a supporting character and her first name isn’t mentioned that often.

        • SunlessNick

          And the way it characterises her is at odds with what point 1 cautions against. If Cheery worked like the examples in the post, she’d be a happy idiot, probably convinced that she’s either much more or much less cute than she actually is. Instead, the name irritates her, but also shows us that she likes to get adversity out of the way quickly when she tries to provoke Vimes into laughing at it. And she changes it to Cherry when she comes out as female.

  6. Rakka

    I’d feel downright cheated if the point of the story was to tell of exploring new lands and the narration glossed it over as “google ‘mongolian steppe'”. Loving description of the environment has its place, especially if it’s important to the characters. Don’t put scenery description in battle scene, save it for the end of the day when they’re come down from the adrenaline high and are luxuriating in the “oh shit I’m alive” sense of wonder, if they are the type to be moved by vast shadows of the clouds on the grass.

    • Cay Reet

      I agree that it depends on the type of story. If you do fantasy, then describing your surroundings is absolutely necessary. If the exploration of an area is your main plot point, you should also make sure to describe the ‘new’ findings of your characters well – even if they’re not new by modern standards and thousands of people see them each year (such as the Aztec temples in Mexico, as an example).

      But, for instance, putting two pages of decription of what people are packing for a trip into a book which is not even about the trip, is unnecessary by modern standards (this example was brought to you by The Princess Bride). Or describing in detail what you see on a train ride from one well-known place to another. People in the past wanted those descriptions, because they couldn’t just go there or google them. Today, it’s usually considered boring. As I said, if the scenery is playing a main role or is something no human has seen before, then detailed descriptions are always necessary.

      • Rakka

        Logistics should be included if they serve the story… which is pretty rarely. Unless limited recources are a point, not much reason to include them. I guess I got a bit huffy with the article writer’s dismissal of describing north pole’s environment as “unimportant” :D. (Come on it’s the freaking north pole! It’s not like the character are going to just traipse over! When environment itself is your cold, uncaring adversary it damn better be included in the narration!)

        • Kobayashi

          I can see the point in the article. If the environment is unusual or important to the story you should describe it but use more strong adjectives than boring exposition. If I tell you “imagine North Pole”, you’ll have a picture is your head right now. So you don’t need a thorough description to understand what the scenery looks like. Now, imagine people living their whole lives without Internet or travel in hot climate and having no idea how snow looks like.

  7. Raillery

    Atlas Shrugged is consistently exemplar of Technique 2. That and so many other glaringly unrealistic aspects of the book make it progressively more amusing as one reads.

    Because the character description usually leads the scene and because the scenes, like the characters, are so repetitive, a fun activity is to guess the entirely of the scene just on the physical features of a new character.

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