Understanding Style: The Sweet Style
Introduction to Style: The "Sweet" Style
1. What is style, as it relates to writing?
Style is the thing about your writing that makes your writing look like your writing. Or the thing that makes Mark Twain's writing just look Twainy. Or Jane Austen's writing look like Austen's. What if Charles Dickens had written the Declaration of Independence? What if you had written Hamlet? What if e.e. cummings had written War and Peace? When we're doing these thought experiments, we're thinking about style.
Clearly, style deals with things like word choice, tone of voice, verb voices, use or non use of adjectives, sentence length, type of punctuation used, genre--well, anything that can be a part of writing at all, somehow magically adds up to the point where if you know your stuff, you can look at a mystery poem and say, "huh, this looks sort of like Wordsworth." It also has to do with the topics written about and the focus of the narrative voice.
In this article, I want to talk about one of the most important and prominent writing styles. My thoughts on this style, and some of the examples, are indebted to the book Tough, Sweet, and Stuffy, by Walker Gibson. (Midland Books,1966) Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon (Plume, 2013) and Artful Sentences by Virginia Tufte (Graphics, 2006).
2. The Sweet Style
Sweet Style often has much of the following:
1. Direct addresses to the reader or a vague general audience
2. Use of the second person (you)
3. Funny punctuation (lots of parenthesis, exclamation points, question marks, double dashes)
4. Rhetorical questions.
5. Cliché and formulaic language
6. Slang or highly casual language
7. The language of advertising
8. Fragments are often used
9. Relies heavily on unnecessary adjectives and adverbs to do the heavy lifting of the description.
The general notion is that the reader is your buddy, your intimate, and that we needn't get all caught up in formal prose.
Walker Gibson gives these examples (these are really dated magazine advertisements, but they get the idea across):
You may have tried Kraft Dinners before and been delighted at how
quick and easy they are--and how unusually good. Well, wait till you taste
these new Dinners from Kraft. They're complete, the finest of their kind, made
with all the best Kraft ingredients.
Tomorrow, help yourself to the new Kraft Pizza with Cheese.
Complete, from crispy crust to tomato cheese topping. Or the Spaghetti
with Meat Sauce. Lots of tender juicy beef--more beef than you'd ever
expect in a sauce.
Of course they're homemade good because you cook them up fresh,
yourself! When you do that important final cooking, everything comes out
fresh and full of flavor--the way you like it.
Here's another one:
Dry skin? Not me, darling.
Every inch of little me is as smooth as (well, you know what).
Because I never, never bathe without Sardo.
Sardo bathes away dry skin. Gives my skin precious moisture
(moisture is really a girl's best friend).
And Sardo works from bath to bath to keep moisture in,
dryness out. Rough heels? Chapped knees?
Flaky elbows? Itchy skin? Not me! I'm an
old smoothie. (You'd never guess how old.) Next bath,
why don't you add a capful of wonderful Sardo?
You'll be deliciously smooth all over again.
Where do you get Sardo? At any drug
or cosmetic counter. Where else?
These excerpts demonstrate the Sweet style well. They are very, very intimate with the reader. They are aggressively cheerful and personable. The reader of the piece is assumed to be someone who cares if the food is "homemade good" or about "flaky elbows."
The sentence structure is all over the place. Fragments and informal punctuation abound.
Those are old advertisements. But how does the sweet style appear in, say, modern writing--student essays, or, let's say, cringy storygame? The sweet style shows up "cute" asides and comments to the reader. So, for example, imagine a writer discussing about the age of King Louis XVI, and makes a point about how fine the outfits are and then the narrative voice brings in and says parenthetically ("yikes--that's a lot of money!") That's very "sweet."
You laugh, but that's a very common maneuver--people see it as a way to make a connection with a reader. Weirdly, though, it actually serves to alienate a reader. Or consider this: a personal essay on the subject of the best lunch you ever had. In the first paragraph, we have
"The corned beef on rye with pickled looked good, but I went with the turkey club sandwich--hey, don't get me wrong, I like corned beef, but I couldn't say no to the turkey club today."
That "don't get me wrong" is a very natural locution, but it's *very* sweet in
tone, in its direct address to the reader.
The issue is that writers do need to make a personal connection with a reader,
but that it is very easy to make a reader feel as though the writer has lost control
of the seriousness of the essay.
4. The Language of Advertising
I once walked by a bakery that announced that it had "Oven-baked Bread" for sale, and that sounded great. Then I realized that pretty much all bread is baked in an oven. It's like I was going to get some tandoori-baked naan here. It was just bread. "Oven-baked" is just there to be an adjective to make it sound as if it is descriptive.
Like "Try our hand-tossed salad." Is that good? Do I want to think about hands all over my salad? "Hand-tossed" is just there being an adjective for no reason. That is characteristic of the sweet style, which leans towards chatty but offering low meaning-per-word ratio.
Consider these two menu entries and listen for sweet style:
a. An irresistible medley of thick cut Steak Fries, Sweet Potato Fries and our legendary Crispy Green Bean Fries. Served with creamy bacon bleu cheese and cucumber Wasabi ranch dressings. Follow it up with our special brownie full of chocolatey goodness.
b. Jack Daniel's® Flat Iron*
Aged and hand-cut especially for T.G.I. Friday's®. 8-oz Black Angus steak, expertly seasoned and glazed with our signature Jack Daniel's® sauce which will astonish your tastebuds. Served with your choice of two sides. You won’t regret it—promise.
I hope you can read these and laugh at them and see them for the sweet style--the false verbiage--that they are. "Irresistible medley" is pretty sweet in its cliché-ness. But "legendary" green bean fries is practically meaningless, as is the "special" brownie full of "goodness."
In the second example, note the use of second person in "astonish your tastebuds"--also rather meaningless as well and "you won't regret it--promise" which its ultra-casual attitude to the reader. Note too, the "hand-cut" steak which is "expertly seasoned" (?).
5. The Sweet Style in Your Narrative Voice
We are so immersed in sweet style in daily culture that often writers drop it into their storygames and other writing, thinking that "sweet" = "good." I am not suggesting "sweet style is bad" at all. It's just a tool; it can be used to create connection between a writer and an audience if done well. But if used thoughtlessly, it is alienating and cringy.
a) "She laughed--oh, you can see that dimple!-- a smile on her face, hazel eyes winking at you with something that makes you feel butterflies in your stomach. She's about your age, right? Right? Almost? Doesn't matter! Go for it, ok?"
b) "Time for School!! Is it a big deal? You know it is. But seriously we have to go. So you have to grab your dumb binder and you roll out of bed and you eat some breakfast. You roll your eyes. Who here hasn't done that?"
So here are two examples from storygames which I have modified to make their source anonymous. Here, the author is attempting to make a connection with the reader with direct address to the player (as opposed to second person perspective), cliché/formula, casual language, and lots of high volume punctuation.
By now, you should be able to identify sweet style at once--and once you train yourself to identify it, you will start to see it all over the place. You will see that it is, in fact, the single most common English language stylistic tic. Usually people need to train it out of themselves as their go-to style.
So what's the takeaway? Recognize sweet style when you are creating narration and use it sparingly and purposefully. But also use it when you want to create interesting characters. A character who speaks only in sweet style will be very recognizable (and probably pretty annoying)! A dash of sweet style is important for any writer because without some of it, prose can become a little robotic.
But too much will turn your reader off completely. In my next discussion of style, I'll be talking about another major style which is important but which can similarly be misused: the "stuffy" style.