More On How To Write Like John O’Hara

In Frank MacShane’s book on the Life of John O’Hara there is an interesting paragraph on style. O’Hara, says MacShane, thought of style mainly as a way of solving problems. For example, in fiction he believed that the way to create a convincing character was through dialogue. “Nothing,” he wrote, “could so quickly cast doubt on, and even destroy, the author’s character as bad dialogue. If the people did not talk right, they were not real people.” O’Hara had developed his gift for dialogue mainly in his short stories.

The problem he faced in his novels was this: how to structure the book so that the narrative remained alive while the necessary information was presented?  He is not, of course, the only novelist to face this problem.

O’Hara way of solving it came about (in part) from reading Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Reading these two books, one fiction, one a memoir, he was struck by the use of long unbroken paragraphs. He became conscious of “massive blocks of type that by their massiveness prepare the reader for a great collection of facts even before the reader has had a chance to read the words or sentences.”

O’Hara would write, “In descriptive passages, whether they are descriptive of the contents of a room, or of a fistfight, or of stream of consciousness, most novelists have been timid about risking the long, unbroken block of type. Consequently they have paragraphed descriptions that should have been kept intact.”

So, keep that in mind when you are working on your next book. You can get a lot said in a single paragraph.

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