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A Writing Style Comparison: Tobias Wolff and Dean Koontz

After reading Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, I wanted my next read to be lighthearted and plot based. So, I picked up an old Dean Koontz novel, By the Light of the Moon. The two books could not be more different. Of course genre plays a big part, but the difference in writing styles is striking.

Koontz’s writing style is heavy in description and his plot moves forward minute by minute. Wolff puts the bare bones on paper, jumping right to the action and cutting all unnecessary description, plot, characterization, ect. I don’t think This Boy’s Life contains a single wordy sentence. Koontz, on the other hand, loves lengthy metaphors and diving deep into characters’ thoughts, even during heated action scenes.

Koontz and Wolff are two of my favorite writers but their styles could not be more different. Reading their books back-to-back really opened my eyes to those differences. Let me show you some specific examples.

Opening Lines

Here are a few sentences that begin chapters in Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and Koontz’s By the Light of the Moon.

Wolff

  • The sheriff came to the house one night and told the Bolgers that Chuck was about to be charged with statutory rape.
  • My father took off for Las Vegas with his girlfriend the day after I arrived in California.
  • When I was alone in the house I went through everyone’s private things.

Koontz

  • Shortly before being knocked unconscious and bound to a chair, before being injected with an unknown substance against his will, and before discovering that the world was deeply mysterious in ways he’d never before imagined, Dylan O’Conner left his motel room and walked across the highway to a brightly lighted fast-food franchise to buy cheeseburgers, French fries, pocket pies with apple filling, and a vanilla milkshake.
  • These were extraordinary times, peopled by ranting maniacs in love with violence and with a violent god, infested with apologists for wickedness, who blamed victims for their suffering and excused murderers in the name of justice.

What difference do you notice? Length? Who is more action-oriented? Who is more introspective?

 time-pass-by

Time

By the Light of the Moon: 140 pages into the novel less than three hours have passed in the plot with very little background/flashbacks. A high-speed car chase (not really a chase but a mission) that lasts approximately 10 minutes in real time, stretches 15 pages in the book. At times, I forget the chase was even happening because the side tangents and in-depth character thoughts were so dense.

This Boy’s Life: the plot skips large chunks of time, covering approximately eight years in total. In the following sentence Wolff captures the entire time frame of 7th grade (aka puberty): “I kept outgrowing my shoes, two pairs in the seventh grade alone.” Of course Wolff does go into normal-speed scenes in his memoir, but they are strongly action-based with little filler.

Which writing style do you enjoy more?

Does one style draw you in more than the other? Why do you think that is? I personally enjoy both. Certain months I relish the bare bones of Wolff, Carver, and the like. Other months I crave the second-by-second, in-the-mind-of-the-character stories of Dean Koontz, Stephen King, and others.

Comment with two writers who are very different, yet you love them both. 

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This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff

Tobias Wolff captures his childhood in a pool of childhood adventures written in quick, smooth prose. 

TobiasWolff_ThisBoysLifeBold Writing

Wolff wastes no time with his writing. He knows exactly where he’s going and jumps directly into the scene. Wolff’s opening sentences widen your eyes and narrow your vision. He jumps time swiftly, skipping weeks, months, even years in single sentences without jarring the reader.

First sentences of chapters: 

  • The sheriff came to the house one night and told the Bolgers that Chuck was about to be charged with statutory rape.
  • Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide.
  • My father took off for Las Vegas with his girlfriend the day after I arrived in California.
  • When I was alone in the house I went through everyone’s private things.
  • I kept outgrowing my shoes, two pairs in the seventh grade alone.

A Memoir Point of View

The distant, introspective nature of memoirs always strikes me as curious. Wolff writes in the first person, but I felt disconnected to the story, as if Wolff is writing the memoir in order to discard the old memories instead of capture their timelessness. His rebellious youth, disjointed family life, and lack of respect seem like a distant life, even for the reader.

Fear

This Boy’s Life leaves a trail of breadcrumbs that seems certain to lead to destruction. If I didn’t know the main character went on to live a long life filled with writing, I would have guessed the book to end with his death or imprisonment. He was surrounded by dangerous people and cared very little for his well being. At times, I felt shivers go up my spine.

A Memorable Quote

“Like anyone else, she must have wanted different things at the same time. The human heart is a dark forest.” 

3.5 Stars

Although Tobias Wolff is one of my favorite short story authors, I didn’t enjoy his memoir as much. He’s certainly a fantastic writer and his childhood was filled with smirking adventures, but the story did not capture me.

6 Authors That Keep Calling Me Back

Sometimes when I read a great book, it feels like the end. I’m thankful for the story, I enjoyed the story, but the experience feels complete and doesn’t keep calling me back. Other times, when I finish a story, I only want more, more, more! When this happens, I pick up another book by the same author and hope they can feed my longing.

Here are 6 authors that are currently calling me back to read more of their work: dry cover1) Augusten Burroughs – After a coworker recommended Burroughs, I asked, “Which of his books do you recommend?” She replied, “All of them.” Thats when I knew it was a recommendation I should listen to. So I purchased Dry at my next visit to the bookstore. It was exceptional.

Photo taken from BarnesandNobles.com2) Neil GaimanThe Graveyard Book was exceptional! One of my favorite books of 2014! I didn’t enjoy American Gods as much but still looking to spend more time in Gaiman’s imagination. devil in the white city3) Erik Larson – I read The Devil in the White City this summer and loved the fictional feel of his nonfiction writing. I love learning new things while I read and Larson certainly educates his reader!

tobias wolff4) Tobias Wolff – I’ve enjoyed every short story I’ve read of Wolff’s and have had his memoir, This Boy’s Life, waiting on my bookshelf for too long.

where-im-calling-from

5) Raymond Carver – Another of my favorite short story authors. I’ll never get enough of his minimalist writing style and I know I can learn so much from his stories.

Photo taken from DeanKoontz.com

6) Dean Koontz – I’ve heard some hype about his new book, Ashley Bell, coming out in December and am excited to pick it up! After reading Koontz’s The City, I believe he will continue pushing himself out of the comfort zone, creating new and exciting works instead of punching out generic, familiar novels like so many best-selling genre writers do.

My Top 10 Favorite Books

The interesting thing about our favorite books and stories is that the more we read, one of two things happens; our favorites either become more firmly locked into place or they get pushed down and down the list until their titles no longer appear. I was surprised by a few of the titles that ended up on my list, which was compiled after a fellow writing friend (check out Julija’s blog sojustmethen.wordpress.com) encouraged me to do so after she shared her own. Along with the surprises, there are a few that have become as sure as cement. Some have been on the list for many years and others only a few months.

I encourage all avid readers to write down your top 10 favorites. Like me, you may be surprised at what makes the list.

The Great Gatsby

  1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald –I’ve always loved reading, but The Great Gatsby made me fall in love with literature! Although it’s no longer my favorite novel, I will forever be in debt to Mr. Fitzgerald (and my high school English teacher, Mr. Smith, who assigned the reading) for introducing me to another world.
  2. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling – J.K. Rowling has given the entire world a gift. She created such an imaginative yet believable world it’s no wonder millions of kids have wrote to her asking for harry pottertheir Hogwarts letters. Harry Potter holds such a high spot on my list not only because I fell in love with the characters, the world and the epic story, but because that story was shared with so many. The community of people around the world that Harry Potter has brought together is in itself magical. Growing up with Harry and his friends through the series was a remarkable journey and one that I, and so many others, will always hold near and dear. The number of young readers who may never have enjoyed reading if it wasn’t for the Harry Potter series is unmatched and will be for a long time.
  3. The Story of Forgetting by Stefen Merrill Block – Not knowing any idea what I was getting into, I randomly chose The Story of Forgetting audio book off my local library shelf. The novel follows two contrasting storylines, one of a young boy with limitless potential and the other of an old man waiting for the past to find him. A wonderful story but the writing is what hooked me. Block blends worlds; of youth and old age, of imagination and harsh realities, of the past and the future. Block’s novel encompasses so much of what I am aim to achieve with my own written work.
  4. Delights and Shadows by Ted Kooser – An absolutely wonderful book of poetry that touched my soul in a way nothing else ever has. Images from Kooser’s poetry jump into my consciousness on a regular basis. He sees and describes everyday sights and experiences in such a way that I immediately connect with the writing. Although I understand it’s not my strong suit, I love writing poetry because it makes the mind think in different ways. When I attempt to twist my words into a poetic line or two, Kooser’s ability to turn the simplicities of life into unforgettable moments of beauty is exactly what I strive for.
  5. Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson – My Hamline writing friends know this one well! Assigned reading in my Senior Seminar for Creative Writing, this is simply a beautiful tale of a man and his memories.
  6. Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz – My favorite fictional character of all time, Odd Thomas is fun, unpredictable and humble. He accepts his bizarre, chaotic life in order to help others even when it tears his own world apart. The way Koontz presents and stays true to Odd’s character throughout the series earns it a top spot. Though, the entire series (currently six books) is worth reading, the first one is by far my favorite.
  7. Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff – My favorite short story author! His stories are definitely worth the read. His memoir is patiently waiting to be read on my shelf as well.
  8. The Shining by Stephen King – Similar to The Story of Forgetting, we are graced with characters both young and old and see the story through varying POVs. We take a nerve-quaking journey with an extraordinary young boy just learning to understand and control his abilities. That small twist of science fiction in an otherwise ordinary world is something I can’t resist! With the amount of fiction King produces, it’s safe to say he will always be on my reading list. The Stand, a King classic and regarded by many as his best novel to date, is the next King title on my list.hunger games
  9. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – The Hunger Games series doesn’t even come close to Harry Potter, but such a unique story, written in great prose, is hard not to love. The novel is paced beautifully and Katniss is a beautifully rounded character. She always stays true to herself even when she’s not sure who that is.
  10. I’m going to end my top 10 with all the childhood favorites that got me reading in the first place: Goosebumps, the “Witches Don’t Do Backflips” books, Matt Christopher, Clifford the Big Red Dog, A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Narnia, and so many more! I’m not sure who I would be today if these children’s and young adult authors had not found a way into my heart.
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