How To Write like William Faulkner

As one of the most moving but difficult writers in the American canon, William Faulkner has been both admired and maligned by its readers. Nevertheless, there so much to learn from his narrative techniques, which go beyond the conventions of literary realism to give you a four-dimensional view of objects, people and philosophies in flux, moving and changing constantly. This short list will teach you the basics of writing like William Faulkner. Obviously, it takes years (if not decades) of practice, but close attention to how he uses rhythm and how he embodies characters can help your craft a lot. I credit Robert H. Zoellner’s excellent analysis of his narrative technique (paywall) for much of my advice.

1. Use Syntactical Ambiguity – phrases that embellish the prose, but are difficult to locate within the main narrative stream.

“The twilight was full of it and of the smell of his father’s cigar as they sat on the front gallery after supper until it would be time for Quentin to start, while in the deep shaggy lawn below the veranda the fireflies blew and drifted in soft random–the odor, the scent, which five months later Mr.Compson’s letter would carry up from Mississippi and over the long iron New England snow and into Quentin’s sitting room at Harvard.” (Absalom! Absalom!).

Use phrases that hover ambiguously within sentences to force the reader to pay close attention to the action. This will also force the reader to take into account as much of the sensory information as possible.

2. Alter time by shifting the setting within your sentences.

“Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.” (Absalom! Absalom!).

Not only does Faulkner’s prose blend different types of language, it also blends different moments in time. This distortion puts the reader in the state of mind of the narrator, who concerns himself with both the present and the past at once. This is very important is you want to describe the changes in a community or family over a long period of time. In the above quote, a shift in the way that the speak approaches time alters how battle is seen. The field is not a memento of victory, but rather a graveyard for the dead.

3. Add tension to your sentences by delaying the full revelation of the setting or the idea.

“I strike. I can hear the stick striking; I can see it hitting their heads, the breast-yoke, missing altogether sometimes as they rear and plunge, but I am glad.
“You kilt my maw!”
The stick breaks, they rearing and snorting, their feet popping loud on the ground; loud because it is going to rain and the air is empty for the rain.” (As I Lay Dying).

Tension is not just a buzz-term meant for pulp mysteries and spy novels. Rather, by suspending the main action of the sentence and digressing with a number of peripheral images and minor side-stories, it causes the reader to read more actively, to seek out the direction of the sentence. In the above example, Faulkner shows us the striking action before the young Vardaman realizes the full implications of his mother’s passing.

4. In his novels, evil is a force that lives independently of all characters. Instead of making a single character the villain, show how average people encounter evil and deal with it.

“It did seem that in a small town, where evil is harder to accomplish, where  opportunities for privacy are scarcer, that people can invent more of it in  other people’s names.” (Light in August).

Evil is constant presence that threatens to take over the narrator or character in question. As the above quotes shows us, evil is the most dangerous because it cannot be bottled up or suppressed. Use this technique to keep the reader on their toes. This will also help persuade your readers towards aligning with characters that oppose evil when they do encounter it.

5. Use Simultaneous Voices within your narration.

“The ladies and children, and house negroes to carry the parasols and flywhisks, and even a few men (the ladies moving in hoops among the miniature broadcloth of little boys and the pantalettes of little girls, in the skirts of the time when ladies did not walk but floated) when the other ten sitting with their feet on the railing of the Holston House gallery looked up, and there the stranger was.” (Absalom! Absalom!)

Although many of his stories hone in on the voices of single characters, he will often combine differing streams of consciousness in one sentence. This is done to showcase the inner conflicts dogging the characters, be it former trauma, moral quandaries or crises of identity spurned.  (Light In August).

6. Use a prose style that will reflect the philosophical groundings of the novel.

“Perhaps in the moment when I revealed to her not only the depth of my hunger but  the fact that never and never would she have any part in the assuaging of it;  perhaps at that moment I became her seducer and her murderer, author and  instrument of her shame and death. After all, there must be some things for which God cannot be accused by man and held responsible. There must be.” (Light in August).

Novels about Time – such as Absalom! Absalom!, focus on the disparity between antebellum Mississippi and the storyteller’s time at Harvard. The novel, then will distort time to show how memory, trauma and generational linkages remain important in post-Civil War America. In the above example from Light in August, the narrator affirms the good and the evil found in everybody, and stresses that there must be some free will the guides either position.
7. Use a vernacular that forces the reader to speak as the character does.

“Sometimes I aint so sho who’s got ere a right to say when a man is crazy and when he aint…It’s like it aint so much what a fellow does, but it’s the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it.” (As I lay Dying).

One of the most beloved but challenging aspects of Faulkner’s fiction is that he uses dense, unaltered language to speak exactly as his characters would. However, this forces the reader to speak as the character does, as it is more efficient than retrospectively looking back at what they may be saying. Much of his prose forces us to embody the characters in focus. Do not send that final draft out until your reader can “enter” the role of the character.

8 thoughts on “How To Write like William Faulkner

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  2. Andres says:

    A lot of the quotes are not from the novels you refenece, #1 and #2 are from “The Sound and The Fury” not “Absalom! Absalom!”

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