“He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” ― Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Cormac McCarthy has fast become known as one of the best writers today. His writing, characterized by simple but powerful language, is full of dark and stylistic prose which can be recognized as uniquely his own. McCarthy has won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well as many other literary awards for his various novels. Several of his novels have been made into successful films, the most notable of which being No Country For Old Men and The Road.
But what makes McCarthy’s writing so engaging and unique?
I’ve identified three characteristics of his prose that McCarthy uses to create such powerful stories, and if implemented, can help you improve your writing as well.
Use Metaphors To Create Tone
“The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream.” ― Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West
McCarthy uses his words carefully. He frequently uses metaphors to create powerful imagery to get his point across.
Although metaphors are common amongst writers, McCarthy uses them in a poetic way so that the imagery created is evocative and promotes the tone of the story.
Because of this, McCarthy is able to create a cohesive work that utilizes the subtext of these metaphors to move the story into places where mere descriptions would fall flat.
Develop An Eye For Rhythm
McCarthy’s writing is often characterized by a unique simplicity. However, he is able to use this simplicity because of the powerful rhythm that he creates.
For instance, look at this bit of dialogue from his novel, The Road.
“You have to carry the fire."
I don't know how to."
Yes, you do."
Is the fire real? The fire?"
Yes it is."
Where is it? I don't know where it is."
Yes you do. It's inside you. It always was there. I can see it.”
McCarthy’s dialogue has a rhythm to it that pulls the reader in, almost as if it were a poem.
This use of rhythm replaces more conventional literary devices and sacrifices some clarity in order to create a broader effect.
Rather than simply creating a conversation that focuses on descriptions of the characters’ reactions, McCarthy creates a rhythm that reveals to the reader the mood.
The starkness of the dialogue, in effect, tells us more about the characters’ circumstances than if McCarthy were to simply describe them to us.
Use Punctuation As A Literary Device
“He stood at the window of the empty cafe and watched the activities in the square and he said that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they'd have no heart to start at all.” ― Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses
McCarthy’s use of punctuation—or lack thereof— is one of the most notable aspects of his prose.
McCarthy uses a clean, stark approach to punctuation that gives his writing a very unusual pace.
He often juxtaposes very short sentences with incredibly long ones for dramatic effect.
That’s not to say that he doesn’t understand the rules of grammar, however, he chooses to break them.
McCarthy himself said on his use of punctuation, “I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that’s it.”
It’s this simplicity that allows him to focus on other elements of his writing, like those mentioned previously.
That’s not to say that everyone should write this way, however, for the type of stories that McCarthy writes—dark, apocalyptic, westerns—his choice suits his genres well.
All in all, what we can learn most from McCarthy is this:
Don’t be afraid to break conventions and don’t be afraid to take risks.
However, have a reason for every choice and understand where those literary choices fit within the larger context of your work.