MacArthur Fellow Cormac McCarthy is one of those rare writers who has managed to perch on the fence between literary and popular fame. Helped in no small part by the brilliant film adaptations of his novels No Country for Old Men and The Road, McCarthy’s books have found a broader audience than they might have, and have thus penetrated and influenced both literary and popular culture.
McCarthy’s broad appeal is partly due to his rugged and wild plots – his novels are rarely domestic, and instead follow alienated individuals through rough wastelands and all-American deserts. His characters are rifle-wielding or horse-riding outcasts attempting to assert their wills on an uncaring modern world. Often, they stumble across some quiet, inevitable, and fundamental manifestation of evil and break themselves against it.
But it’s McCarthy’s inimitable style that has cemented him as one of the best American novelists of the past hundred years. Often described as ‘dreamlike’, McCarthy’s prose relies on vivid, direct, almost scriptural language stripped of all but the most necessary punctuation. If language is a lens (and it is), McCarthy’s is both wide-angle and macro, both blurred and sharp. In its explicit and startling directness, McCarthy’s language draws attention to itself as something between the reader and the plot, landscapes, characters, and actions he describes. It’s paradoxical and lovely.
But how can you achieve similar feats in your own writing? Let’s look at what Cormac McCarthy can teach us about writing fiction.
Take control of grammar, spelling, and punctuation
There’s a great tip from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style that McCarthy seems to have firmly internalized:
The question of ear is vital. Only the writer whose ear is reliable is in a position to use bad grammar deliberately; this writer knows for sure when a colloquialism is better than formal phrasing and is able to sustain the work at a level of good taste. So cock your ear.
– William Strunk Jr., E.B. White, Elements of Style
The point here is simple: confident writers are not slaves to grammar, spelling, and punctuation; they make it work for them. Of course, to do this, you need to be a master of all three, as well as have the reliable ear that Strunk and White celebrate.
Thankfully for him, McCarthy is such a master; taking the torch from William Faulkner and James Joyce, McCarthy often uses nouns as verbs, ignores commas, coins new words, and avoids speech marks altogether. Take, for example, this passage from the incredibly bleak novel The Road:
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
The rolling rhythms of these unbroken sentences rely upon McCarthy’s penchant for archaic sentence structure (‘Darkness implacable’ for example), his wide vocabulary (I had to Google ‘intestate’), and the fiery, almost religious rhetoric he uses to paint the world he’s describing. We see there are no commas slowing the tempo, and his use of ‘running’ as a noun and ‘sorrow’ as a verb grant the passage a strange, unusual power. In The Road, these flouted rules also bear thematic weight; after all, in the novel’s post-apocalyptic world, rules have been long forgotten and the invocation of them would seem impossibly quaint. This is an America full of cannibals, suicides, and ruined cities – the old rules and the order they upheld are no longer relevant.Understanding the rules of grammar puts you in a position to flout them.Click To Tweet
Like McCarthy, you too can be a writer who is not afraid to take risks and flout rules; but remember, just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should. McCarthy’s bold style and his dismissal of standardized rules are employed for several reasons, not just because he felt like it. Always know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. As Strunk and White stress, the best way to learn when it’s appropriate to flout rules is to gain an ear for why and when they apply.
Let your style match everything else
This is a big one. While McCarthy has something of a signature style, he also tends to write about the same settings and themes. I like to think that if McCarthy ever wrote a domestic comedy-of-errors set in Renaissance England, his style would change dramatically.
As it is, McCarthy loves America, he loves deserts, he loves the notion of a primeval land and its people being dragged painfully into modernity. He worries about things like alienation, the (im)possibility of true independence from social or religious doctrine, and enjoys focusing in on his characters as they make life-or-death decisions that will define their lives forever. Like Faulkner (who he is frequently compared to), he’s interested in what happens when flawed, rough-around-the-edges Americans stumble across violence, brutality, and evil. And everything about his style complements these themes and interests.
How? Well, let’s look at this passage from Blood Meridian:
It was a lone tree burning on the desert. A heraldic tree that the passing storm had left afire. The solitary pilgrim drawn up before it had traveled far to be here and he knelt in the hot sand and held his numbed hands out while all about in that circle attended companies of lesser auxiliaries routed forth into the inordinate day, small owls that crouched silently and stood from foot to foot and tarantulas and solpugas and vinegarroons and the vicious mygale spiders and beaded lizards with mouths black as a chowdog’s, deadly to man, and the little desert basilisks that jet blood from their eyes and the small sandvipers like seemly gods, silent and the same, in Jeda, in Babylon. A constellation of ignited eyes that edged the ring of light all bound in a precarious truce before this torch whose brightness had set back the stars in their sockets.
– Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West
You’ll notice that the text has an archaic feel to it – words like ‘afire’ and ‘forth’ elevate the narration without feeling farcical, and the sheer length of some of the sentences combined with the reliance on ‘and’ mimics Biblical scripture, particularly the early pages of Genesis. McCarthy’s fascination with the desert’s creatures only hammers the Biblical feel home – it is as if we’re hearing about the animals of Noah’s ark, or perhaps a bestial version of Genesis’s account of Cain and Abel’s lineage. The ‘constellation’ of eyes edging the ‘ring of light,’ as well as the reference to ‘the stars in their sockets,’ further adds to the cosmic, spiritual tone, and helps indicate to the reader the cryptic space between the earth – occupied here by man and lizard and tarantula – and the lost-but-glimpsed heavens.
How is this relevant? Well, for one, the narrative here is clearly concerned with a burning bush of sorts (‘a lone tree burning on the desert’) and a ‘solitary pilgrim’. The quoted text is evidently the precursor to coming acts of spiritual or religious significance. But beyond that, McCarthy’s style speaks to the setting – just like McCarthy’s prose, the desert and its sky are broad and horizontal and monotonous, encompassing everything from stars to lizards. These are blurred, indistinct, primeval spaces – and, this being America, the land carries too the baggage of a new Eden, of Puritanism, of manifest destiny. These religious histories cannot be separated from the land, and so they are inseparable from McCarthy’s style.Make your voice an extension of the story you’re telling – tap into settings and themes.Click To Tweet
McCarthy’s style here isn’t for the sake of it. It matches the themes of the novel (I won’t ruin Blood Meridian if you haven’t read it, but the novel examines violence in religious and nihilistic contexts), is tied intrinsically to the plot’s setting, and, through the explicit, self-referential directness of his punctuation-less prose, draws attention to the distances between text and reader in a way that nods to one of the book’s dominant themes: the void between heaven and earth.
Make your characters suffer
Another wildly successful American writer, Kurt Vonnegut, famously advised short story writers:
Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
– Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction
McCarthy seems to have really taken this advice to heart (though few of his characters could ever really be described as ‘sweet’ or ‘innocent’). Novels like No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, and The Road will inevitably leave readers numb by the time they close – suffering is meted out liberally and indiscriminately. Whether its children getting their throats cut in Blood Meridian or cannibals savaging one another in The Road, there’s no lack of chilling brutality in McCarthy’s grim worlds.
Hurting your characters benefits your novel in two main ways: the first is plot advancement. All but the most experimental or boring plots rely on conflict to propel the action onward; after all, if everyone in your book remains fine throughout, the reader begins to wonder why the book was written in the first place.
Secondly, suffering deepens and develops your characters and the world they inhabit. By putting your characters in horrible situations, we get to see how they respond, whether they break, whether a hidden strength or a vindictive paranoia emerges, whether they fight, and how they pick themselves up. Similarly, if your characters spend half the book suffering, the reader realizes that the world these characters inhabit is perhaps not a nice place. McCarthy picks up on this – while the human cattle locked in the basement and the couple hanging from the barn roof in The Road are not main characters, their suffering deepens the world they inhabit, painting it in increasingly dark colors that, in turn, reflect upon and deepen the main characters who must survive in such a world.Suffering progresses the plot and explores your characters. Use it liberally.Click To Tweet
This leads us to a final benefit of suffering: it encourages empathy. We only care so deeply about the man and the boy in The Road because we have seen how they respond to suffering and because their endurance has earned our attention. We see how the terrible life the man has lived has changed him into the kind of person who says this to his infant son:
Listen to me, he said, when your dreams are of some world that never was or some world that never will be, and you’re happy again, then you’ll have given up. Do you understand? And you can’t give up, I won’t let you.
– Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Of course, the lesson to take away here isn’t ‘fill your book with as much suffering and misery as possible’. Anyone can throw together a few hundred pages of non-stop groin-kicking or eye-gouging, but this does not a good book make. After all, it’s not the bad thing itself that’s important, but rather what that bad thing reveals about the characters affected or how it moves the plot forward. What you should be thinking about is how your characters are going to change in reaction to the bad things that happen and how those bad things will affect the world and the context of the story.
The man himself
McCarthy remains something of a recluse – he’s notoriously camera-shy and has given only a few interviews over the course of his career. The few journalists who’ve met him confirm that McCarthy is a man who seems to prefer talking about anything but himself and his work.
This makes it a bit difficult to take any lessons directly from the (pretty) horse’s mouth, but there are a few tidbits to cling to. The first may be a bit disheartening to our more writing-obsessed readers: have wide-reaching interests and dozens of hobbies. ‘Of all the subjects I’m interested in,’ he said during an interview with the New York Times, ‘writing is way, way down at the bottom of the list.’ McCarthy didn’t even start reading serious literature until he was twenty-three and in the air force.
The takeaway here seems to be that it’s always good to have something to write about – it’s all well and good loving books and writing, but unless you’re passionate and knowledgeable about other things (McCarthy claims he had ‘every hobby there was’ as a child), your writing might come across as flat, unengaging, or unconvincing.
You’re probably getting the impression that McCarthy isn’t your standard literary writer. He even does away with the traditional writer’s insecurity: ‘I never had any doubts about my abilities,’ he says in the same New York Times interview. ‘I knew I could write. I just had to figure out how to eat while doing this.’ This self-assuredness certainly goes some way to explaining his bold and experimental style.
Finally, there’s some meat on these bones: McCarthy insists that all literature should ‘deal with issues of life and death.’ He even dismisses Marcel Proust and Henry James: ‘To me,’ he says, ‘that’s not literature.’ It’s worth thinking about how this seriousness is reflected in his Biblical style and in the themes he chooses to approach in his fiction.
There are few writers working in America today who are as stylistically distinctive as Cormac McCarthy. If anyone can teach writers the value of a distinct voice, it’s him. In his bleak and hazy worlds, we can observe how style meets substance, reflecting all the while themes, geography, and plot. Whether you’re wondering how much to hurt your characters, how to bring all the aspects of your book together, or are simply struggling beneath the whip of authoritarian grammar rules, McCarthy can help you out.
As ever, the best way to absorb Cormac McCarthy’s lessons is to read his books. The uncharacteristically cheery All the Pretty Horses, the first novel in his Border Trilogy, is often touted as the most accessible of his novels (he has not published any short stories – apparently, ‘Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing’).
What do you think about Cormac McCarthy? Somber genius? Arrogant cynic? Irritating macho man? Which of his novels are you favorites? Have you gleaned any wisdom from his works? Let us know in the comments. Or check out The 3 Golden Rules Of Writing A Western for more advice on these themes, and What ‘17776’ Can Tell You About Improving Your Craft for a very different example of how style can reflect and enhance content.
7 thoughts on “What You Need To Know About How Cormac McCarthy Can Improve Your Writing”
As a fiction writer, I can’t think of anyone better to study than Cormac McCarthy. To me, there is no one like him. He is simply the best – period. I love how he can take obscure characters and use them to reason out the great battle between God and Satan, good and evil, and why on Earth, it seems like Satan and evil are winning. No way could I (or anyone else) imitate McCarthy, but I do find my writing heavily influenced by his writing style. I only wish he would hurry and produce another masterpiece for us to read.
Thank you for spending so much time on Cormac McCarthy and his incredible writing talents.
Thanks for your comment. McCarthy is certainly one of the most remarkable novelists working in the US at the moment, and I think there’s loads we can learn from him. His preoccupation with concepts like good and evil mean that his writing is enduring and ever-relevant. Which is your favourite McCarthy novel?
That’s a tough one. I would say it’s a tie between Blood Meridian and The Crossing. As much as I like the first 3 that take place in East Tennessee (which is where 3 of my books take place), I think he found the perfect setting and passion with the Mexican border. I hope he releases a new book soon. He’s made us wait too long.
Which is your favorite?
I think my favourite is Blood Meridian–there are a good few perfect pages that I could rip out and hang on my wall. I think McCarthy’s at his best when he’s being descriptive, which, thankfully, is frequently! I haven’t heard much recently about how his upcoming sci-fi novel The Passenger is progressing, but I know McCarthy’s keeping the details very close to his chest–hopefully we’ll get it soon!
It’s a big call to use Cormac McCarthy in a ‘how to write better’ column. For me, Cormac McCarthy sits at the top of the living authors pile now that Gabriel Marquez died. I wonder if his astounding writing ability takes being alive sixty or so years on the planet to develop. You’ve watched a lot of people you know die, the world has changed a lot from your youth, and your own body betrays its mortality. I’ve always believed a young man couldn’t write Blood Meridian. And I also believe that I’m wrong. I’ve often use a phrase that’s helped me write over the last two years – embrace uncertainty – from a book called How to Fly a Horse. It’s a great way to embrace writing, with its corresponding uncertainty and make it a strength. Its author, Kevin Ashton, would undoubtedly congratulate you for this article. It’s a great challenge you set, not to write like Cormac, but simply write better for me. cheers Kev
Many thanks for the thoughtful comment. I think you’re right that McCarthy’s writing style is linked to his own extensive life experiences, but I think too that he has a vivid imagination and a whole encyclopaedia of niche knowledge and vocabulary to draw upon. It’s these combined that make his worlds so strange and sad and his style so unique, and they’re also what make it impossible for mere mortals like us to ever effectively mimic McCarthy–that said, I do think we can learn from him. I haven’t read How to Fly a Horse, but I’ll certainly look it up – it sounds really interesting and useful!
Thanks for this post, Fred. After having one out of five novels published, I thought it about time to widen the scope of my reading to try to up my average and started in on “No Country for Old Men.” I found your articulation of the experience of reading McCarthy’s prose spot-on. I’m conscious of the spare, seductive structure of the sentences I’m reading at the same time that my head is reeling from the actions of desperate people struggling to find their way through a cruel and beautiful world.