Writing Craft: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road contained an unusual, if not disruptive writing style that immediately struck me on the first page. Sentences varied in odd structures, some abrupt, some run-on, some fragmented. Many contractions were missing apostrophes; quotation marks were completely absent from all dialogue. Some dialogue was intertwined within paragraphs of description, action, and narrative as exemplified in the following:

He screwed down the plastic cap and wiped the bottle off with a rag and hefted it in his hand. Oil for their little slutlamp to light the long gray dusks, the long gray dawns. You can read me a story, the boy said. Cant you, Papa? Yes, he said. I can. (7)

The disruptive writing style, seemingly incoherent at times, stylistically blended with the post-apocalyptical world of The Road. The atmosphere throughout the story was gray and cold, filled with the lifeless charred remains of a once flourishing landscape weighted heavily with despair and innate survival. The text portrayed this with eerie appropriateness. Sentences were cold, words were charred, and prose and dialogue loomed with despair, graced by the smallest nuances of hope. Proper constructs would have been detrimental to the authenticity of the story, its chaotic reality in the reader’s mind.

Dreams and memories blurred with the protagonist’s reality, as did the narration and the protagonist’s inner dialogue. Point-of-view shifted with no warning from third to first person to tell the story as accurately as it could be told. In the following example, a series of third person run-on sentences morphs into the protagonist’s perspective:

They stumbled and fell through the woods the night long and long before dawn the boy fell and would not get up again. He wrapped him in his own parka and wrapped him in the blanket and sat holding him, rocking back and forth. A single round left in the revolver. You will not face the truth. You will not. (68)

The ambiguity of who speaks the sentence “A single round left in the revolver” – narrator or protagonist – is found throughout the book lending to the precariousness and fragmentation of the story’s environment. The two subsequent sentences “You will not face the truth. You will not,” call to question whether this is actually the protagonist speaking to his son, his inner dialogue, or the narrator speaking to the protagonist, further compounding this world of uncertainty dynamic.

The stylistic handling or mishandling of the text contributed to the fullness of the story. Disjointed oversimplified dialogue with minimal clarity of who was speaking helped to illustrate the dismal, desperate environment. While heavy repetition of thematic words solidified the setting: gray, cold, wet, ash, burned, charred, dead. Run-ons punctuated by short fragments and single word sentences accentuated the scenes’ actions and moods.

My take away from The Road is one of creative freedom, of knowing the rules well and breaking them to fit the writer’s intent. The text successfully created a vivid portrayal of the post-apocalyptic world, one that was as rich and thriving in detail as it was gruesome and deadly in story. An exemplary literary work in which every word is used as the hues and thick brush strokes of a Van Gogh landscape.

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5 thoughts on “Writing Craft: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

  1. David, I enjoyed this post, and I’m glad you read this book. I think it’s an important one, an example of dystopian world creation that is staggeringly poetic in a way that could only come from Cormac McCarthy. It’s also, as you noticed, an incredibly bleak narrative. People seem to either love it or hate it. I loved it – I found the sheer beauty of the writing to be redemptive despite the dark outlook – but I can understand why some readers find it unrelentingly depressing. To me, The Road serves as an existential warning to humanity at the outset of the third millennium. I suspect it will be a book with a lasting influence, one that people two or three hundred years from now will refer to when they try to understand the civilization that launched the Anthropocene age. Of course, I could be wrong about all this!It’s interesting that you came up with the word “disruptive” to describe the writing style. I never thought of it exactly that way, but it’s a good way to put it. McCarthy’s style is unquestionably original, and therefore *disruptive* of conventional or familiar forms of literary expression. It’s a rare writer that can truly claim this distinction on style alone: one thinks of Virginia Woolf, Hemingway, Faulkner, maybe Pynchon and Don DeLillo. McCarthy is also a great storyteller, capable of using imagery to create incredibly vivid and real-seeming worlds, as he does in The Road. You wrote: “Sentences were cold, words were charred, and prose and dialogue loomed with despair, graced by the smallest nuances of hope. Proper constructs would have been detrimental to the authenticity of the story, its chaotic reality in the reader’s mind.” Great points, though it might have been interesting to break down a few illustrative examples of this in your analysis. How, exactly, did McCarthy create these effects? What happens to his sentences if you try to rewrite them in a more conventional diction?The example you give of a rather distant third person POV evolving into direct transcription of inner monologue is a great illustration of the flexibility of psychic distance in the third person POV. I like to think of it as a lens, which starts out with a wide view and then zooms in to the point where the separation between the narrator and the protagonist is nonexistent. It’s one of the reasons I like the third person. First person has its advantages, but you don’t get that kind of flexibility – the freedom to zoom in and out. Further down, you make several more excellent observations about how McCarthy creates his bleak post-apocalyptic world. I think you hit it on the nose with the point about the repetition of certain words solidifying the setting, and the linkage you draw between the length of the sentences accentuating the mood of the scenes is intriguing. The comparison to Van Gogh’s heavy brushstrokes is provocative. I would, however, have liked to see more in-depth exploration of these points, with supporting examples. Digging a little deeper would no doubt give you an even more thorough understanding of these techniques and the effects they might have on the reader’s emotions.

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  2. Thanks Tim. Digging deeper was a challenge in keeping the analysis narrowly focused. I had several notes and highlights all over the spectrum of observations. I'm thinking my post-surgical medicated state might have elevated that challenge a bit. I am considering revisiting this book to analyze it from an alternate perspective. There was so much going on that I could easily spend hours talking about it. And I will go deeper.One thing is definite – McCarthy's writing style has had an immediate influence on the new fiction I'm writing. And the book continues to resonate. I saw there is a movie that was made a couple years ago. I'm afraid to see it, hate to let it ruin my mental images of the book.

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  3. Don't see the movie! (I've heard it's bad.) Anyway, I'm glad the book has had an influence. Your analysis is great – I'm just trying to push you to get even narrower in focus, which will allow you to go even more in depth without racking up the word count. I'm enjoy this forum, too. It's a great idea to do this in a blog, as it allows others to benefit from and contribute to the dialog.Hope your recovery continues apace!

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  4. I like this post and I think something that is interesting in his work is that it pushes into the realm of what do we really need to understand writing? Do we need quotes, commas, and other conventions that we see, but look beyond? I've read some of his other work and it doesn't look (on the page) or feel like this. It would be interesting to compare parts of The Crossing to this and see how he used style to change the feeling of the narrative, and what remains. I am not sure if disruptive fits for me in his style, but I think stark and ethereal, almost like poetry where you have to experience it and see where it is taking you. I don't think it is mishandling, I think it is just McCarthy. I did find the story stunning and very emotional – and because there is only the two characters moving across a surreal landscape, the emotions and the stress seem multiplied or better magnified.I like this entry and I agree with the conversation, that if you expand the post into an essay and bring out more examples, I think not only would it be a great way to consider this novel, but you probably will discover some other elements of the work. I think one of the great rewards of analysing literature is the discoveries you make, sparking one idea off another like flint over dried leaves. Tim has proven the value of that on his website and it looks like you are too. Good job. By the way, I saw the movie and while it wasn't as terrible as I expected, it gave nothing new or added any depth. Skip it and let your reading be your guide.

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  5. Funny how you mentioned the movie today, I was talking with some coworkers about this book and movie, as well as others, today at lunch. The consensus has been avoid it!I reread my use of "mishandling," the word "intentional" should have preceded it. I only meant it in the stylistic sense.The more I think about exploring The Road or other McCarthy works in greater depth the more overwhelming it becomes. Primarily because of limited time, though one day I will get there.You wrote, "because there is only the two characters moving across a surreal landscape, the emotions and the stress seem multiplied or better magnified." This perfectly describes a feeling I had, but I was unsure how to convey it. There are so many layers to this story, I wonder how many McCarthy intended to incorporate when he set out to write this. Great discussion on this topic – thanks for keeping it going!

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