Writing Style in The Things They Carried

Instructor: Ian Matthews

Ian teaches college writing and has a Master's in Writing and Publishing

Like most of the other aspects of 'The Things They Carried,' Tim O'Brien's writing style builds up to a larger point. The writing is highly realistic, and it varies between conversational and highly elevated as the story requires. In 'The Things They Carried,' O'Brien is making a point about how and why we tell stories, and the writing style is a big part of that message. Here's how it works.


Above all else, The Things They Carried is written with what's called verisimilitude. It's basically an extreme form of realistic writing. It's different from journalism or regular nonfiction writing -- The Things They Carried is somewhat fictional, after all. Verisimilitude like the kind O'Brien employs in The Things They Carried is almost more real than reality. O'Brien arranges facts in a way that almost matches what really happened, but is just a bit off. Characters that weren't at certain spots in the real-life war, or who survived in real life but die in the book, are rearranged. Things that happened in one spot in reality might happen somewhere else in the book.

The writing style is what helps O'Brien get away with this fudging of the exact facts of the situation. Because he writes with such confidence and clarity, we as readers are willing to accept what he says as true, even if it's not totally factual. This is a big part of the overall message of The Things They Carried -- that something can be emotionally true even if it's not literally true. We'll get back to that in a bit.

O'Brien's Diction

O'Brien's diction, or word choice, in the book varies between a very straightforward, conversational style for when the soldiers are talking to each other (hence, conversational) and a very elevated (read: fancy) tone for the narration.

That conversational style makes sense for the soldiers' conversations. With the book's focus on intense, in-your-face realism, it makes sense that these guys in their late teens or early twenties would just talk like guys. They cuss at each other, they talk about nothing, basically just talk to pass the time. It's never aimless, but it's never any fancier than it needs to be.

O'Brien's narration, on the other hand, is mostly written in a very elevated diction. The sentences are longer and the words are more complicated. Take a look at how he describes Curt Lemon's death later on in the book, in the section titled 'How to Tell a True War Story':

'If I could ever get the story right, how the sun seemed to gather around him and pick him up and lift him high into a tree, if I could somehow re-create the fatal whiteness of that light, the quick glare, the obvious cause and effect, then you would believe the last thing Curt Lemon believed, which for him must've been the final truth.'

The sentences are both longer and more complex, and there's more of a mix of nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, as well as some more abstract thinking. O'Brien has the advantage of looking back on these events after many years; his memory lets him paint these scenes in incredible detail. All that adds up to the big-picture meaning of The Things They Carried.

The Message of The Things They Carried

Remember: the smaller message of the writing style in The Things They Carried is that things can be emotionally true without being factually true. But that's just a piece of the bigger message at play in the book, and that bigger reason also flows out of the writing style.

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