There are two ways to become a better writer: write more and read more. I first read the Odyssey at the age of 14, the Iliad at 17. I return to them each year. Why? And why have these two epic poems some 2,700 years old (with traditions stretching back even earlier, to the Bronze Age) lasted so long and proven so influential? It’s not just their age. It isn’t even that the stories are so truthful to the human condition that they’re still relevant today. it’s that Homer (whoever he was) is a storyteller of nearly unsurpassed skill, a master of language. But Homer’s writing style and language isn’t merely a beautiful thing to read, it’s something you can start using to become a more powerful and persuasive writer or speaker.
As a side note, while Homer’s writing style is clearly influenced by centuries of oral tradition, it’s generally thought that the Iliad and Odyssey were composed in the forms we now know them roughly in the same period writing was brought back to Greece. To see the possible relation between Homer and the medium of writing, I recommend the excellent introduction to the Penguin translation of the Iliad.
Another side note: my parsing of Homer’s writing style appears in a more abbreviated form on Return of Kings.
Now, let’s leave the technicalities behind. We’ve already gone over how Homer takes advantage of memory biases. Here’s two more ways to use Homer’s writing style to beautify your work.
In Media Res
Most famously, both the Iliad and Odyssey begin in media res (“in the middle of things”). The Iliad doesn’t begin with the Judgment of Paris and his elopement with Helen, but covers only a few weeks in the final year of the Trojan War. The Odyssey, meanwhile, begins not with the sack of Troy, but at the point Odysseus is about to return home, 10 years later. This actually allows Homer to show us action first, and then fill in the missing details, which the reader is probably wondering about, later.
Aside from skipping a slower build, a staple of most of modern fiction, beginning your message in media res actually takes advantage of a Pre-Suasive principle: that of “the unfinished.” This relates to the Zeigarnik effect, where people pay more attention to and remember things that aren’t complete – things that are in the middle, you could say. In addition to allowing Homer to begin with memorable action, the device of in media res captivates attention because his audience wants to know what was the cause of this action (though in his own time the story was far more familiar on immediate recall than it is today). As you’re transfixed, Homer slowly solves the unanswered questions, partly with the Catalogue of Ships in book two of the Iliad, partly by the duel between Paris and Menelaus in book three, and partly by the meeting of Achilles and Priam in book 24. In the Odyssey, books 9-12 tie up the loose ends. Yet, the main story of both epics is still unsolved even so, and Homer can smoothly move his audience’s attention back to the action at Troy or Odysseus’ homecoming.
If you have trouble building up your story or message, why not mimic Homer’s writing style and begin in media res?Doing so at an opportune moment might save you some headaches.
Trance, Directness, and Simile
One of Homer’s most famous hallmarks is his use of simile. But there’s more to it than that in his writing style. There is actually a particular hypnotic pattern that these similes often use. Unlimited Selling Power explains:
Ideosensory trance is another form of hypnosis we experience daily. It is based on our innate abilities to create in our minds visual images, feelings, voices, sounds, and even tastes and smells. When did you engage in ideosensory activities today? When you vividly experienced something that was not going on in “real time.” Some examples: When you imagined what you might have for lunch or dinner, when you imagined what you might do at home tonight, or when you imagined a sales call, or mentally rehearsed what you might say to someone else in the office today. Did you see the expression on his face? Could you hear his words and feel yourself reacting? You were in an ideosensory trance.
Very persuasive individuals can orchestrate vivid images that influence both the perception and mood of the listener. Highly-skilled salespeople use “word magic” to bring their prospects and customers to other worlds of sights and sounds and feelings.
This is what Homer does constantly:
Here Asius flogged his team and chariot hard, nor did he find the gates shut, the bolt shot home, not yet, the men still held them wide, hoping to save some comrade fleeing the onset, racing for the ships. Straight at the gates he lashed his team, hell-bent, his troops crowding behind him shouting war cries, never thinking the Argive line could still hold out – they’d all be hurled back on their blackened hulls. Idiots. There in the gates they found two men, a brace of two great fighters, lionhearted sons of the Lapith spearmen, one Pirithous’ offspring, rugged Polypoetes, the other Leonteus, a match for murderous Ares. Both warriors planted there before the towering gates rose like oaks that that rear their crests on a mountain ridge, standing up to the gales and driving rains, day in, day out, their giant roots branching, gripping deep in the earth: so these two, trusting all to their arms, their power, stood up to Asius’ headlong charge and never shrank. (Iliad 12.142-60)
Notice two other aspects of this that make Homer’s simile/trance even more powerful. The first is obviously the natural element involved. People have always respected and feared nature, which Robert Greene highlights in The 48 Laws of Power. You also know nature. It doesn’t need explaining. The second element is the repeated use of action words (“standing,” “driving,” “branching,” “gripping”), which anchor the text and make it more impactful. Recall that more persuasive individuals use action words while less persuasive ones use passive words. Homer’s writing style is always full of action words.
Here’s another of the same kind of trance Homer routinely puts us in:
When the Trojans saw Ideomeneus fierce as fire, him and his aides-in-arms in handsome blazoned gear, they all cried out and charged them through the press and a sudden, pitched battle broke at the ships’ sterns. As gale winds swirl and shatter under the shrilling gusts on days when drifts of dust lie piled think on the roads and winds whip up the dirt in a dense whirling cloud – so the battle broke, storming chaos, troops inflamed, slashing each other with bronze, carnage mounting, manslaughtering combat bristling with rangy spears, the honed lances brandished in hand and ripping flesh and the eyes dazzled now, blind with the glare of bronze, glittering helmets flashing, fighters plowing on in a mass. Only a veteran steeled at heart could watch that struggle and still thrill with joy and never feel the terror. (Iliad 13.384-99)
Homer’s writing style also builds the action as good as it describes the action itself:
Hearing that, the son of Atreus strode on. Elated and making way through crowds of troops he found the two called Ajax, Great and Little, both captains armed for attack with a cloud of infantry forming up behind them. Think how a goatherd off on a mountain lookout spots a storm cloud moving down the sea…bearing down beneath the rush of the West Wind and miles away he sees it building black as pitch, blacker, whipping the whitecaps, full hurricane fury – the herdsman shudders to see it, drives his flocks to a cave – so dense the batallions grouped behind the two Aentes, packed, massed with hardy fighters dear to the gods, battalions black and bristling shields and spears, fighters sweeping into the breaking storm of war. (Iliad 4.310-24)
Notice how in the preceding paragraph Homer built the natural simile with the command “think how,” then put you in an ideosensory trance.
And how about when men actually go down? Homer’s writing style is famous for this for a reason. You can feel the the agony of the doomed men in the grueling, sensory detail he gives and the overlay of the simile.
Under his ear the son of Telamon stabbed with a heavy lance, wrenched the weapon out and down he went like a tall ash on a landmark mountain ridge that glistens far and wide – chopped down by an axe, its leaves running with sap, strewn across the earth…so Imbrius fell, the fine bronze armor clashing against him hard. (Iliad 13.211-16)
But Homer’s writing style is full of more brutal similes still:
Back he shrank to his cohorts, dodging death but hounding him as he went Meriones speared him between the genitals and the navel – hideous wound, the worst the god of battles deals to wretched men. There the spear stuck. Hugging the shaft he writhed, gasping, shuddering like some wild bull in the hills that herdsmen shackle, trapping the beast with twisted ropes and he fights them all the way as the men drag him off – so he gasped with his wound. (Iliad 13.656-63)
Homer can make war beautiful too. When Achilles kills Hector, this is the trance that he puts us in with his writing style:
And on that resolve he drew the whetted sword that hung at his side, tempered, massive, and gathering all his force he swooped like a soaring eagle launching down from the dark clouds to earth to snatch some helpless lamb or trembling hare. So Hector swooped now, swinging his whetted sword and Achilles charged too, bursting with rage, barbaric, guarding his chest with the well-wrought blazoned shield, head tossing his gleaming helmet, four horns strong and the golden plumes shook that the god of fire drove in bristling think along its ridge. Bright as the star amid the stars in the night sky, star of the evening, brightest star that rides the heavens, so fire flared from the sharp point of the spear of Achilles brandished high in his right hand, bent on Hector’s death, scanning his splendid body – where to pierce it best? (Iliad 22.363-78)
The brilliance of Homer’s writing style and the trances that he puts you in is that he can engage all your senses. Homer can make you think of ghastly and terrible things as well as bright, wondrous ones. The implacable forces of nature are given treatment along with universally recognized conditions of human life. Homer also doesn’t limit himself to visuals. Sound is given just as powerful a treatment in his writing style:
But over against them glorious Hector ranged his Trojans…and now they stretched the line of battle strangling tight, the blue-haired god of the sea and Hector fired in arms, he driving the Trojans, the god driving the Argives – and a wild surf pounded the ships and shelters, squadrons clashed with shattering war cries rising. Not so loud the breakers bellowing out against the shore, driven in from open sea by the North Wind’s brutal blast, not so loud the roar of fire whipped to a crackling blaze rampaging into a mountain gorge, raging up through timber, not so loud the gale that howls in the leafy crowns of oaks when it hits its pitch of fury tearing branches down – nothing so loud as cries of Trojans, cries of Achaeans, terrible war cries, armies storming against each other. (Iliad 14.461-74)
And yet, Homer’s writing style isn’t entirely centered on war, even in the Iliad. He can use the same trance, the same sensual language, to build friendships between his heroes as much as he can use it to describe their deaths. One striking example is in the famous “winged words” spoken between Diomedes and the Lycian captain Glaucus:
High-hearted son of Tydeus, why ask about my birth? Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men. Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth, now the living timber bursts with the new buds and spring comes round again. And so with men: as one generation comes to life, another dies away. But about my birth, if you’d like to learn it well, first to last – though many people know it – here’s my story… (Iliad 6.169-77)
Glaucus puts his audience in a trance, transitions with the word “but,” and then gives a little social proof, saying “many people know it” to compensate in some ways for the weak position he has put himself in.
There’s no arguing with those passages, no parsing their meaning in your analytical mind. They hit your senses directly. With Homer, you see the glare of the bronze of clashing warriors burning bright as fire, you hear their cries as you hear the howling winds, and when men die, they go down like trees or bellowing bulls. The extraordinary is given an ordinary experience that you know. If you’re explaining, you’re losing in persuasive gravitas. Homer never explains. Homer’s writing style also never involves passive language. When using his similes or not, Homer’s language is always direct and potent. Homer’s writing style, as seen in the Odyssey but particularly in the Iliad, is something I’ve tried to use to empower my own upcoming epic, The Red War.
At the end of part one, The Awakened Lion, there is a great battle, with the constant pounding and blasting of artillery. One passage had me describing it only as “a shell seemed to burst each second,” but as a Homer reader, I knew I could do better than that!
Massive explosions rocked the entrenched line, followed by the CLANGS of the Mechas’ guns. Meanwhile, the howitzers of the frontal firebase still belched their furious blue sparks as thunderously and brightly as ever, only stopping when the line of Arctoduses crossed their line of fire. The other artillery positions simply readjusted and kept the barrage coming. The bombardment was withering. A shell seemed to explode each second, the blooming puffs of fire and black smoke numerous as the numberless daisies bursting open in the spring, so it looked to the Martians in that trench. Even though he hadn’t been hit, the constant barrage was threatening to make Joseph Wilson a casualty anyway. He kept his helmet as close to his ears as possible, as the constant pounding made his eardrums ring so loudly he thought they would blow apart.
Homer continues to give to me, so many years after I first read him. If you need to put some meat on the bones of your words, to make them more powerful, Homer’s writing style is there for you to use.
Understand: people mostly live in stories. Scott Adams likes to call it “different movies on the same screen.” Facts by themselves are mostly boring. They need to be centered on a narrative that’s moving. If you want to sharpen your technique, whether you want to write a great story or simply craft a persuasive message, the machinery is usually the same. The best way to improve is to “write more and read more.” In this and many other areas in life, Homer still stands as a titan, 27 centuries later.
To put yourself on par with Homer’s writing style, read Stumped also, because then you’ll understand some of the psychological mechanisms behind why it works and not just how.