Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Writing vs. Storytelling

Once upon a time, like all the way back in 2011, I read a book. The buzz surrounding this book was deafening; there was virtually nothing else talked about on book blogs for several weeks prior to this book's release. I had been on the waiting list through the library for weeks and was ecstatic when my turn came. 

The book was awful

Oh, the prose was pretty. Beautiful sentences, evocative paragraphs, sigh-inducing lines. 

But the story was crap. Characters were one dimensional. The plot was flimsier than fancy tissues and more cliche than a Meg Ryan rom-com. Continuity problems abounded - I flagged thirty-nine of them in the two-hundred-ish page book. Physical impossibilities, scientific improbabilities, and flat-out stupidity marred the pages of this book, which happened to be the first book in a series that would go on to be wildly popular. 

On top of all that, the cover was a metaphor so heavy-handed, I'm surprised I could even lift the thing up. 

Lots of other people loved the book, willing to forgive all the problems (which they agreed existed) because of the pretty words. 

I decided to give her another chance; when her next series came out, I read the first book in that series. I felt it was marginally better, but still fell flat. Flat characters. Dumb story. Bad science (in a science fiction book!). 

Contrast that with my very favorite series, which is written ... simply. Yes. Let's use the word "simply". The writer breaks a lot of popular writing rules and many "real" artists claim this author is terrible.

Oh, sure, they agree the story is good. The characters are interesting and well-developed. The plot is tight and intriguing. The red herrings work, the twists are surprising. They laughed, they cried, but it just isn't. good. writing. 

And here's the conclusion I've come to: 

I prefer good storytelling over good writing. 

Let me say that again, lest your eyes deceive you: 


Now, to be clear, the writing needs to be passable. Correct spelling, reasonable usage of punctuation, all the words are used correctly, and all that jazz. But when it comes right down to it, I prefer a good story over something that might technically be more perfect in terms of craft. 

So this is now my aim. I want to tell a good story. I'll do my best to get the technical stuff right in all the ways that matter most, but story beats craft. 

What say you? 



  1. Ugh I am with you. I read The Historian because it was a NY times best seller and it was awful. Good writing but a slow and boring story. A good story is more important any day.

  2. I am 100% positive that there will always be a huge list of people who are better than I am at either storytelling or writing. But as far as reading goes, I choose story over craft every time and I'm not even sorry.

  3. I think these things happen because people too caught up in the "rules" of writing "correctly" and they lose sight of the stories that made them fall in love with fiction in the first place.

  4. I agree! The storytelling will get me past bad writing (usually, though it is distracting), but I am dying to know what these books are... ;-)

  5. I purposely didn't say which ones they were because I didn't want a difference of opinion to obscure the point of the post.

    BUT. I am willing to entertain guesses ;)

  6. I think I want to quibble about the term "good writing" here. I think good writing IS good storytelling. What you're talking about is pretty, poetic writing--and I agree that it isn't necessary to a good book (although I do like it in many instances). But I'm just being argumentative. :)

  7. I've actually said this EXACT thing to about forty different people (all of whom are MFA/literary folks) and you should see the looks they give me. Or the way they respond. It's like, "Oh, you poor little ignorant thing. You don't even know bad writing when you see it. You think plotting is the same as writing. We'll start a kickstarter to educate you."

    So I've given up using this argument, because people who are firmly entrenched in the "good writing" camp just cannot be reasoned with.

  8. Ha ha ha! Maybe you need to start practicing your return sneer. "Oh you poor little MFAs who think that stringing pretty words together makes you awesome. So tragic you will spend your life writing boring depressing lit fic while I write things that bring happiness and excitement to people's lives."

    Hmmm... Is my bias showing? :)

  9. Yes I prefer a good story to a well written book the story has to grip me and make me want to read more.

  10. I agree with you! Whenever I read a book, I can tell which one it is, because I either get pulled into the story, or I start getting distracted within 5 minutes. I have an A.D.D. tendency, and I'll tell you, a good test of the story is to give it to someone who has a severe case of A.D.D.! lol Seriously though, the characteristics of someone who has it, is that they excel at things that they are interested in, and get really distracted if it's not. There are differences in opinions of course, but it can open the eyes! Ha! Great post!!

  11. I wholeheartedly agree with you!

    But then, this is why I tend to stick to literary classics written by the likes of Austen and Dickens. Beautiful writing AND excellent storytelling existing in the same books! (Who knew?!)

    It's an art that has, for the most part, been lost to modern writers. I'm not sure why, but there it is!

    Now, if you will please excuse me while I pull out my well-loved copy of Jane Eyre...

  12. I honestly think a lot of it has to do with the accessibility of writing. We can ALL do it, in the most basic sense of the word. My first grader "wrote a book" as his language arts project last year. I'm not saying that this allows writing to become "bad" or substandard, but that when everyone can theoretically write a book, and we have virtually unlimited resources to physically (or digitally produce books), there are a lot of books competing for our attention.

    And when there are a lot of books competing for our attention, every book tries to be better, faster, more-whatever than the one before. So genres splinter off, becoming more well-defined, and literary fiction - or "the pretty stuff"- becomes its own genre, delineated from "genre" fiction by the content of the story and the quality of the prose.

    This is, of course, not a hard-and-fast rule, and I love genre fiction, and think there are some genius writers turning out some beautifully written plot-heavy books.

    But I think it's a contributing factor.

  13. To this point: This is why YA and MG are so plot-heavy and prose-light. Younger readers usually have shorter attention spans and thus want to be sucked in more quickly than "mature" adults.

    (it should be noted that I read genre fiction, and a lot of YA genre fiction at that)

  14. Exactly. And some people get gripped by beautiful, meandering language that takes them on a journey without a plot... but I'm not one of them.

    This is also why I don't enjoy poetry.



Related Posts with Thumbnails