Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Here We Are Back On That Subject Again!


I am still reading/absorbing Wired For Story by LisaCron and still astounded by the statement that: “beautiful writing trumps all” is a myth.

The reality is that “storytelling trumps beautiful writing, every time.”

I was rooming with two writer friends at a Bouchercon conference years ago. We'd been given a tote full of free books and had piled them all on one of the beds to begin reading first paragraphs aloud to each other to see which ones caught our attention (so we could take those home and donate the rest back). 

One friend had the arc copy of The Da Vinci Code (the arc is the Advanced Reading Copy usually given to reviewers before the book is published) and she just handed to me and said, here I think you might like this with your artist background (The title). I opened it, read it aloud and was hooked. Why?

The characters were not fabulous or particularly well drawn, the dialogue wasn’t great, the imagery in the churches was only written to point to the next clue and it didn’t contain luscious language to enthrall the reader. (my opinion)

So why was I immediately hooked, as was apparently millions of others? Because, from the very first page I was dying to know what happens next. The story has a sense of urgency from the first paragraph.

That is not to disparage beautifully written stories. After all, if they also abide by the storytelling criteria, they can be a fabulous read. The point, Cron makes is, “learning to write well is not synonymous with learning to write a story.”

Story telling first, writing well, secondary.

If you pick up a book and don’t care what happens next, what does it matter how well it is written? 

A cognitive truth from Chapter 2:
“When the brain focuses its full attention on something, it filters out all unnecessary information.”

The story secret Cron goes on to point out,
“To hold the brain’s attention, everything in a story must be there on a need-to-know basis,” so your “first job is to zero in on the point your story is making.”

It becomes necessary to take out all unnecessary and distracting information. Too often writers fall in love with their own words and quickly lose the reader because they fail to stay focused on the protagonist’s issue (or worse-haven't figured out what it is, the theme and the plot.

Chew on this and consider whether you write to story or write to enthrall others with your beautiful descriptions. Is it more important to you--to be read by many or admired for  beautiful prose? 

Have the books you've read lately, left you flat--maybe put too much emphasis on beautiful writing and not enough on story?

Chime right in…


Anonymous said...

My husband and I were discussing this just a few days ago. I want a good story, but if it isn't well written, I have trouble sticking with it. I don't like that you sometimes have to sacrifice quality writing to get a quality story. Writing well is a craft. It's something you can learn and I see no reason an author shouldn't take the time to learn it for the sake of their readers. That's just me ranting though. Good post. :)

Ann Foweraker said...

Hi Cora, interesting post! As for me.. a well written book with an average story can carry me, a poorly written book with a ripping story can carry me. An average story with poor writing leaves me uninspired - and that's the crunch point - for when it comes to it, the majority of books are average by definition. So, if as a writer you write well, you can still capture an audience even with an average storyline, therefore it makes sense to try to write well. Strangely enough, I often find that writers who are also poets write well without resorting to loads of 'beautiful descriptions' and are a pleasure to read even when the storyline is average.

Sally Carpenter said...

The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew bookers are not elegant prose but people love them for the energetic storytelling. The trick is for writers to master BOTH the plot and the prose into a well-written, engaging story. Too often people feel you can't have both. I never cared for the "literary" novels assigned in college because the story wasn't interesting.

elizabethfais said...

I think there should be a good balance between the strength of a story and how it's written, especially if you are trying to break into traditional publishing. As a reader though, I'll take a strong story over purely literary prose any day.

Anonymous said...

Cora - I agree. We're all looking for a Great Story. How many times have you picked up a piece of litfic and thought, nice description but who cares?

Rabia said...

The rise of self-publishing has opened my eyes to this hard truth. As a writer, I'm extremely sensitive to the quality of the prose, and I've lived in a bubble long enough to have thought everyone felt this way. But as I downloaded sample after sample of highly-rated self-published books, I realized that readers largely don't care about clunky prose or thin characterization or flat dialog. They just want to be swept away into a story.

Since I want it all, I'm working on improving both my storytelling and style. Constantly. :D

Unknown said...

Thankfully, there are writers who can tell a story and write well: Barbara Kingsolver, Sandra Cisneros, Louise Eldrich,Vanessa Diffenbaugh to name a few. Storytelling wins me over 95% of the time. Although there have been occasions when I'll read a great story, that is not well written and I won't buy anything from that writer again.
Love Wired for Story, halfway through and revising my ms like a mad hatter.

Patricia Caviglia said...

I have forced myself to read one novel because it was beautifully written. It was motivated by self-interest. I admired the author's descriptions and hoped that reading her novel would help me develop my skills. While she's written many books, I don't plan on reading any of them. It was too much of a struggle to read that one.

Ellen Gregory said...

As a reader, I'm terribly forgiving of the writing so long as the story is gripping... but it's so much better when the writing is brilliant too.

I just want to add that I think 'good writing' encompasses more than merely good prose. It's perfect pacing and telling detail and complex characterisation etc etc as well. The narrative might well be invisible to the reader, but it's still 'good writing' in my book if all those other craft elements are there.

Veronica Sicoe said...

Being aware that it's the story that readers love, not the writing quality as such (that's a love only literature professors and other writers develop) doesn't mean we shouldn't try to improve our style or voice, and it doesn't mean a good story survives if the prose is utterly unreadable hogwash. All it means is that story comes first because it's story that creates emotion and generates reader investment.

I for one work my ass off to improve my style, skill and grammar, but I pay much more attention to story, which encompasses characters and plot, than to anything else.

BTW, Cora, I've just got my copy of Wired For Story in the mail too! Can't wait to start reading, but gotta finish two other books first. :)

Lisa Cron said...

Great discussion! Cora, I'm SO glad you like the book! I just wanted to hop in to say that, as you and Vero point out, it's not that great writing doesn't make a good story much, much better. It absolutely does. My biggest point is that without a story, beautiful writing doesn't matter a whit. But WITH a story? Beautiful writing can knock it out of the park, all the way to transcendent. Because at the end of the day, it's the story that gives meaning and urgency to those beautiful words, and without that, who cares?

Anonymous said...

That is a great debate. I have read a lot of average books and a lot of page turners and most of the page turners are commercial fiction. The only author I've read who masters both with ease is Jody Hedlund. You can't put writing over story or story over writing, they meld together wonderfully and it just so happens she has another book out soon: Unending Devotion.

I agree with Lisa above, good writing without a story (unless it's a poem) isn't worth much as a read.

Cora said...

Lisa, I appreciate that you stopped by to comment. Your point is well taken that "beautiful writing WITH a story. . .can knock it out of the park."

For anybody reading the comments, you can go to: http://bit.ly/TVuaQZ and read her article (on 7 ways to use brain science to hook readers and reel them in).

Cora said...

Thank you all for commenting today. I have my head in my manuscript for final go-through so I haven't had time to respond to each of you.

Let the conversation go on . . .

Anonymous said...

Interesting points. It's true that you need to pull the reader in and that often happens through what is going on in the story. Beautiful prose on top of a great story is magical.