Thursday, January 27, 2011

Writing and Story

One of my terrific critting buddies, Matt Rush, made a comment recently that got me thinking about the differences between being a good writer and knowing how to craft a good story. The more I think about it the more I believe this is a very important distinction for most new writers to learn.

Most of us who have started down this road toward publishing a book are pretty decent at writing. Some of us are really good at it. My feeling is that most of us are good writers but not necessarily good story tellers yet. I see blog after blog talking about improving our writing, but while this is truly important, I feel what most of us really need to improve more than anything is our story telling.

We can all string together words in a sensible and sometimes beautiful fashion, and when we look back at the drafts we have created, we are understandably proud of what we have accomplished. Often we think we are close to having something that could sell. Now I think that the number one thing we could do to reach that selling point is to understand that writing really well isn't enough. We need to dramatically improve on the craft of laying out a great story.



  1. Agree totally. I once read a blog that argued what was more important, great writing or a great story. The answer was both. You can't have great writing but a dim story, and you can't have a fantastic story with bad writing.

  2. I totally agree (obviously), but I would argue that you're pretty good storyteller already Ted. Obviously I'm not done with your whole novel yet, so I can't say for certain that you'll wrap up all the plot lines perfectly and everything, but I do know from what I have read that I think you're already better than me at things like pacing, tension and character arc.

    Can you improve? Sure. Hell, we all can. There probably isn't a book out there that couldn't be made a little better, a little tighter, but I'm glad to see you looking at it this way.

    I know my writing is good. Yes it can be improved in places, always, but I know my story is what needs the most work. That's why I'm so glad to have you, Simon and Ryan. Story is the kind of thing that, at least for me, really needs someone else's point of view.

  3. Matt, I think all of us are good writings but in need of improvement on the storytelling angle. I think we all a decent job when we need to be doing a fantastic job. Unfortunately, however good we are as critting partners, I think we mostly correct the writing part while having more trouble helping each other with the story part.

  4. i think that it's easier (to me) to admit that it's the writing that needs improvement. it's easier to fiddle with sentence structure than to rework huge chunks of a novel... it's lazy, but it's true!

  5. I see a lot of both out there. People who write really well, but don't see gaping holes in there stories, but also lots of folks who talk about how cool their stories are, how great their characters are... but can't get it across simply because their writing isn't up to snuff. I've seen people write 300K epics without really understanding how to construct a sentence.

    I think a lot of people start with some basic storytelling skill, and then realize their writing isn't good enough, and so spend years developing that. But once their writing is good they now think they're done. But, really, if they looked closely they'll realize that whole story thing is much trickier than they thought and they still need a lot of work.

    It's that difference between having cool characters and events and plot ideas, and actually constructing a story out of these pieces that maximizes tension and pace and feeling. Not so easy, and I think that's what you're getting at here.

    The subtleties of story are difficult, and there aren't always as many resources out there for that, at least beyond the basics.

  6. Exactly, Bryan. I think that this particular weakness is one that many have a hard to fully admitting. Even if they think they are weak in it, they may not realize the full extent of the weakness. I consider this my strongest failing, and I am struggling to get better in it. I used over a hundred pages of my first novel to do a lot of thing other than truly ramp up the tension, and that just won't cut it these days.

  7. Yeah, I think people have a hard time seeing it, first of all. The story, in their head, makes complete sense. It can be hard to "see" what a new reader does. And even when they start to realize, it's hard to admit, okay, this story doesn't work...

    And then it's a lot of work to change. It's not like smoothing a few sentences. Sometimes you have to rip something apart. And that's assuming you know how to fix it, which isn't always easy...

    I think after awhile, though, you figure out how to write inside the story, reconstructing things from the interior. When I was younger I didn't know how to do that. And perhaps didn't realize I had to...

  8. Yes, and that is what's daunting about it. At first we fervently wish to just fix some sentences, perhaps a chapter here and there and believe it is done. Ever since I realized I needed a big rewrite I haven't been able to touch it. It's overwhelming.

  9. I think you're right, Ted, and the sad thing about it is that you can spend years fixing the writing craft and polishing the sentences, only realise the storytelling doesn't work. And what does that mean? Rewrite big chunks of it.

    Fixing the storytelling is hard. I'm about to start the third draft of my current WIP, and I haven't yet looked at the sentence by sentence. Each time, I could tell my plot wasn't tight enough yet.

    It's harder to admit you can't tell the story right, because it seems more intuitive than word-by-word craft.

  10. I agree it takes both. I do technical writing well but sometimes struggle with writing when it comes to fictional work. I'm probably better at storytelling though.

  11. Agreed. Especially as the style as to what is a sellable story has changed.

  12. I think it depends HUGELY on the genre, but I would agree that most people who pursue writing write pretty well (not all, but most). I think writing pretty well is adequate if you have a great story. In fact you can even be sub-par if your story is REALLY compelling *cough*Twilight*cough* to some subset of readers. If your story is just a brief tale though, the writing needs to be exquisite (I would argue The Alchemist falls here. It is such a simple little story, but it is told SO BEAUTIFULLY.

    And I agree--I see a lot more on CRAFT, when really, there maybe should be more on story telling.

  13. Oh I could so get on the good writing vs good story telling soapbox . .

    I know lots of good writers that can write a good scene. A meets b and c happend and the D makes everything come out OK. Excellent concept and the writing is, yes, pretty good.

    But there may not be an overall plot or character concept.

    So no, good storytelling and good storywriting are not necessarilly the same cocept.

    Thanks for sharing your insights.


  14. Absolutely agree. Story telling is something you can learn, however...