Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Writing vs Story

My feeling is that most of us newbie writers have a serious problem with story. When we first take to the blogosphere, we learn an incredible amount about writing, and after a year or two we gain a lot of confidence. However, I think the bulk of what we learn concerns only one aspect of writing a novel, and that is the writing side of it. I don't mean only grammar, though of course that is an important part of it, but rather all of the disparate elements of creating decent prose and dialogue.

Imagine for a moment that you have learned to write perfectly, that you have perfect grammar, perfect prose, perfect dialogue. You can still write a terrible story.

Story is where most of us go wrong in our early efforts. Part of it is that it is a bit elusive. Who is to say for your particular subgenre where the best place to begin your story truly is? Who can tell you whether to have a single POV character, or whether several might work better for the needs of the story? There are some things that I can give an opinion on, though they are not universal. For instance, these days I feel that omniscient is not the best POV to use, though having said that I still see good books by famous authors using it and using it well. I feel that close 3rd works best for me, and for YA books first person seems to be the most commonly used POV.

Do you ratchet up the tension enough in your story? Do you deflate it too quickly? Do you use too much exposition? I keep hearing that there should be almost no exposition in the first fifty or so pages. You need to hook the reader and gain their trust before you start doing a little 'telling'. There are no hard and fast rules that will work in all cases, which is why becoming good at 'story' is so hard and frustrating.

So many times I see writers not getting it when it comes to story. They will post a chapter or excerpt online and others will let them know that something is wrong with it, yet when they come back with an edited version it is easy to see that they didn't truly 'get it'. It might be too much exposition, or perhaps the writer is overwhelming the reader with too many new characters in one chapter, but when the writer is warned about the issue, they more often than not tinker a bit with it rather than actually resolving the problem.

What are your thoughts on story?


  1. I agree with you, but I think it goes deeper than POV or other technicalities like that. The actual idea, the story itself is often the problem. The tale of a person who does stuff isn't going to be automatically interesting just because the writer decides to tell it. The stronger the idea is the less all the other stuff will matter as the journey of the characters will take over, which is why many badly written books do so well, they tell a good story.

    Not sure there's much to be done in terms of getting aspiring writers to come up with better ideas, not particularly constructive to say: It's well written but I just found the story of a man who discovers a new planet and lives there alone for 50 years not to be very interesting.

    Moody Writing

  2. Certainly a story can be wrecked simply because it is not particularly interesting. But I think many that could be interesting are wrecked because the writer tells the story in a bad manner or makes too many mistakes amongst the 'story' elements.

  3. There's a fine line between Writing and Story. Story is important, but if it's written badly it ruins it. Just like watching a film if the story behind it is good but the acting is terrible. Makes it almost unwatchable.

    But then what makes a good story? I think that's down to personal preference.

    I think good writing is just as important as it can be used to enhance the story, but if you get it wrong it can have the opposite effect.

  4. I do think that story trumps writing to a degree, but you are right that good writing is also essential. Do both and you are on the right path! I just feel that it is far easier to master the writing part, while story is harder to master.

  5. I think you're totally right. Story is where we all get stuck in the beginning. It certainly was the case for me.

    These writing rules aren't set in stone and I think writers need to understand that they are more useful as 'guidelines'. But if you're a beginner, you're not really going to learn how to tell a story well if you don't first try to write by the rules.

    It really just takes practice and practice and more practice. I've been writing for five years pretty much every day, I've been committed, and it's only NOW that I can confidently say that I'm good. I don't mean to toot my own horn here, lol, I'm just trying to say that it takes TIME and EFFORT to learn how to break the rules effectively.

  6. I couldn't agree more, Jesica!

  7. It's interesting that you bring this up Ted, and not to get too personal, but so far I've always considered storytelling to be your strong point.

    It's not like your writing is bad, not even close, but I do think it gets overpowered by how well you plot, set pace, develop characters, and so forth. I've always thought we complimented each other well, as CPs, because you're good at all the things I struggle with.

  8. To concur with Jessica's comment, it really does take time and practice. I think the natural progression of a newbie writer is to start writing, realizing it's hard, learn how to write (really write) and gain confidence, then learn storytelling, then master it all. Time, effort, commitment, and a love for the art are all ingredients for success.

    I feel like I'm pretty confident now when it comes to writing - the rules, techniques, etc. I've learned a lot these last 2 years. Now I'm starting to pay more attention to story, seeing where I'm making mistakes, and trying to avoid them and improve those aspects. There's definitely a distinction between writing and story, and I've seen that as part of my journey. So I'll just keep practicing and learning as much as I can!

  9. There are so many disparate parts that go into a story, I think it's hard to pinpoint what makes one. Sure, you need a good plot, find a POV that works, you also need structure, which so many writers have to learn, and then of course, there's the voice.

    But all of this takes time, and I think the more you write and study the craft, the better you'll become at writing.

  10. There's great writers and great storytellers - the secret is to master both!

  11. Matt, I think you are right for the most part, though I still have some major weaknesses in story elements. I could sure use a bit of your descriptive prowess at times. People are telling me that my new story is so lean it screams.

  12. Story is the hardest part for me. Making sure there's enough conflict and tension to sustain interest is so important. No one cares what the landscape looks like, they want to know what's hiding in the tall grass and if it's going to jump out at the guy walking through it.

    I agree story trumps writing.

  13. This is a huge reason I've gone from sharing chapters to waiting until it's all done and sharing holistically. I think it's really hard to tell if the story is working from a chapter at a time. I LOVE the plot weaving part, and so THAT angle of story-telling, I think i do pretty well with, but yes--that pacing, what stays in, what gets yanked... There is a pretty steep learning curve. I think my first book has a good underlying story, but I still haven't mastered the telling of it. Later efforts are stronger (I'd like to think, though I have some evidence)

    I think omniscient is annoying for the most part, but it is probably because of the kind of books I like. It is hard to be suspenseful in an omniscient PoV. I am coming to peace with first. YA likes it and mystery it works pretty well too--to be in the PoV of the sleuth, first person.

  14. Hart, I still don't much like first person. I have enjoyed it okay in some books, like Moby Dick, but the whole YA first-person thing kills me. Close third is by far my favorite.

  15. I think you should analyze your audience before you construct a story. Who are you writing to? If your intention is to write to a room full of Catholic nuns then you pretty much know what kind of story is going to make them spend money (and if you don't...then don't write for a room full of Catholic nuns). Once you determine who your audience is...then compose the story.

    If your audience is young adult women and you are not an established author with the chops to write whatever you want, then it's got to be pretty formulaic. 1) Female protagonist 2) hot guy 3) dumbed down prose capable for someone in 6th grade to understand, 4) angst 5) romance and finally 6) story. And keep it all under 80K words. So your story cannot be very difficult to tell given you've already got to include all five of the earlier points. Also you've got to debate on whether it is told in first or third person. First person seems to be popular because it makes the angst and romance that much stronger.

  16. Writing = literary fiction
    Story = good fiction
    Not that I'm biased :)

    Storytelling is something that is difficult to learn as it is so elusive. Part of it is concentrating on what is needed rather than what you think ought to be in there.

    A simple version is telling a joke. most people fail because they lose what the joke is about and ramble a bit too much.

  17. Martin, I didn't recognize you at first with your new avatar! I think literary fiction can be good, as long as it gets the story elements right.