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Story vs. Writing

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Spider, Jun 12, 2013.

  1. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Personally, I think that can be shown to be empirically false. Just take a look at all the massively-popular works where the writing is of mediocre quality at best. The authors are clearly tapping into something else, and I think that is via story-telling. You can get away with mediocre writer if you're a great story-teller, but if you're a fantastic writer in terms of technical proficiency but can't tell a story, no one is going to read your work.
     
  2. Xaysai

    Xaysai Inkling

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    I think "empirically false" is a little heavy handed, especially when whether or not writing is good or not is, to some extent, is a matter of opinion.

    There are many popular books out there for which I have little respect for the writing, but that's not to say the writing is terrible.

    So let's take something like 50 Shades, and assume (obviously for the sake of argument), that it had been written by someone with a 6th grade education.

    Would they have still tapped into that "something else" that make it a bestseller?
     
  3. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I haven't read it, so I don't know about the quality of the writing, but I doubt anyone will contradict me if I suggest that there are works out there that are much better written than 50 Shades, or Twilight, or Hunger Games, or Potter, &c., and that nevertheless have fared poorly in the marketplace. Thus, something must trump technical writing ability. I'm suggesting that it is storytelling.
     
  4. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Every time I pick up a book, the same process happens. I read for X numbers of pages slowly, hesitantly, like it's a chore, off and on for a week or two. Then something clicks, and I can't put it down until it's finished like a day later.

    It's likely that poor writing technique is a big part of what slows that process up and makes me put some books aside. But if I reach that point where the book clicks with me, technique doesn't matter anymore. I can plow through a terrible book at lightning speed, and only remember the story.
     
  5. Xaysai

    Xaysai Inkling

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    So let's say that instead of using a pass/fail system of writing or storytelling to determine why people enjoy a book, we say they exist on a spectrum of quality:

    Poor Writing ----------a---------Technical Proficiency---------b----------- Poor Storytelling

    Books that land between "Poor Writing" and "a" are too technically deficient for the storytelling to carry, and anything between "b" and "Poor Storytelling" is too poor of a story to be carried by the writing?

    Anything between "a" and "b" have enough of a combination of each for the book to work, even though it may lack in certain elements?
     
  6. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Yes, I think that makes sense. I think both are important, it's just that if you have to pick one of the other, it seems to me that good storytelling ability can carry you through lesser writing ability, and I don't think the converse is true (or at least not to the same extent).
     
  7. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    What if there's something else?
    Something that's not quite story and not quite writing? Then again, that would lead into the discussion of what's story and what isn't.

    I've read most of the Harry Potter books and I have a decent grasp of the story and can't really recall anything in particular about the quality of the writing. What I do remember is the feeling of reading the books, how the world and the characters felt and how much I liked that.
    This is probably more because of how the story is told but I do believe that the way its written factor in as well. A different writer telling the same story, with the same events and characters, would have created a different feeling - a different atmosphere.
     
  8. Sheriff Woody

    Sheriff Woody Troubadour

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    Story, without hesitation.

    Interesting things happening is what makes a story, a story. And thus entertaining, engaging, and ultimately worth reading.
     
  9. Jamber

    Jamber Sage

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    I feel you're really asking what kinds of books people prefer. I'm definitely in the 'writing ability first' category. For me, no amount of plot can make up for indifferent characterisation. Plot might deepen my sympathy for a character, but it can't make me feel unless I already care. It's very much to do with writerly skill.

    Really though, as I see it, plot, character and style all come under the umbrella of technique. They're all devices we can use in writing. Perhaps you're really meaning to argue against imagery, language that draws attention to itself, dazzling phrasing etc? As I see it those are just another set of devices, which writers can choose to use or not use (and which of course can be used ineptly). Still, there's no reason to count them as necessarily less valuable than plot.

    Speaking personally I like books that are rich in imagery, have plausible as well as intriguing (and empathisable) characters, and have plots that go somewhere I haven't read before. I'm very forgiving of a dull plot if characterisation is brilliant, but pure wordcraft (in terms of wordplays, style or phrasing) will only take me so far if there's not much else to give momentum. I have to say, the books I put down without reading to the end recently have all been plot-driven. I simply didn't care for the characters, and doubt the writers thought much more about them than as wet props. Still, looking at reviews, these seem to be popular works, which just emphasises how much reading tastes are involved.

    For what it's worth, I suspect that what Twilight and 50 Shades both achieved really well was connection with a readership via characters people could identify with. That they weren't characters who appealed to me doesn't matter; they really gripped those readers (often using strong sensuality -- there's a certain gift in being able to employ that effectively).

    Just my 10c worth,
    Jennie
     
  10. Nameback

    Nameback Troubadour

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    I'd say at this point in my life, it's story that matters most (it used to be the quality of prose).

    I'm surprised to see so many people on a fantasy writing board espousing a preference for writing quality over story; honestly, one could argue that the defining feature of genre-fiction, versus literary-fiction, is a preference for story over technique. I'd say that a good majority of the fantasy I've ever read is written poorly. Probably the only fantasy author I can think of who I would say writes with genuine skill would be Ursula LeGuin. Virtually every other fantasy book I read, I find myself trudging through great swaths of dreadful prose just to find out what happens next, or because I'm invested in the characters and the world.

    At best, genre fiction is generally marked by a workmanlike quality--and this is true of other media besides writing. I really enjoyed Fast & Furious 6, because it was a fun story rendered with exceptional competency. But David Lynch it ain't. From Star Wars to LOTR to Aliens, some of the most treasured pieces of sci-fi and fantasy filmmaking are riddled with bad writing, bad acting, bad editing, and so forth. But they have other appeal. And as Steerpike said, it's generally these stories that reach the widest audiences, not a P. T. Anderson flick.

    My truly favorite works of fiction, however, are those exceptionally rare pieces where genre storytelling and artful execution collide. To my mind, the Coen brothers are the quintessential example of this. Whether making a stoner comedy (The Big Lebowski), a crime thriller (No Country for Old Men), or a black comedy (Fargo), they tell engaging, somewhat archetypical stories with the flair and talent of auteurs. Tarantino also falls in this category for me, as does a lot of excellent TV, such as Breaking Bad and The Sopranos.

    In my own work, I know I don't yet have the ability to write gifted, literary prose, but I strive for a writing style that is competently-executed and does not detract from the story--the story being where my best talents lie, I think. I would be happy if my book turned out like something in the vein of The Dark Knight, or The Avengers--two recent examples from film of works of fiction that competently executed their visions, even if those visions were far from literary, and even if that execution stumbled from time to time.
     
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  11. Scribble

    Scribble Archmage

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    Spending years writing poetry has given me a comfort with metaphors and a imagery. What it didn't give me was a leanness of prose that I had come to admire.

    Although not my favorite novels of all time, I devoured The Firm by John Grisham in one day and The Materese Circle by Robert Ludlum in two. Their prose is tight, lean, and they both have a technical ability to create suspense and tension. They weren't the greatest stories I've ever read, however. They employ techniques that are used widely to get us to watch television and movies that are lacking in good story. They use writing skill and psychology to get you to turn the page or watch the programme. Like eating fast food, it fills up the space, but it's lacking in nutrients.

    My favorite writers remains Hermann Hesse who wrote in German. I've only ever read translations of his writing. I've never read the originals, so I don't know what his grammatical style was like. I do know that I've read Siddhartha at least 10 times, and listened to the audiobook at least 20 more.

    The stories that struck me the most growing up were The Iliad, The Odyssey, the tales of the Greek gods, the Norse Eddas, the story of Arthur. I have no idea what the essential writing skill of any of the authors of these had. From what we know, they had no writing skill at all. They were from earlier oral traditions that predated writing.

    Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea is an excellent example of well-written fantasy with a strong story. Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave also comes to mind, though the story is not originally hers, being the legend of Merlin.
     
  12. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I think the ability to create sympathy for a character is story-telling ability, not technical writing ability. Plenty of people may write flawlessly from a technical standpoint, but can't develop a character to save their lives.

    Also, story-telling is not the same as story. You can give a great story to someone who can't tell it and it will fall flat. A great storyteller can make a run of the mill story engaging.

    As for Twilight and the relationship to characters, I agree. But Meyer did it through good storytelling. Her technical writing skills are mediocre.
     
  13. Scribble

    Scribble Archmage

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    I find myself wanting definitions now! Would you agree with these?

    Story: what happens -> your creative idea

    Writing: how you tell us what happens using words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters -> your technical ability

    Story-telling: your ability to charm the reader -> your voice
     
    Last edited: Jun 26, 2013
  14. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I think that's close. Story-telling isn't just voice and charm, but I suppose how you present the tale, what you focus on, and so on. But yeah, it's the ability to engage and interest the reader in what you're writing, regardless of the underlying story you are telling. It combines narrative voice, how the story unfolds, what you emphasize, how you present your characters and what you emphasize about them, and probably some intangible qualities I can't think of. It's probably the hardest of the three to learn, but the most important in terms of acquiring readers.
     
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  15. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    If I can't make it through the story because the writing is dreadful, the ability of the writer to tell a story is pretty much irrelevant.

    If I blow through the book because the writer keeps me turning pages (an attribute I consider primarily due to technique), I will recommend the book to others even if it's a popcorn story.

    If I both blow through the book and am left with an emotional response to the book (which I attribute to a good story), I'll proclaim from the rooftops how awesome the book is.
     
  16. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I say both instances of blowing through the book you cite are due to story-telling. None of them, for the typical reader, will ever be due to technical writing ability. It would like blowing through a physics text just because the technical writing ability of the author is outstanding. Not going to happen.

    We're not talking about dreadful writing. Just the fact that, overall, mediocre technical writing ability can still get you tons of readers if you're a good story teller. If you're an excellent writer from a technical standpoint, but can't tell a story, the same won't be true.
     
  17. Scribble

    Scribble Archmage

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    It seems that we need all three for successful and satisfying fiction.

    I've read some excellent non-fiction books, where there wasn't much in terms of story. However, the writer delivered in clear language, using an organization that led me through the concepts at a good pace. I was not presented with walls of text of complex topics, but rather paced from example to exposition to summary with skill. Writing skill. That can be said of any good text book.

    What is different in a good non-fiction book is the narrative voice of the author, the ability to use images to enchant, to evoke emotion, curiosity, and laughter. I use the word charm or enchant because to me it seems to come from the domain of charisma, of human understanding, of psychology. The voice of the author coming through the words to grab hold of your emotions, is to me the essence of story-telling.

    When we add a good story, we have good fiction, with all three elements.
     
    Last edited: Jun 26, 2013
  18. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    Technical writing skills aren't important to me. I don't mind adverbs or passive voice as a reader, for instance. Storytelling skill is, however, essential. As pointed out above, that goes far beyond knowing how to put together a sentence. I think one has to think back to the oral storytellers of other eras to understand it.

    I have a book called Hibernian Nights which is a collection of the stories told by Seumas MacManus, a real Irish shanachie (storyteller), often called the last. In his preface he laments the lost art of the told story. There are certain qualities of the told story which the read story can never possess, he says. For one, the told story is a living story. The storyteller can alter it each time he tells it, adding details or flourishes or whatever he wishes in the moment. The read story, he says, is dead on the page. He describes the told story as "glowing, appealing and dancing with energetic vitality- the personality and inspiration that the good storyteller can always command into the tale he tells." In addition, he says that the read story possesses alone the value of the story its self while the told story also benefits from "the golden worth of the good storyteller's captivating art and enhancing personality- trebling its worth."

    Now I agree with him to an extent. These are real problems with the written down, read story. However, I disagree that these are unchangeable qualities of the read story. I don't think it has to be that way. I think authors have been taught to write that way. Yet I have read many stories in books where the author's voice came through so well that I did feel I was being told a story and it felt alive. I love those stories more than any others. Yet across the internet I see the advice to stay far away from the feeling of the "told story", to keep yourself separate from the story. I think this is terrible advice. I think it is a real detriment to literature. In addition, the advice I see across the internet focuses on technical aspects of writing. We are told to improve our storytelling by avoiding certain types of words to avoid any storytelling technique that presents even the slightest challenge. Our tools are removed from our hands by the so called experts and we are patted on the head and told to be a good little author and write things that appeal to critics (agents and editors) instead of readers.

    We have certainly all but lost the art of good storytelling, which, as Seumas MacManus says, "was ever a propagator of joy". I think that in losing the art we've also lost the joy. My goal, at least, is to try to find it again and do what I can to propagate it a little. That's what's important to me as a reader and a writer.
     
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  19. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    This is a point where we definitely disagree.

    To me, if you want a reader to blow through your book, you give them a fast pace, tight writing, and lots of tension.

    The first of those is purely a technique issue. I tend to think of tension as both a story-telling element and a technique element. You create tension in writing by the technique of giving your character a goal and presenting opposition to that goal. You can use writing techniques to create a fast pace as well.

    However, both those elements are also story elements. You keep tension high by making good decisions about what to include in your story. You keep the pace fast by deciding not to include elements that slow the pace.

    On the balance, then, I tend to consider an engaging book that I blow through to be primarily due to technique. If I stumble through the book but love the characters and emotions, I attribute that to good story telling.

    This all depends on your definition of writing skills versus story telling. I expect we disagree quite a lot on those definitions.
     
  20. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    I define it as follows:

    Writing (techique) - Your choice of words, tight writing, creating tension and fast pace by using fundamental technique, understanding how to present your story so that it flows from scene to scene without being choppy

    Story-Telling - Your fundamental story and the choices that you make in how to present it, which scenes to include, what characters to include, what characterizations to emphasize, creating tension and fast pace through making good choices about what to include
     
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