by Robin Spano
This week's question: Which is more important, to tell a story that compels readers to turn pages, regardless of writing craft technique, OR to spend time on each sentence, on each word, to fine tune your writing so that your prose is admired by critics and scholars?
Storytelling is the art; sentences are the craft.
Obviously, we aspire to excellence at both. To tell a gripping story with delicious (yet never overwritten) sentences, to write a novel that makes readers flip through pages frantically then immediately place the book in five friends' hands because of its emotional resonance, is probably every serious writer's ambition. And I think it should be. I never want to stop learning to write a better book, both for the plot and the prose.
But if I could only master one, it would be storytelling.
To take a reader on a journey that they immerse themselves in until it's over, to write a book that keeps a reader up at night because they always want to read one more page to find out what happens next—that, to me, is the highest form of writing.
Sometimes great storytelling comes with great sentences. I think Gillian Flynn and Megan Abbott are two contemporary authors who are amazing on both the word and the plot level. John Le Carre is also a genius at both.
But sometimes, maybe more often?, a great storyteller writes clunky prose. They churn out mass market paperbacks that make the literati plug their noses and make comments like, “terrible writing,” and “I can't belive that's a bestseller.”
And still, if I could only choose one skill, it would be storytelling.
Great words, without a great plot to hang them on, aren't worth much. After a round of great reviews, maybe a round of extra sales after being nominated for a literary award, these books will sit in libraries and rather than grow in readership from one person recommending it to five friends, and so on, they will dwindle as maybe one out of five readers recommends it to one friend, and so on.
I do believe that a great story could be improved with great words. Can you imagine a Dan Brown or John Grisham novel worked over by a fabulous editor? But even without any further editing, their books still connect strongly and resonate with their audiences—so much so that Hollywood often makes movies out of their stories.
So while I will continue to try to hone my craft, to write richer, denser sentences with each new book I produce, storytelling is my prime objective, always.
I want readers to enjoy their time in my pages. I want them to root for my characters and follow their adventures long after they should have turned off the light. I want them so engrossed in the story that they don't even notice the sentences.