Wednesday, June 3, 2015

What you say - or how you say it?

by Clare O'Donohue

Q: 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?
A perfectly written sentence is a thing of beauty. There's more than one book where, as a reader, I've lingered over the images created by a skilled wordsmith. In fact it was reading The Great Gatsby as a kid that made me want very badly to be a writer. It's a book with a good story, but it's the emotion that lives in each sentence that made me love that book, long before I really understood what it was about.
And obviously I would love to write like that, or like Cormac McCarthy or Elmore Leonard, or anyone with a gift for tearing into the heart of a sentence and letting it bleed into you.
But no matter how much the word matters, it matters less than story. Words are the ornament to the tree, the ribbon to a package. It's story that matters. 
And story matters less than characters. Or as I like to call them, people. The people in a book, if they're real and struggling and desperate... then you have something. Then as a reader I'll follow them through nearly any story, I'll listen to nearly any word. If they matter, then it all matters. And if they don't, then nothing - not the prettiest sentence in the best plotted book - will hold me past page ten. 
And you know what matters least of all? Being admired by critics and scholars.   


Robin Spano said...

Well said, Clare! I'm reading The Paris Wife right now, and it's not what happens that's gripping me--in fact, the plot isn't gripping at all. It's the characters who draw me back into the book every day, who keep me glued to the pages as I'm desperate to find out how their emotional lives will turn out.

Susan C Shea said...

I hear you Clare and Robin, but my question is how does the writer get you excited about what's happening in the story, or make you care for the characters? Doesn't that have to be well-crafted prose? Aren't great word choices, sentences with momentum, vividly described images what makes the telling so gripping? I have read - or started to read - too many books where the writing is so flat that it drains the life out of what should be a winning plot, or a character who should be winning my heart.

Unknown said...

Good questions Susan. I guess I see it as this - yes, people who read m books know who my characters are and what their doing by the words I choose, which makes the words important. It's my only way of communicating. But the question of the week struck me more about if it's important to labor over word choice, description etc... to make a more literary effort. Sometimes I think authors get so stuck in impressing me with their word choice that I lose any sense of the people. But, to your point, if it's well done it's as hard to separate character/ story/ word choice as it is to separate flour, sugar, and eggs in an already mixed cake batter.

Gerald So said...

I empathize with so wanting to know what happens to the characters, the exact words fly by largely unnoticed. As I commented the other day, this happens more in novels than in short stories. The beginning of a novel may be most important. That's when readers are most aware of language setting the scene. Somewhere along the line, one hopes, readers get hooked. Then, barring a steep drop in the quality of prose, readers will ride out a novel to satisfy their piqued curiosity.

Unknown said...

Well said, Gerald. I think you're spot on about the beginning of the novel, when you are first introducing yourself to the reader where the language matters most.