Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Storytelling vs. Delicious Sentences

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?

My Answer:

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.


Gerald So said...

Hi, Robin.

I agree a way with words can't overcome a weak plot. Robert B. Parker, for example, was known as an eloquent writer. He never lost that gift, but toward the end of his life, his books were more dialogue than description or action, his chapters too self-contained to provide much momentum to the story as a whole. It didn't help that, with such an established series as Spenser was, the need to find out what happened on the next page had probably lost intensity.

Gerald So said...

I also think style has to develop naturally for the writer, be true to whatever character's viewpoint you're writing. To adopt a dramatically different style mid-series, for example, would more likely throw readers than engage them.

RJ Harlick said...

I totally agree, Robin. Look at our award winning Canlit, with their elegantly contrived sentences that leave the reader wondering what in the world the story was all about at the end. Most of these writers get too caught up in striving for the perfect sentences and lose sight of the story.

Robin Spano said...

Gerald, that's so true that a writer's style needs to develop and change gradually if they have a continued series. I think Elizabeth George did this well. Her voice stayed the same, but her characters and plots became richer and thicker the more in command of craft she became.

RJ, LOL, how did you guess I was thinking of CanLit?

Paul D. Marks said...

Good piece, Robin. I think we need to keep in mind that we're writing genre fiction so plot and good story telling is important. But it's also good if we spend some time on the prose. It just adds to the joy of reading the story.

Susan C Shea said...

I can't come up with an example of a beautifully written story that bombed with the plot, although I can tick of a score of plot-driven novels that were impossible to read because the writing was so poor. I have a persistent taste for 19th century novels - Trollope, Austen, Galsworthy, even Dickens - in which the writer takes her or his time to tell the story, but uses language to tug me deeper and deeper into caring for the characters. On the other hand, a badly written piece throws me out of the story in a millisecond!

Oh wait, I just remembered Proust! But Tim Hallinam tells me I have to be patient for the first 50 pages, and then the prose (albeit in translation) will be shown to have drawn me gently into the plot.

Susan C Shea said...


Tricia Barker said...

Nail on the head Robin.

Carol Kusnierek said...

If the writing isn't good, the plot doesn't matter to me. I always read the opening page of a book before I buy it/take it out of the library. If the prose is truly cringe-worthy, I'm not willing to persevere for 50 pages in the hope that it will improve.