Friday, June 5, 2015

The Best of Both Worlds

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?

by Paul D. Marks

I think Susan and Robin really hit the nail on the head in response to this question on Monday and Tuesday. (And since I’m writing this on Tuesday I haven’t yet read the other two Crim Minds, but I’m sure they will too). But I’ll see what I might be able to add to what they said.
There are really two kinds of writers…story tellers and writers.

If you look at Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code – the go-to book for this kind of question – you’d have to assume that good writing doesn’t much matter. Great idea, not so great execution. Did it matter? No. He’s a great story teller, but not a great writer. And poor Mr. Brown, ’cause I know I’m not the only one who uses him as an example. And there’s plenty of others who we could mention here, too. But we all know the story.

Gravitys_rainbow_coverClearly we want readers turning pages. Without that we have nothing. Let’s face it, we’re writing genre fiction. We’re not writing Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest or other literary works. We want our stories to be entertaining and breezy, with intriguing characters and fast-paced, exciting plots. But what’s wrong with trying to give them a little extra polish in terms of the writing?

We all want our work to be recognized and there’s always that fine line between art and a pure entertainment. But why not go for the best of both worlds?

I find that a lot of the very popular best-selling authors have great stories, but I’m often disappointed because story isn’t everything. Sometimes the writing is flat or other elements like characterization, dialogue and plot are obvious and unoriginal. But they’ve hit on a sort of formula of storytelling that works, but is predictable and boring. And sometimes they might even have good characters and dialog and an exciting plot, but nothing that ‘stirs the soul,’ so to speak. When a book really knocks my socks off, it’s because it has all the elements, great writing, descriptions, dialog, characters and a compelling story and the soul stirring stuff.

James Ellroy seems to have hit that mark of compelling stories as well as being someone who critics like. He developed a distinctive, energetic style in the latter two books of the LA Quartet, LA Confidential and White Jazz. But then he went overboard with that staccato, short-sentence writing to the point where I couldn’t read him anymore. Though I have picked up his latest, Perfidia, and it seems that, while he’s still using that style, he’s toned it down a bit, so hopefully I can start enjoying him again. And if I’ve mentioned this before about Ellroy, sorry if I’m repeating myself.

For my Show and Tell visual example, think of the flat lighting of many TV shows and movies made for TV vs. the more sculptured lighting of theatrical movies. The lighting adds to the atmosphere and in some ways can be a character in itself – just look at any classic film noir from the 1940s.

Double Indemnity TV vs Feature collage

Well-crafted writing is like the lighting that makes big-screen movies stand out from made-for-TV-movies. Sometimes the same story can seem more magical and rich when produced for the movie theater. Take a look at the original theatrical version of Double Indemnity vs. the TV remake. The latter is flat in lighting and everything else. The lighting creates a mood, just as good writing does.9993856_orig

For myself, I hope my writing is a compelling read and well written. I start off writing a mess of a draft. And in the second draft I start the pruning and adding and fleshing out. That continues for the next couple of drafts. But the later drafts focus more on the fine tuning, where I do try to make sure that the sentences flow and come alive. And that I use the right word. Like Mark Twain said, and I’m paraphrasing, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

The bottom line is that a marriage of storytelling and craft is the best of both worlds.

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Hope to you see at the California Crime Writers Conference
CCWC snip - better
( ). June 6th and 7th. I’ll be on the Thrills and Chills (Crafting the Thriller and Suspense Novel) panel, Saturday at 10:30am, along with Laurie Stevens (M), Doug Lyle, Diana Gould and Craig Buck.


Meredith Cole said...

Love the analogy to lighting in the movies: flat versus complex. Great post, Paul!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Meredith! Glad you enjoyed the post and that analogy.

GBPool said...

So glad you think both the craft and the story matter. Too many writers forget one or the other. And some don't use either.

BernardL said...

Solid points, Paul. On a personal note though, I don't care at all about scholars, literary labels, or for that matter, what anyone believes is a definition of writing craft. I want to tell a story so compelling, the reader wouldn't notice whether the novel was ever edited or not. I want the reader so captivated, they turn pages all night long because they can't click the off button on their Kindle. I want to make them laugh, clench a fist, pump a fist, or shed a tear. Anything else is just fluff to me. :)

Robin Spano said...

Once again, I love the way you cap off the week's discussion with your wisdom. I think Dan Brown is the perfect example--with his books selling by the millions, I don't think he'd be offended to hear his colleagues praise one quality of his writing while commenting on the weakness of another.

Off topic: Am I the only one who gets hungry each time I do another Captcha test? I have to go make a sandwich now.

RJ Harlick said...

You're dead on, Paul, with your bottom line. No matter how compelling the story, I won't read another by an author unless it is also well written. I, by the way, am one of the few who have never read Dan Brown's book mainly because I've heard so many criticisms about the less-than-stellar writing.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Gayle. I agree, some don’t use either :) . But yes, I think both should matter.

Thanks, too, Bernard. I agree with you, too. I want to tell stories that are compelling and make readers turn pages, but also hopefully with a little flair of style. My mom used to say that she didn’t look at such things, just if something captured her attention and kept her going that’s all that mattered. But some of the books she read I thought were pretty poorly written. And I don’t see why we can’t have ‘the best of both worlds,’ which I think you do too.

Thank you, Robin. I appreciate your comment. And I’m sure Dan Brown is, as they say, laughing all the way to the bank. I’d like to join him in some laughter. And no, you’re not the only one who gets hungry with the Captch tests. The one that gets me the most is the pizza. It’s like not so subliminal psychological torture.

And thank you, RJ. I will sometimes read more than one book by an author who doesn’t have great prose, but less likely to.

Art Taylor said...

A great post, Paul (catching up late, as always). Particularly enjoyed the visual analogy here—great points!