By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)
A while back at the forums, we got into a debate about what matters more: writing skills or storytelling ability. It all started when UVRAY said, “The critics are having an absolute field day with [Dan Brown’s] terrible writing skills” and Bellman replied, “This is why I say story-telling trumps writing. Every time. The majority of people will forgive a whole lot in the writing skills department if they like the story.”
Bellman wasn’t suggesting that writing skills are irrelevant, only that “[p]eople are more interested in a good story than in good writing. Both together is, of course, the best scenario, but if they have to choose between one or the other, they are far more likely to choose the good story + mediocre writing over the good writing + mediocre story.” While we had people come down on both sides of the skills/story debate, the majority seemed to agree that story trumped skill. KasaiYoukai said, “I can forgive mediocre writing for good story telling … I love Harry Potter, but [J.K. Rowling’s] writing isn’t what I would call superior.” Kenwood added, “The story is far more important than the writing. Don’t get me wrong, the writing can’t be terrible, but it can simply be good or decent and the story still be great. Not everyone will agree with that of course, but it’s a ‘truth’ I think too many people ignore.”
Where Kenwood said ‘people,’ I would say ‘writers.’ Why do writers ignore the importance of story? Because writers tend to evaluate writing from a writer’s perspective. For many writers, what excites them about writing is choosing the perfect word, constructing a melodious sentence, or coming up with a fresh metaphor. But the vast majority of readers are not writers. If the story moves them—if it makes them cry or laugh or smile in recognition, if it surprises them, or makes them sleep with the lights on, or spurs them to make a change in their life or a difference in the world—they are not going to fret over the author’s unsophisticated sentence structure, her pet phrases, or second-rate grammar skills. When readers discuss a book, they say things like “My favorite part was when so-and-so did such-and-such,” not “I really appreciated the craftsmanship in the fifth sentence on page 272.” To understand if a piece of writing works—and why—one needs to evaluate it as a reader, not as a writer.
On his blog, literary agent Nathan Bransford recently wrote, “In order to have a book published it doesn’t have to be literary literary literary, but the writer has to do something very well. While there is an insanely common sentiment … that so many books published are trash and oh well anyone can do it: that’s really not the case. You may not like it, but quite a few people along the way did in order for it to find its way to the bookshelf. Not every talented writer is a published author, but (nearly) every published author is talented. Even if you think they suck.” Dan Brown does not possess superior writing skills, but he clearly knows a bit about storytelling. No matter that I didn’t like The Da Vinci Code (after all, I’m a picky writer who can’t stop evaluating writing from a writer’s perspective—see above), millions of people did.
For a work to be great, of course the writer must possess writing skills as well as storytelling ability. But just because you have writing skills doesn’t mean your writing is automatically great. You first have to have something to say. That’s storytelling, and it’s the core of your work, the base that gives your writing skills something to embellish.
If story is the cake, writing skills are the frosting. Of course, cake with frosting is best, but cake without frosting is still good. Frosting without cake, on the other hand, is not. With cake, frosting is the finishing touch that makes the cake something special. Alone, it’s just unrelenting sweetness. We’re all familiar with the crash that inevitably follows a sugar high. Superior writing skills are admirable, but on their own they’re just so much sweetness: lovely sentence, lovely sentence, lovely sentence—and then? Oh, you mean that’s it? Crash. Writing skills need a story to support them, to make all those lovely sentences amount to something.
As Nathan Bransford recently said, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with artistic integrity and thinking deeply about the meaning in your book and writing books that are dense, weighty, and/or wildly experimental. But … the audience for novels where too little attention is paid to narrative and plot and storytelling was already small and seems to be shrinking by the moment.” Bransford added that, contrary to popular belief, modern literary novels “have plots. They are not impenetrable. The narratives are complex and they flow. Yes, the writing is beautiful and meaningful and there’s so much to take away, but [Marilynne] Robinson and [Ian] McEwan and [Junot] Diaz also not only prose artists, they are fantastic storytellers and craftsmen who keep their readers spellbound.”
In our “Dan Brown” discussion, I think we all agreed that writing skills and storytelling ability are not mutually exclusive. At the same time, I was struck by the number of people who seemed to hold the belief that such works are more a matter of personal style than conscious effort, and that it would be sacrificing one’s artistic integrity to deliberately adjust the skill/story balance in one’s own work. The perception is that true artists write from some inner impetus (that is perhaps unknown even to the writer) and only seek out readers once the work is complete. Only ‘sell-outs’ consider externalities like audience while they are writing.
But I contend that you should always consider your audience. Thinking about audience for me is not a marketing strategy; rather, it’s a way of keeping my writing moving in a direction that makes sense for the piece, and not losing sight of why I am writing.
I once wrote a short story with an 8-year-old narrator. In the first draft, the story was set in the present, although many of the details were scooped from my own childhood. After I got some feedback on the story, I realized that it was those details that resonated with readers. I decided to revise the story to set it definitively in the 1970s. That decision was influenced by recognizing that even though the narrator was eight, the audience for the story was not so much present-day 8-year-olds (although they might enjoy it), but reminiscing adults who remembered being eight. The original version might have been what was ‘in my head’ at the time of the initial writing but the conscious changes I made to the final version made it a better story.
Audience is the bridge between writing skills and storytelling. Saying “I write for myself” doesn’t excuse you from this. Even private writing has an audience: you. Your journal writing should be different than your fiction. But while your personal journals might be intended for an audience of one, fiction explicitly targets a larger audience. You might not be interested in Dan Brown’s readership, but if you write fiction, the intended audience is more than just yourself. And with each person added to your audience, your personal importance as a reader decreases. Even in an audience of 100—microscopic by Dan Brown standards—you make up only 1% of your readership. Failing to consider the rest of your audience is not artistic, it’s narcissistic. And ultimately, self-sabotaging.
For writers whose work doesn’t enjoy the same level of popularity as Dan Brown’s or J.K. Rowling’s (which is, let’s face it, most of us), it helps immensely to have what Kevin Kelly calls True Fans: people “who will purchase anything and everything you produce.” But true fans need to be nurtured; you’re not going to build a truefanbase by telling potential readers/fans—as some did during our discussion—that you have no purpose for writing aside from preventing your own crazy, that if your work says anything it’s completely unintentional, and that you don’t care whether readers take anything away from your work. As Sparky99 pointed out, this makes it sound like “the only reason you’re writing is for your own entertainment, your own release, your own therapy”—and, if that’s the case, why should anyone else be interested in reading your work?
Such declarations are generally made in the defense of one’s work as art, the purity of which is not be sullied by outside considerations. But writing that has nothing to say is not art. As Baker said, “I think most art is created as a statement by the artist. The creator of work has something to say and says it through the work. Otherwise, why create?” In an essay titled “Why I Write,” George Orwell argued that there are four motives for writing (aside from the need to earn a living): sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. All writers have these motives but in different proportions. Valuing writing skills to the neglect of story is too much aesthetic enthusiasm. Writing ‘for me’ without any other consideration is excessive egoism.
One of the things I’ve struggled with as a writer is finishing a novel. Inevitably, I’ve bogged down somewhere between the middle and the end. I have terrible trouble with resolution. Should the main character make this choice or that one? I try choice A. I try choice B. Maybe choice C? It all feels so arbitrary. Shouldn’t one feel more right than the others? Why can’t I decide? My frustration was compounded by the feeling I knew the answer (after all, I’ve finished plenty of other things, just not novels); I just couldn’t articulate it.
My “aha!” moment was realizing my novel-writing stalled when—caught up in the details of word, sentence, and paragraph (too much aesthetic enthusiasm!)—I lost track of the story, the big picture. I didn’t experience the same difficulty when writing in other genres because, in those cases, my purpose for writing and the intended audience were always implicitly clear, if not explicitly stated.
Good writing doesn’t just spontaneously happen. Without consciously thinking about why—and for whom—you are writing, your work will wander aimlessly. You’ll be unsatisfied, because the piece will never feel finished regardless of how long it gets. Thinking about who is going to read your work does not equate to sacrificing your artistic integrity; it’s a way of focusing what you have to say—and it transcends genre. Whatever your subject matter, the principle remains the same: how you approach your work depends on who your real or imagined audience is. Poet Sharon Olds has said: “Questions that interest me include: … For whom are you writing (the dead, the unborn, the woman in front of you at the checkout line in Safeway)?”
For whom are you writing?
With grateful thanks to everyone who participated in the “Dan Brown” thread.
*Credit for the title goes to Elaine Lui.