Monday, June 18, 2012

Good Writing vs. Good Story-Telling?

In a few author's forums that I participate in the question “which is more important good writing or good story-telling?” seems to pop up periodically. It always generates a lively discussion and it drives me crazy. Yes, there are writers who tell good stories but are not good writers. It is true and a lot of those books sell very well and become popular. The Twilight books come to mind and those 50 Shades of Grey books and blockbusters like The DaVinci Code and The Bridges of Madison County. Actually, I have not read the 50 Shades books and I only read the first Twilight book – skimmed is more accurate. A lot of people love them and that is fine.

The problem with these discussions is that a lot of people defend their preference for good story-telling by asserting that good writing is “flowery” or “overly-descriptive” or “pulls them out of the story.” If writing is flowery or overly descriptive or pulls you out of the story IT'S NOT GOOD WRITING! It's bad writing. I get so frustrated by these discussions. It seems certain readers feel the need to defend their taste for mediocre writing by finding excuses for why good writing is bad. It makes no sense to me.

Granted there are writers who are superb writers but do not tell particularly interesting stories but the best writers do both – they tell a good story and tell it so beautifully and so elegantly that their writing draws you deeper and deeper into the story. That's what good writing does.

I realize that different readers bring different expectations to their reading time. For me it's all about the characters. As Sol Stein says, “I want to fall in love.” If I am going to invest as many hours as it takes to read a contemporary novel, I want to care deeply about at least one of the characters. Recently I started Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and found myself absolutely mesmerized by Oskar, the 9year old boy at the heart of the story. As I was reading I had one of those Profound Revelations that make me wonder why I never thought of this before: The story is interesting because Oskar is interesting. I care about what is going to happen because I care about Oskar. That's good writing.

There seems to be a pervasive notion that “good writing” is hard. I don't buy that but I've seen that sentiment expressed. Much of what a reader brings to the page relies on the level of “intellectual muscle” (as an old teacher friend terms it) the reader has acquired over the years. I'm of the opinion that most any reading is good for young people than no reading. But as a reader matures in their reading material it is a good thing to continually expand your reading skill levels. That's why teachers assign “hard” books – your brain is no different than your body, it needs to be strengthened, too.

I started reading “grown-up” books pretty early. I don't know how old I was when I read Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca but I was pretty young. But I remember that when I picked up For Whom the Bell Tolls something happened in my head. I loved the book but I was also aware that this was writing on a level I had never experienced before. It was wonderful and it made me want more. It was the beginning of my lifelong love of Hemingway's writing which I am grateful for.

So whenever this good writing vs. good storytelling question arises I say “both, please!” But I know that the truth is if the writing is good, the story-telling will be good because the writing will make me care about the story and its characters. That's something poor writing does not have the power to do.

Thanks for reading.

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