Tuesday, October 02, 2012

On Writing: Style vs. Substance – An Old Debate

It happens all the time in the writer's forums that I haunt. Somebody starts a discussion about “what is more important good writing or good story-telling?” Then a whole bunch of people chime in with their opinions and, on a fairly predictable basis, the hyperbole runs amok. The Story-first people start complaining about writers whose “flowery” language and ten page of a woman “agonizing about her cat” or describing the curtains turns them off and the Style-first people start complaining about bumbling, inept writing that is so bad they can't follow the story. Both are valid complaints and both – if they even exist – are books that I'd never read because my tolerance for bad writing is as low as it is for aimless writing.

That being said, when I think back on the books that I remember years after reading them, it is the style more than the substance that stays with me. I can still remember passages verbatim from Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, which I read at least a quarter century ago, but I'm not sure I could tell you the actual plot anymore. I remember the plot of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, one of the best books anybody ever wrote, but it is the writing that stays with me. The descriptions of the town and the people and, most of all, of Atticus are still vivid in my memory.

I have often written that my most-often read book is Hemingway's A Moveable Feast really has no plot but the images he paints with an economy of words are unforgettable.

The bottomline, of course, is that anything worth reading requires both – good writing and good story-telling – to have any longevity. Most people simply do not have enough time to read and we want to put that time to good use. I realize there are a lot of people who, once they start a book, feel obliged to finish it. I am not among them. Life's too short to waste on mediocre writing and mediocre story-telling. The way I see it is “good writing” is defined as writing I don't really notice except for the fact that there is all this visual music going on in my head. Nobody is better at that than Ray Bradbury was. I can remember sitting down with a huge book that was a collection of his short stories and, after reading 2 or 3, stopping because my “mental movies,” my fictive dreams, were so delicious that I wanted to savor them awhile before piling on another one.

The fictive dream is what it is all about. More than anything, to me, it is about the characters whether they are in pursuit of a bad guy and wrecking havoc as they go or learning about their own strengths and weaknesses and coming to terms with that. Years ago I got into an argument discussion with someone who had just read Donna Tartt's The Secret History and hated it. I love that book. My friend said it was a stupid book about a bunch of spoiled, miserable kids who were drunk all the time and decided to kill one of their friends. In actuality I couldn't argue with that BUT it was the unique and fascinating characters of the people involved that made the story so engrossing. On the surface maybe her assessment had merit but every character in that story was so unique, so meticulously crafted that I found them/find them unforgettable. Obnoxious, overbearing Bunny with all his issues from his ridiculously pretentious family. Effete, snobbish Francis with no emotional anchor. Lonely, striving Richard trying to hide his past. The wonderful twins, Charles and Camilla, sweet and yet totally amoral. And, of course, aloof, intellectually-gifted but socially-backward Henry with his intense longing. Who could not be mesmerized by them? When I was reading that book I was so deeply into the fictive dream of their world that looking up from the page became nearly impossible.

I suppose arguing about style vs. substance really amounts to little more than writerly masturbation for people who should shut up and get back to work on their manuscripts but I do find it interesting. A friend of mine who has taught literature in a small college for thirty years often talks about “Intellectual muscle.” Some readers have it and some don't, and, mercifully, there are plenty of books for both kinds of people. What challenges one reader, bores another. One is not necessarily better than the other and provides opportunity for a vast range of writers.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Excellent essay, Kathleen. I especially like your core reading list.

  2. Excellent points, Kathleen. And to Kill a Mockingbird remains one of my all-time personal favorites.

  3. Thank you, gentlemen. They are four of the best books I've ever read.


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