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The Well Written Story v The Good Story (1 Viewer)

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luckyscars

WF Veterans
Inspired by a response by Sam in another thread

Writing well is half the battle. You can write the most technically sound novel imaginable and it won't matter a damn if there's no story, no conflict, no hook. A great novel employs both great writing and great storytelling.

Obviously the ideal state is for a novel to be both an excellent story and well written. But, let's pretend that's not possible.

Let's say somebody who is only barely competent as a writer happens to be a great storyteller. They're truly brilliant when it comes to narrative, character, everything that exists beyond the page, but the actual prose is straight journeyman, grade-school-level stuff.

Let's say another writer exists then, one who is a truly gifted writer but happens to only be an average sort of storyteller: That is, they can 'tell a story' to the extent they can deliver according to formula. There's nothing wrong with their writing, certainly nothing you could point to, but the ideas, characterization, concept is all pretty much in line with what is already out there. There's nothing that feels new, nothing interesting. However, again, the writing is REALLY good. That is, it's technically flawless, inventive, beautifully poetic at times.

Which of these two scenarios is more likely to yield success? Are either of them? Assume for the moment that it is not possible for either of these two individuals to improve dramatically... In essence, can fairly rough writing be overlooked by the average writer if there is a solid underlying concept...or are great stories completely enslaved to competency?

At what point does a great story become undermined by poor writing skill (if any)? At what point (if any) does great writing skill become undermined by an average or worse story?

Is it possible to be such a great storyteller that you will still be successful even if you can't even master basic grammar? Is it possible to be such a great writer that you will still be successful even if the actual things you are writing about are generally considered dull as ditchwater?
 

Sam

General
Patron
It's difficult to answer that without sufficient research, but I'd venture to say there a lot more best-selling novels that read like a 10-year-old's first draft, than there are expertly written books bereft of great storytelling.

If I had to choose, I'd choose to be a great storyteller. Imagination is one of the rare skills that arguably cannot be learned, but you can learn to become a better writer with enough practice and time.
 
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EternalGreen

Senior Member
I require a novel to be very well-written and involve basic story-telling competence.

There are best-selling novels with prose that insults my intelligence.

But without at least decent story-telling, a novel will descend into unreadable mush.

I dislike both skeletons and bloated bodies. The skeleton writer is more likely to be successful today than the bloated writer.
 

Olly Buckle

Mentor
Patron
I can only speak personally, but on the whole I would stick with a great story, good writing is the sort of thing I will pick up and put down between reading the stories, entertaining, but basically unimportant.
 

bdcharles

Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9
Staff member
Media Manager
Inspired by a response by Sam in another thread



Obviously the ideal state is for a novel to be both an excellent story and well written. But, let's pretend that's not possible.

Let's say somebody who is only barely competent as a writer happens to be a great storyteller. They're truly brilliant when it comes to narrative, character, everything that exists beyond the page, but the actual prose is straight journeyman, grade-school-level stuff.

Let's say another writer exists then, one who is a truly gifted writer but happens to only be an average sort of storyteller: That is, they can 'tell a story' to the extent they can deliver according to formula. There's nothing wrong with their writing, certainly nothing you could point to, but the ideas, characterization, concept is all pretty much in line with what is already out there. There's nothing that feels new, nothing interesting. However, again, the writing is REALLY good. That is, it's technically flawless, inventive, beautifully poetic at times.

Which of these two scenarios is more likely to yield success? Are either of them? Assume for the moment that it is not possible for either of these two individuals to improve dramatically... In essence, can fairly rough writing be overlooked by the average writer if there is a solid underlying concept...or are great stories completely enslaved to competency?

At what point does a great story become undermined by poor writing skill (if any)? At what point (if any) does great writing skill become undermined by an average or worse story?

Is it possible to be such a great storyteller that you will still be successful even if you can't even master basic grammar? Is it possible to be such a great writer that you will still be successful even if the actual things you are writing about are generally considered dull as ditchwater?

It pains me to say that I think the journeyman writer may have a measure more. I say this simply based on experience - Fifty Shades comes to mind, as do a plethora of mediocrely-written books. There are a lot of median-to-below-median readership levels out there, and if booksellers can sell to them, and if they can overlook (or more likely, remain unaware of) the issues, that's what will happen.

Some of my editing clients are my clients precisely because - often by their own admission - their grammar needs work. However their stories and ideas are often very inventive, and some have reasonable reviews on Amazon (though I'm never sure how genuine a mechanism this is). I think there's a partnership element to it, with the writer and the editor working as a team of equals, but ultimately, as Sam says, you kind of have to have both ideally to really stand out. I don't think it takes many SPaG problemsor instances of weak prose to fully derail a potentially good story. Eventually it gets to a point where readers can't discern it; it has failed to make the leap from writer's head to legible prose.
 

Terra

Senior Member
The fiction stories I have in my head are always so much bigger than what I am able to express in written form ... put a microphone in my hand or a grandchild on my lap, and the stories come alive. I want to learn how to write those stories so they are alive on paper without losing their essence. "I hope this is something that can be achieved", she said, laughing out loud to "dull as ditchwater". I've read the 50 shades series and the first book imo was a much better story than the others, but I'm a sucker for a love story of any kind so that didn't surprise me.

One author that comes to mind is Elizabeth Gilbert who captured my attention in Eat, Pray, Love but perhaps that's because I'm on a similar journey and could easily relate to 'her' story. Then I read the Signature of All Things, and was enthralled by the 'story' of Alma -- was it the character development that I got lost in, or Alma's 'story' -- was it well written, or is EG a pop culture author? City of Girls was next, but this time I listened to the book on audible and at first I couldn't tell if it was the story I enjoyed, or the narrators voice. By the end though, I'm certain it was the narrator's voice that held my attention. Pretty sure I would have set the book down 2/3 through had I been reading a hard copy -- the story fizzled and I got tired of 'how' it was written.

Some sci-fi fantasy are so elaborate I can't get into the actual story -- I'd rather watch the movie. Romance and erotica are stories aimed at my feelings and emotions, so how well it's written can be 'meh' and I don't really care LOL

A good book for me is either when I can't put it down, OR I put it down because I don't want the story to end.
 

Tettsuo

WF Veterans
I'm rolling with the good story. I don't pick up a book because it's well written, I pickup books to experience something new, fun and thoughtful. I'm not checking for SPaG, interesting metaphors and nice turns of phrase when I read, I'm checking for cool ideas and fun storytelling. I've never stopped reading a great story because there was a spelling error, but I have put down books that had an extremely weak story, but was written expertly.
 

bdcharles

Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9
Staff member
Media Manager
I'm rolling with the good story. I don't pick up a book because it's well written, I pickup books to experience something new, fun and thoughtful. I'm not checking for SPaG, interesting metaphors and nice turns of phrase when I read, I'm checking for cool ideas and fun storytelling. I've never stopped reading a great story because there was a spelling error, but I have put down books that had an extremely weak story, but was written expertly.

Ever a sucker for well-crafted prose, I have put down books that were just unstylish or too mediocrely written. FBOW there is something in me that craves clever and perceptive phrasing. The story was probably perfectly okay but for me it dangled out of reach, separated by a veil of meh.
 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
As long as the prose is not so bad as I am driven to gouge my eyes out with a soup spoon, I'll take a good story every time.

Pretty words that say nothing are of no interest to me.
 

EmmaSohan

WF Veterans
You don't define good writing.

I have been surprised, again and again, how often a popular book will do something nice with punctuation and grammar. Would Harry Potter or Twilight be as good or popular with ordinary punctuation and grammar? I doubt it.

So, suppose you have something interesting happening in your story. Then you tell it wrong -- bury it in the middle of a paragraph could reduce the interest by a half, spoiling it with advance knowledge or wrong perspective could be even more devastating. So then the person who knows how to write well only has to do half as much to work to be just as interesting.
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
You don't define good writing.

I have been surprised, again and again, how often a popular book will do something nice with punctuation and grammar. Would Harry Potter or Twilight be as good or popular with ordinary punctuation and grammar? I doubt it.

So, suppose you have something interesting happening in your story. Then you tell it wrong -- bury it in the middle of a paragraph could reduce the interest by a half, spoiling it with advance knowledge or wrong perspective could be even more devastating. So then the person who knows how to write well only has to do half as much to work to be just as interesting.

It's funny you mention Harry Potter, because that was actually one book I had in mind with this topic.

To me, Harry Potter is extremely 'ordinary' in terms of writing. Part of that is because it was written for children, obviously, and I suppose you could extend this stuff to YA books generally: They're almost never examples of 'good writing' so much as examples of supreme storytelling with decent, albeit simple, writing. It's even more acute when you're talking more middle grade type books.

Something like R.L Stine's 'Goosebumps' series is obviously pretty primitive as far as writing but the man is an excellent storyteller. He is particularly excellent as a children's storyteller. However, reading his adult horror books (Red Rain, specifically) it's clear that his actual writing is pretty limited (there's a lot of kind of hammy dialogue, the emotional depth of the characters is a bit lacking, the descriptions are fairly basic -- kind of budget Stephen King) and, quite honestly, it doesn't really read much like a book for adult. Some of that is possibly due to confirmation bias -- we expect writers to sound like their prior work (reading JK Rowling's 'adult' novels has a similar effect) but I think there is, unfortunately, an element of some really good storytellers aren't very good writers.

Likewise, I feel like I encounter a decent number of obviously talented writers who actually aren't great at telling a story. This seems particularly true in literary fiction. Stuff like Virginia Woolf's 'To The Lighthouse' is a masterclass in writing craft but the story itself is so basic it almost doesn't resemble one.
 

MistWolf

Senior Member
I just finished listening to the Harry Potter while at work. It's a great story that takes place in a wonderful world and I like the characters. But, there are some serious plot holes and truly awful tropes. Yet, I find it entertaining.

Shakespeare is considered a writer of beautiful prose. But, he's wordy and I want to scream "Just shut up and tell the story already!"

Asimov is a great writer and a great story teller. He's a natural. But his writing before he became a big name and the editors gave him free reign is better than his later stuff.

Luis L'Amour is a great storyteller and his writing style, in turn, is as raw and refined as the frontier here wrote about. He too was better before the editors gave him free reign.

An author doesn't have to write well to tell a good story. However, I think an author has to have a good story to tell to write well. Nothing can kill a good story faster than poor writing.
 

EmmaSohan

WF Veterans
To me, Harry Potter is extremely 'ordinary' in terms of writing.

The following ends with probably the most important sentence in the book. Three words. If you look at the thought and detail that went into this passage, it is anything but simple. The author slows things down and gives it a lot of emotion.

What they're saying," she pressed on, "is that last night Voldemort turned up in Godric's Hollow. He went to find the Potters. The rumor is that Lily and James Potter are -- are -- that they're dead."
Dumbledore bowed his head. Professor McGonagall gasped.
"Lily and James . . . I can't believe it . . . I didn't want to believe it. . . Oh, Albus . . ."
Dumbledore reached out and patted her on the shoulder. "I know . . . I know. . ." he said heavily.
Professor McGonagall's voice trembled as she went on. "That's not all. They're saying he tried to kill the Potters' son, Harry. But -- he couldn't."

Trembled would probably count as a word that makes that boring sentence come alive.

At it's best, punctuation and grammar helps create the story. How good is the story by itself?

"I heard that last night Voldemort went to Godric's Hollow and killed the Potters."
"It's true. He also tried to kill their son Harry, but for some reason he couldn't."
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
The following ends with probably the most important sentence in the book. Three words. If you look at the thought and detail that went into this passage, it is anything but simple. The author slows things down and gives it a lot of emotion.

Yes, it's good writing. However, it isn't great writing -- it's a great story with great characters that is written competently.

This may be where we run into issues writing/storytelling being treated as a dichotomy because, well, they're obviously not really separate at all. You may quite reasonably ask 'if it's a good story written competently, isn't that 'great writing'?" And the answer is...yes. Logically, it is.

Imagine a car that drove 1,000,000 miles and counting without ever once breaking down or experiencing a single problem. A car which had comfortable seats, great fuel economy, just about checked every 'functionality' box there is. Is that the greatest car in the world? Well, sure, it is...until I tell you it looks like this:

Fiat_Multipla_userCorvettec6r.jpg

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And that's essentially the problem: Great writing isn't just about functionality. The above car may be the greatest car in every sense we would ordinarily expect to measure one, but something about it stops us from calling it a great car.

Part of it is aesthetics, obviously. But also...what about the other things we might want in a car? What about speed? What about power? What about the feelings we get when we drive it? Are those things not important parts of establishing a car's greatness? Of course they are. Or, at least, they can be, depending on what we want in cars.

And that is why when you ask people what's the GREATEST car in the world, they will probably think of something more like this...

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And that's why JK Rowling's writing is great but not great, in my opinion: Her writing is closer to that first hypothetical car. First of all, her style is simply not all that distinctive nor overwhelmingly attractive. Stylistically it resembles many traditional English authors (just slightly tweaked for 'modernism'). There's not much really delicious imagery. The language doesn't dance off the page.

You could argue none of that stuff matters, of course, and you would not necessarily be wrong -- it depends what you want. But if she was truly a great writer as opposed to a great storyteller and decent writer one imagines she would be universally acclaimed as the best writer of all time. But you wont find many people, even die hard fans, who will say that. What they will say instead is she wrote the best book series of all time, which is a slightly but still significantly different accomplishment.
 

EternalGreen

Senior Member
An often-overlooked perk of well-written prose, no matter how dull the storytelling, is that a writer learns techniques from reading it.
 

Squalid Glass

WF Veterans
Lucky, if you’re looking to define great writing in the way you do, poetry seems the appropriate medium, not prose. Storytelling is one aspect of great writing, just like aesthetics and linguistic prowess are. If you are defining great as style, you should be more concerned with poetry or the highest of literary fiction.

If we’re looking for an author who has both high literary style and tells great stories, I think you can look at someone like Vonnegut or Twain or even someone like Tolkien.
 

Kyle R

WF Veterans
Given a choice between the two extremes, I'd say that a good story will succeed over good writing.

This is a tricky one to discuss, though, because as writers, we spend so much time discussing technique that it naturally becomes our main focus. Beautiful writing is a clear sign of excellent craftsmanship.

But for most readers, I'd argue that the story is the main point, and the words themselves are just the medium.

Personally, I feel that the "best" writing is twofold: a gripping story, wrapped in writing that's beautiful without being noticeable. Complex, yet seemingly effortless. It's a slippery thing to define, like trying to nail a puff of smoke to the wall. But you pretty much know it when you see it.
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
Lucky, if you’re looking to define great writing in the way you do, poetry seems the appropriate medium, not prose. Storytelling is one aspect of great writing, just like aesthetics and linguistic prowess are. If you are defining great as style, you should be more concerned with poetry or the highest of literary fiction.

If we’re looking for an author who has both high literary style and tells great stories, I think you can look at someone like Vonnegut or Twain or even someone like Tolkien.

I really kind of hate the distinction because it doesn't feel like it should exist. I want to say 'great writing is writing that tells a great story competently'.

But then I have a problem of accounting for the difference between the JK Rowlings and Stephen Kings of the world from the Fitzgeralds and the Faulkners.

I always think putting down the difference to 'literary v genre fiction' as being a bit of a cop out because, as we often find, there's no much overlap between literary and genre fiction anyway, to the point one would wonder WHY Rowling/King could not be described as 'literary fiction' -- are they not good enough?

And the answer is...they probably aren't good enough, I guess. In stylistic terms, at least. Stephen King is absolutely as good a storyteller as F. Scott Fitzgerald, as possibly a better one (subjective), but stylistically he probably isn't as good. Ergo, there must be a difference between high-end storytelling and high-end writing...
 
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