The Art of Storytelling, Part 4

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So on Friday I said tomorrow I would tackle one of the branches of storytelling I think will improve as an author is teachable. Yeah, I forgot about that not-posting-on-Saturday thing. Sorry if I misled anyone to think that I was writing on an off-day.

Back to the discussion. As I see it, we writers need to be teachable the same way teachers do. At the end of every school year, I would do an evaluation, formal or otherwise, thinking of the ways I wanted to improve the following year. Sometimes I focused more on discipline, sometimes on content, and sometimes on the organizational mechanics. The thing is, I needed all three to be as good as I could make them if I was going to teach to the best of my ability.

So with writing. Fiction is first and foremost a story, but the author also chooses and/or develops a style of writing, and of course, the writing is conveyed with established mechanics—grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and the like, but also with good fiction techniques.

I believe a writer needs to continue learning in all three branches. From what I’ve seen at writers’ conferences and in online writer communities, even what I’ve heard from some editors, it seems to me that an undue emphasis is placed on the last category, the mechanics.

I’ll reiterate, I think we writers should constantly strive to improve, even in what I’m terming mechanics. Grammar, punctuation, capitalization, formatting, spelling—these are important, even deal breakers, according to a number of agents and editors. So writers do need to pay attention to these basics, but they must be kept in balance with other parts of storytelling.

Even the last segment of this category—good fiction techniques—can be emphasized too much. Certainly I believe in good fiction technique, things such as a proper point of view, showing vs. telling, vivid descriptions using the five senses, foreshadowing
, avoiding cliches, repetition, redundancy, and a number of others. But an over emphasis of these can suck the life out of a story.

I’ve heard and read writing teachers decry the use of -ly adverbs, was, -ing words, to the point that some writers come to believe using an adverb is actually wrong. Oh, sure, we say there are “no rules, only guidelines,” but the implication is still that “good writing” doesn’t use any of those undesirables.

The result seems to me to be stilted writing, robotic fiction, cloned storytelling. Where is the art, if everyone writes in the same structured, lean, prosaic way? OK, fiction is prose, but must it be prosaic?

So here’s what I’m suggesting. Maybe, just maybe, we writers need to learn these techniques so that we can venture away from them—on purpose. Not for the sake of thumbing our nose at the conventions. Some writers seem to do that, and the result, quite frankly, is alienation of the intended audience.

But I think this might be one place where art resides in fiction—the choosing to venture away from the “proper” techniques on occasion in order to strengthen the story.

Tomorrow, a look at another branch of writing we can continually learn about.

Published in: on January 12, 2009 at 7:15 pm  Comments (5)  
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  1. I wholeheartedly agree a writer needs to learn the rules in order to know when, where, and how they desire to break them. I’ve long maintained that if you break them unawares, it shows up in your writing as flaws rather than as stylistic choices. If you don’t know them and you consistently break them in obvious ways without an implication that you know you’re breaking them, your writing makes you look ignorant and unskilled.

    I also agree that strict adherence to them produces formulaic writing with less passion/emotion. I’m not saying that all or even most readers will necessarily notice this, but other writers surely will–not that that matters. I’ve read plenty of formulaic novels, particularly in the last two years, so there is definitely a trend thing going on with publishers. However, it’s always the more interesting and often the better writers who are able to break away from the rules successfully.


  2. I’m not saying that all or even most readers will necessarily notice this,

    I agree that they may not consciously notice. Readers mostly know whether or not they want to keep reading and if they enjoyed the experience. They may cry or laugh, they may think about a story for days. But they probably can’t tell you why they reacted in any of those ways except that the book was “soooooo good.”

    On the other hand, they probably can’t tell you why they just felt ho-hum about another book and why they don’t recommend it to their friends.

    Could it be style?

    I have a theory that style is why we remember books and story is why we enjoy them. What do you think?



  3. I’m starting to believe it’s primarily other writers or professionals who notice those things we name “style” or our references to “rules”. I’m not in any way putting down the “average” reader, but honestly if those things we slave to do well truly mattered to readers, many of the bestsellers simply wouldn’t be.

    I’ve read a few badly written novels lately which some readers raved about. Their comments indicated it was all about the story resonating with them and really the writing went unnoticed.


  4. No, I didn’t take your comments as a put down. When the judges of American Idol make technical comments to a contestant, I don’t know to what they are referring. I can mostly tell who sounds good, but there are some performances I sit and think, Huh?

    I think writing is the same. But here’s my view on style. Just like some of those singing contestants seem more polished, more professional, I couldn’t tell you exactly what they did that made it seem so. Others put feeling into their performances and the judges said they were over the top. I agreed, but what had they done that was over the top? Too much facial expression? The leather pants? What? I knew there was something that made one more professional and the other over the top, but I couldn’t have coached the contestants to do one thing over the other so as to create the more professional performance.

    But sometimes, we like the amateur. We like the effort. We think the schmaltzy song worked because we wanted something schmaltzy.

    Back to writing. I think some readers will say, Great story, you have to read it about some stories that … could be better. Perhaps those readers just wanted their hearts tugged and didn’t care about anything else. Those books, I’m suggesting, rarely make it big.

    Having said that, I can think of one series and two other books that would fit in that category and they DID make it big. However, with the two books I’m thinking of, there was accompanying controversy, and I think that is what drove the sales.

    But in each case (and I’ll just say right here, I didn’t read any of these), I heard as many people say how poorly done the books were as people who said how much they loved them.

    I tend to think some attention to style would have eliminated a lot of the negative reactions. I don’t know if the books would have sold better, but in the one instance, the sales for the following books dropped off. And they are all but forgotten. Would that happen if the author had paid attention to style?



  5. I agree that rules confine our creativity. If everybody followed all the rules then they would be homogenized writers, and not unique writers.
    “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.” Mark Twain


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