Let’s All Write the Same


I hope you realize I’m being facetious by suggesting all writers should write in the same way. However, I sometimes get the feeling that advocates of certain writing approaches think this outcome would be desirable.

I recently read a review that criticized a work for what it did NOT do, as if all works had, in fact, to do exactly the same thing. Now if the criticism was that the story did not have a likable protagonist or it did not have sufficient conflict or a central theme, then I would understand. These are things necessary to every story. But this was not the case.

Instead this criticism centered on a style. I’ll use an example. James Scott Bell, in his excellent book Plot & Structure advocates using the “three-act structure.” Does that mean this is the only structure a novel can follow?

Apparently some people believe so, religiously, to the point of criticizing any novel that dares to use a different structure as if it is inferior or deficient. The fact is, the three-act structure is one way of telling a story, but not the only way. James Bell himself says so:

Can You Play With Structure?
Of course. Once you understand why it works, you are free to use that understanding to fit your artistic purposes … So grasp the worth of structure, then write what you will.
– p. 24

Jim does go on to say that even in non-linear plots eventually the same elements and information found in a plot organized into three acts will also surface.

But what if a reviewer uses the three-act structure as his bible for The Way Stories Should Be, and he comes across a story like Lost Mission by Athol Dickson? Anyone reading the various posts during the CSFF Blog Tour for this book probably knows Athol did not follow the three-act structure.

And I suggest, the literary world is better for it. We’re better for books like George Bryan Polivka’s Blaggard’s Moon, too, that creates “story movement” as John Truby calls it, through a means other than linear story telling.

My point is simply this: when an author is allowed to actually create, his work may be very different from some of the patterns advocated in writing instruction books. Truth is, it may be inaccessible, as I find A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to be, no matter how acclaimed a writer James Joyce is. But it also might be brilliant and award winning (think, Gilead by Marianne Robinson) and wonderfully fresh and even wildly successful (think Harry Potter).

The alternative is for authors to put creativity aside and work exclusively within the cookie-cutter structure of screenplays. All books would soon become predictable (have you started noticing that the least likely suspect is almost always the culprit?) and characters, interchangeable.

The same is true of any other dearly held belief about writing. Some of the oft repeated writer advice—avoid an omniscient point of view, strip away all adverbs, don’t use “was,” kill off -ing words, and so on—ends up sterilizing writing. No longer does an author have a unique voice, a creative story, a fresh approach. Instead, it all needs to sound the same, only better.

I think the “only better” part is accurate. I’m taking issue with the hard and fast approaches that render fiction too much the same.

The Art of Storytelling, Part 4


If you haven’t voted for the CSFF Top Blogger for December yet, please take some time to look over the posts listed here and vote. By the way, voting is not limited to CSFF members. Anyone reading the posts is free to voice an opinion.

– – –

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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