Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Writing vs. Storytelling

In the comments section of last week's post about the one question writers should never ask themselves when reading (retroactive spoiler: the question is "do I like this?"), some people took the post to mean that I was essentially saying that if a book is popular it must be well-written, ergo the most popular books are the best written.

Not what I meant!

Now, partly this is a confusion of terms, because are we talking about "writing" as in prose or "writing" as in overall craft or are the books we like the ones that are well-written and the ones we don't like are the ones that aren't?? Everyone tends to mean something different when they talk about "the writing."

But for the most part, and you'll see below what I mean, I think when people criticize the "writing" they mean the sentence-to-sentence prose, so let's just go with that definition for now.

And let's also get one thing clear up front: there absolutely has to be a certain level of writing for a book to work, and I personally think the degree of writing quality in bestselling books is underestimated by many aspiring writers. I host page critiques because smooth and polished prose aids storytelling and in today's publishing world you need an extremely high degree of craft in order to be published.

But once you've reached a certain degree of professional-level writing, the further levels and degrees of writing is not the be all and end all of a book's success.

What I meant by last week's post is not that every popular book is written phenomenally well, but a popular book is doing SOMETHING very well, and it's far more valuable to try to pinpoint what that writer is succeeding at rather than simply dismissing a book as being horribly written just because you don't like it or just because the prose isn't top notch.

It might be the suspense, it might be the tension, it might be the pacing, it might be the setting, it might be the characters, or even more likely a combination of several different elements. But if a book is phenomenally popular, something is working that is attracting readers, and no, it's not just the marketing.

Several people mentioned this part of Stephen King's (in)famous interview about Stephenie Meyer in the comment section: "The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good."

What people don't seem to remember is this part of the interview:

"People are attracted by the stories, by the pace and in the case of Stephenie Meyer, it’s very clear that she’s writing to a whole generation of girls and opening up kind of a safe joining of love and sex in those books. It’s exciting and it’s thrilling and it's not particularly threatening because they’re not overtly sexual. A lot of the physical side of it is conveyed in things like the vampire will touch her forearm or run a hand over skin, and she just flushes all hot and cold. And for girls, that’s a shorthand for all the feelings that they’re not ready to deal with yet."

Whether or not you agree with King's assessment about Meyer's writing, at the very least he's making a distinction between writing and storytelling, or at least what I assume is a distinction between prose craft and storytelling craft, and is acknowledging what he sees as working in Meyer's books.

Yes, good writing aids storytelling, you need a certain level of writing for a book to work. But just because you don't care for the prose doesn't mean there's nothing that's working and nothing to be learned.

Do you have any thoughts on the distinction between writing and storytelling? Do you see one as being more important than the other?


T. Anne said...

My latest WIP is all story. There is no pretty writing or literary movement occurring within the text, just simply a story moving forward on its own volition. It's a different experience for me as a writer.

Locusts and Wild Honey said...

Yeah, I would actually say storytelling is more important--otherwise you're just wasting the reader's time.

However I love good writing and vastly prefer books that have both good writing and good storytelling.

And that's fascinating about the now-infamous Stephen King interview. I had no idea that he said some kind things about TWILIGHT too.

Maya said...

Thank you, Nathan! I can't tell you how sick I am of hearing about how Meyer's writing is no good. The fact that Twilight is a mega blockbuster novel has put undue scrutiny on the prose, when in fact it is on the same level as many YA and genre books. Twilight's a hit because the STORY is a hit, the CHARACTERS are a hit, and because teenage girls (the target audience!) like them. I wish wannabe YA writers would please get over themselves when they complain about Twilight. Their blatant jealousy is embarrassing.

Kathleen Foucart said...

Great post! I've always cared more about the story than the style-- though sometimes a style can draw me into a story I might otherwise not have read. But in general, if the story isn't entertaining me, no amount of "fantastic writing" is going to make me like it.

Kristan said...

I'm glad you reposted some more of that infamous interview, because I remember how outraged I was that an oft-derided popular author such as King would then turn around and do the same thing to Meyer. But then when I read the whole thing, and not just the ONE LINE that every decided to fixate on, I realized he was actually giving Meyer plenty of compliments, in addition to recognizing one of her shortcomings.

Anyway, I think it's VERY important to distinguish between writing and storytelling, perhaps because I myself DIDN'T for a long time, and I thought I was a great writer. Well, okay, I was. But I sucked at storytelling. So I've spent the past year and a half focusing on that, and the change is astounding.

Ideally, authors should be excellent at both, and that's absolutely *my* goal.

But realistically? I do think storytelling takes precedence over writing, by a little bit. And I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with that. Kind of like how most moviegoers want to see Hollywood blockbusters instead of Cannes indie films. {shrug} There's room in this world for both.

Kristan said...

Ah yes, and ditto what Maya and Kathleen said!

Craven said...

People are fans of storytelling. Great prose and good storytelling makes magic.

Great prose and poor storytelling results in a poor read.

A Rose by any other name... said...

The story is what keeps me turning pages. Top-of-the-line writing is a fringe benefit that comes along once in a great while.


Frank said...

Finding the balance between storytelling and writing is essential. If you only focus on the writing then you lose the reader, but if you only focus on the storytelling then you lose the chance to have a larger audience and bore the one you already have.

Writing will get people reading, but storytelling will keep them reading to the end.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

I waffle a bit when it comes to writing and storytelling. I mean, you need a certain amount of pure writing ability or the story doesn't matter, because it will never come across to the reader. But you need to be able to tell a story, too, otherwise what's the point? But to really make the most of your story some vivid and beautiful writing doesn't hurt...

So, you know, while I like chickens better than eggs, they both have their uses and hopefully after a nice dinner of roasted chicken, dessert will include some sort of fine pastry (or cake, mmmmmmm... cake) making use of fresh eggs.

just one foot said...

These are especially important points when it comes to memoir, which I like to read and am trying to write. One holds hands with the other, to make a good memoir, I think. I can have an intriguing story but need to be a good writer to tell it well.
Thanks for the discussion, Nathan.


Karen Carr said...

Stephen King said something similar about James Patterson, that he doesn't 'respect his books because everyone's the same...he's a terrible writer' Patterson responded that he is a good story teller and that millions of people agree with him.

I think King's a good story teller, but he's not the best writer either. I'm reading The Stand now and there's lots of cliches and adverbs, so who is to say who writes well except your fans.

A.L. said...

I think writing is what will get you into a book. If the person has enough skill with the prose that you can read the first few pages and actually consume the hook it has done its job.

The Storytelling is what grabs you by the head and lets you know that you're not going anywhere until it is done with you.

I'm glad to see someone (with credibility to boot) addressed what Meyers did right. I've never read Twilight, and I've seen tons of bad things about it. I've had bad experiences with Twilight fans that put me off it. But she has to be doing /something/ to have so many people so ensnared.

It's not that 50 million people can't be wrong. It's that 50 million people don't line up if they're not getting a show out of it.

ARJules said...

Of course, the story, characters, etc. are the most important. You can write the most beautiful and eloquent prose, but if there's no story there? What's the point?

On the other hand, I find that if the story is good, but it isn't written well, the book won't be a favorite of mine and I will never want to re-read it again. For example, the Twilight series. Yes, the story strikes a chord for a lot of people. And it is my hope that if they were not previously avid readers, their foray into Twilight will inspire them to read more.

However, like I said before, I liked Meyer's books for what they were. That being said, I will never read them again. They certainly aren't my favorites. It is no way a jealousy issue. I just don't prefer her writing.

Back to my day job. *sigh*

ink_spot said...

About ten years ago, I had finished a manuscript for a novel I had high ambitions for. I have a decent vocabulary (in my native language, which is not English as you may notice) and thought I'd done well with twisting words, experimenting with ambiguity etc.

From one of the publishers I sent the manuscript to I got a reply that at first was one of the toughest setbacks to date but which since has become one of the most important letters I've received.

They said, "look, you don't have the literary qualities to experiment with language, but you have a really great story going here. Simplify and focus on telling that story".

I wanted to have those qualities so badly because I'd grown up reading classical literature. So at first I was disappointed, to say the least. But as time passed and I read my earlier texts with some distance, I saw exactly what they meant.

Ten years on, it comes naturally to me to choose the simpler way in wording, leaving me with much more energy to put into what I'm actually good at. And it's turned out very well for me.

I think realising what one's strengths and weaknessess are is one of the more important parts of evolving one's writing.

Delia said...

Thank you for posting the whole Stephen King statement! He got raked over the coals for what was a thoughtful, articulate, knowledgeable statement. Instead of listening to it and learning from it, people derided him for it. It's nice that someone acknowledged it.

Jaimie said...

Nathan. Ugh.

This was so, so encouraging to read. Because some days, and especially today, I get hung up on my sentences. Thank you for the reminder that the sentences aren't what really resonate.

Stu Pitt said...

Good distinctions. I'd make one more. I consider King and his ilk entertainers. Thinking of them as writers, as being part of the same profession as Jane Smiley and JM Coetzee, hurts my brain.

King's a good storyteller. Everyone describes his books by the story; car turns into the devil, Jack Torrance goes nuts in a hotel, Carrie has a bad prom, doofus escapes from prison. Good entertainment, that.

The best entertainment + prose novel I've read is John Le Carre's TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. First rate story, and prose that makes you think.

swampfox said...

Great writing needs a great story. The reverse is not true.

Terees/Arleas said...

I would say story is more important because people's tastes vary immensely, but certain elements of any story can resonate deep within the reader. Personally, I'm very picky about which writer's styles I like. For example, Tolkien's stories rock (LOTR series) but he goes into so much detail I find him painful to read. That said, I have come to appreciate audio CD's to enjoy many more stories than I would just by reading.

J.D. Deshaw said...

Storytelling is always going to be at its best when the writing is fantastic--and vice versa. Why are books like The Bluest Eye, The Sun Also Rises, or The Heart of Darkness considered so ideal? It's because the authors mastered both crafts and their execution was flawless.

Anonymous said...

Storytelling is the most important part. But poor writing can get in the way. The difference between storytelling and writing is similar to an artist who is technically good versus one who is passionate. A comedian tells so-so stories with excellent timing will seem funnier than one who tells excellent stories with poor timing.

Livia said...

I write because I like storytelling and have very little natural inclination to experiment with words. Now that I'm writing more seriously, I do enjoy trying to improve my craft, although I dont' think my prose will ever be beautiful the way some literary works are. I do wonder, as a YA writer though, whether my main audience would even notice if my craft improved.

Jeni Decker said...

I think ink_spot hit the nail on the head, essentially.

Simplified. The Twilight Series, the Sookie Stackhouse series, Evanovich---these books are simple and the commercial masses tend to buy simple.

There's nothing wrong with simple, you know what you've got going in and if the characters and story entertain, the author has done their job.

Beautifully written prose coupled with great storytelling and fantastic characters is harder to come by, though. If the storytelling challenges a reader or requires anything of them, it doesn't tend to be as commercially marketable. There are, of course exceptions...

But some books are like reality tv--you just can't look away.

They've hooked you. And that's great.

Hopefully, though, we're all reading various kinds of works, the easy and the challenging and everything in between. ;)

Kate Larkindale said...

I love beautiful writing, but so often a beautifully written story or book gets so wrapped up in the language and the way the story is being told, the story is kind of forgotten. Whenever I discover a book that is both beautifully written and a compelling story, it goes right to the top shelf!

MJR said...

I need both good writing and a good story--equally. The novel might have a compelling premise but if the plot loses tension in the middle, I put it down. I picked up a novel I thought I'd love the other day--sounded like a good story, but I couldn't get past pg 5 because the writing was blah.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for expanding on the idea you put forth last week ie., successful books do something phenomenally well. I was very curious about that statement and you've answered it.

I had to reread this post a couple times. Though I know the difference between writing & storytelling, the way you're discussing the difference is, I think, more performative (how-to, craft.) But your observations, esp. the references to Meyer & King, spotlight generally known examples of these issues.

I write /say this because I started John Updike's "Brazil" late last night and fought to stay awake because it was so good. I tend to think of Updike as a dead (well, he is) white guy (he was) who has nothing to say and writes from such extreme privelege, I would NEVER like his work. Then, I bought Brazil (for a buck at a garage sale) and WHOA! He's amazing! His sentences are complex, the story is sexy (and yes, horribly racist), and he's totally post-modern, using Tristian an Isolde (another seemingly irrelevant work by an straight, dead, German white guy ... not!) to really amazing ends. Good writing & story telling, no vampires.

And, I just finished reading a Jezebel piece comparing Elizabeth Gilbert with Elisabeth / Girl With Tattoo. The comments were interesting because they pointed out how horrible the writing is, possibly a bad translation, but the latter book resonates because it fulfills a sort of revenge female revenge fantasy (whereas Gilbert fulfills another fantasy, ying to yang or yang to ying, I forget.) I haven't read GWT but have read Eat/Pray/Love and, with your storytelling vs. writing dialectic in mind, you're correct: I didn't care for the writing (lazy, self-indulgent, irritating in so many ways) but was eventually coopted by the story-telling because she stuck to the story she promised to tell and ... well, I liked where she ended up.

This is an excellent topic, I think, because it casts an all things being equal vibe on books: "literature," crime/thrillers, and New Ageish pabulum must SERVE THE READER. But while we're all readers, we have vastly different tastes.

- Tomas

February Grace said...

There are many writers in the world- but not so many truly compelling storytellers.

Storytellers are artists, painting with words.

A storyteller is what I yearn to be: that's what I am personally working toward.

Yes, of course there has to be a certain degree of proficiency in the mechanics of 'the writing' or a book is doomed to fall flat. If you can't put a grammatically correct sentence together obviously you can't tell a cohesive story- a lack of basic skills will suck the life out of your book quicker than a Hoover on shag carpeting.

I think though that a basic proficiency in writing itself is the bare bones of what is needed to really win reader's hearts. It's the mannequin waiting to be clothed. You want a mannequin to display your designer dress on, but without the dress, wig, and all the accoutrements, the mannequin will never be mistaken for an actual human being let alone a Brazilian supermodel.

In other words: it's my view that storytelling trumps all.

Pretty words really do make better books.


ryan field said...

I like to see a perfect balance...Anne Tyler's books. (Though, I've even seen readers on goodreads knock her with one star, which makes no sense at all)

But it doesn't always work that way, and more often than not one or the other suffers. In this case, I think it all depends on how much a reader can tolerate and what they are looking to get out of a book. Most mainstream readers are looking for entertainment and a certain amount of escapism in fiction, and if the storyline isn't powerful they aren't going to rave about the book no matter how well it's written.

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

I agree with Delia, and for that matter, Stephen King. Twilight is a good example of what to do (as far as hooking a reader) but also an example of what not to do (not so good prose).

It should be crystal clear what you said before and it definately is now. We need to focus on ALL elements of a story to make it work.

G.Skinner said...

It's kind of like two sides of a coin. If it's sharp and well polished, it doesn't matter which side of the coin catches your attention, you will still bend over to pick it up. But if one side or the other is worn, faded and lack luster. you will likely pass it by.

Summer said...

Story telling and the actual writing is very different. I know an author whom I have critiqued and hes an amazing story teller, always manage great comedy in his stories by mouth, and guess what it flows right into paper for him as well, but hes not very good grammatically. So he needs someone to edit because of this, however despite his actual grammatic flaws his big gets rave reviews.

wry wryter said...

I think some writers, not all but many, sit on some pretty high horses.
If you are out to write the great American novel, get over yourself.

The unsuccessful writer who deems himself more qualified then the prosperous author is a fool.(I made that up.)

Look, you can stand at the grill and flip burgers all day and get nowhere or at least make a living. Flip them well, add some spices, condiments, open the bar, and people flock to your restaurant. Can you be successful without the good-stuff, sure, add the good stuff and they are breaking down your door.
What does flipping burgers have to do with writing, not a damn thing.

BUT write about the summer you flipped burgers and got laid by the bosses wife, who happened to be the head of the English department at your local high school and IF during her whispers of sweet nothings you studied her 'sintax', you have got yourself one hell of a story AND you'll know how to tell it well.

So,Nathan you want that rare, medium or well done?

Katt said...

A well told story can keep me in a badly written book. Good writing with no story? Toss it.

In the fast and furious world we live in, I read for entertainment, not deep meaning. Thats just me. I'd rather stare at a sunset than a painting, rather savour a sweet strawberry than a fish egg.

Latoya Alloway said...

There is definitely a difference between storytelling and writing. However it is rare for an author to exhibit both in one novel. Harry Potter encompasses both. Twilight does not. Both should be respected though because millions of people read both. I think a great story with great writing sells book. A great story with okay writing sells books but great writing without a good story will never sell books--unless you write poetry. That is hard for writers to accept but it is true. I know because I am an aspiring writer and my biggest challenge is not in writing prose but in writing a good story that people want to read.

Anatole said...

I believe that you have to have a good mix of both -- as Meyer's books do. The telling of the story is vastly important, but if you don't "write" at least decently, it won't matter how good you are in other areas.

Rick Daley said...

Writing and stories, it's a two-fer Tuesday.

The writing and the story have to work together. The writing needs to be sufficient to speak to the story's audience. In the cases of Twilight and Harry Potter, it was.

In those cases the writing might not hold up to high-minded literary standards, but it doesn't need to, so it didn't fail on any level.

Eric W. Trant said...

All that matters in ~writing~ is that you say what you mean to say such that people can understand what the heck you're trying to say.

~Be clear.~

That's all there is in the world to writing. I don't know why there are so many other sentences on the subject.

Storytelling, though, that's the greasy little pig that's so hard to catch. Nailing that sucker down is the art part that's so enviable in successful writers.

Story story story... that's all that matters. Give the reader a clear picture and a great story.

- Eric

Bane of Anubis said...

Writing can be learned, storytelling, not so much, methinks. Unfortunately, I am no natural yarn spinner, so the construct and rhythm of a good story are harder for me to find in my own writing... and I think this is the case for many people, which is likely one reason why agents see similarities to trends... because it's easier to mimic preset storytelling of someone else who is likely more of a natural storyteller.

re: SM -- I think she's neither, but guess what, she wasn't writing for readers like me. And I think that's the most critical thing that aspiring authors too often forget (at least I know I do): target audience.

We're not writing for other authors, we're writing for run-of-the-mill Janes/Joes who don't give two hoots about adverbs (look at David Eddings), showing versus telling, etc... they just want a good story.

Figure out how to write to an audience (good storytellers know this intrinsically, I think), and you're closer to golden than many who have voice, good craft, etc... which are just gravy.

Nice post, Nathan.

CB ICE said...

Great post! I liken this to one of my favorite movies, The Brothers McMullen, by Indie filmmaker, Ed Burns. I'm sure many of you have heard of it, but did you know about all the technical issues. He cut together different type of film (whatever he could get his hands on,) his actors sometimes had different clothes on in the same scene because it was shot at different times--sometimes months later. Also, some hairstyle were different in the same scenes and obviously the whole movie. But the story rose above all that. I must have watched it 20 times and never noticed any of that. He had just enough knowledge of the how to to go along with his wonderful storytelling to get noticed and produced! A good combo. is necessary. Or maybe balance is a better word choice. I'm learning that now as I have my manuscript edited by an author. I love the whole process of writing. getting the story on paper, then moving things around and changing words. No matter what, I think it has to be in your soul, writing and storytelling--okay--back to it!

Aimee said...

This is such a true post, but kind of discouraging for me. I feel like my storytelling is not very intriguing and my plot lines and pacing usually fall flat or get lost. However, my writing is great, if I do say so myself. I love experimenting with language and learning new ways to tell a story. I have the "how" part down pact, but the "what" is usually what throws me off.

Anonymous said...

Story, story, story.

Story elements sewn together is great writing. Great writing tells the reader something about their own life. That's the draw to story.

Story, story, story.

wry wryter said...

Eric 5:15
Porcine nailed it.
I've been chancing that greasy little pig for so long that my little piggy has become an overgrown sow; time to trim the fat.
Jeez guys, I love this blog.

Laurel said...

Story trumps all. Bad writing- really bad- can be so distracting that it pulls you out of the story. Adequate or better and a good story will carry you on its momentum.

Otherwise, how do classics survive? Or STORIES that get translated into multiple languages and sell just as well? Something always gets lost in the translation, whether it's the evolution of language (The Pearl Poet or Chaucer's Middle English converted to modern) or the conversion of the language (Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez). The universal part is the story. It has to transcend current cultural sensibilities, like the arbitrary elimination of all adverbs.

Something in the story has to resonate with the human condition and keep our interest. Otherwise we are just reading really long strings of pretty words, like all dessert with no main course.

jan said...

I think storytelling is the have that is essential to a story being popular. But I think you have to have the back-up of craftsmanship for a book to become classic and live on.

Also, I think it's GOOD for writers to look at books critically -- look for why a book works and why it doesn't. And I get so very tired of having any accknowledgement that something isn't really very well written be branded with "JEALOSY."

Honestly, I saw folks saying Stephen King was jealous because he dared to say Meyer's craft isn't really very good. Jealous! Good Lord have mercy.

D.G. Hudson said...

Writing is something we can all do, with varying levels of expertise. Writing craft can be learned, but style cannot. Some genres are more forgiving of the writing, the audience just wants the romance, the suspense, or something to identify with (as in YA or MG)

Storytelling is a gift that some are born with, and others struggle to find. If the story is compelling, we don't really care about the mistakes or poor writing. We're swept up into the tale.

I'd have to say the storytelling is more important. No matter how well written a book may be and regardless of whether it's mainstream or literary, it's the story that keeps me reading.

Jabez said...

A couple points. First, I've seen scores of people on blogs and otherwise say words to the effect of, "I'm not the best writer in the world, but I'm a good storyteller," but barely a handful who have ever admitted to being a better prose stylist than a storyteller. But being good at either one is really hard and rare.

I think the reason for the disparity, mostly, is that it's easier to delude yourself into thinking you're a better storyteller than you are, because you can grasp the quality (or not) of the prose in a short excerpt, but to evaluate storytelling you have to look at the work as a whole, which is harder to wrap your mind around. Plus we usually get into the writing game because we have stories to tell, and we don't want to think that on that basic level, we just don't have it. And people confuse storytelling, which involves a lot of different elements (choice of details, pacing, tension, characterization, plotting, setting, etc.) with just the basic idea of the story (which they think theirs is original and compelling, or they wouldn't be writing it) or with just plot at a high level of remove.

And my second point, which is I think too many people confuse "writing" as "writing in a literary fashion." I think a great "writer" is a writer who can best craft her prose to serve the particular story she's trying to tell, whether that is literary, fantasy, mystery, romance, or what not. But because people tend to equate fancy or elaborate (which may happen to be great) with great prose, lots of people who don't write in a literary style instantly discount themselves and similar writers as mainly "storytellers" and not great "writers."

Susan Schaefer Bojilov said...

What draws me to a book is the voice of the author.

Susan Schaefer Bojilov said...

I am drawn to a novel by the voice of the auther

susan Schaefer Bojilov said...

One more time. I am drawn to a book by the voice of the author. I wish I could spell correctly the first time.

Lila Swann said...

I'm 17, so I'm right in the middle of Meyer's target audience. I'm not really sure why everyone bashes on her prose. I understand that it doesn't stack up to the classics. But why would I ever want to read a romance vampire story with snooty prose? Gross.

Adults love to bash on Meyer's "lackluster" style, but honestly, her audience doesn't care. If someone decided to rewrite Twilight using the exact same story with elevated prose, I can guarantee you that the original would sell more.

Teens - Meyer's target audience - do NOT like snooty prose. We are force fed that enough in our English classes. I do think that classical, well-written literature has its place (I just finished Ellison's Invisible Man) but in terms of reading for pleasure (and choosing books that we're willing to spend money on)...we'll go with the entertaining, common language every time.

Sorry to all of the language snobs.

S.R. said...

I guess I'd say that what King is getting at here is the distinction between literature for all time, and something you read on an airplane and and throw away once you reach your destination. Ultimately, it's Rowling's writing--clear, compulsively readable, simple but sophisticated in the way that Raold Dahl's is, for instance--that will assure that people read the Harry Potter books to their kids, and their kids to their own kids, etc. Stephenie Meyer may tell a story that appeals to girls (and, let's face it, only girls) at a certain period in their lives, but is ultimately an ephemeral pleasure. (I'd even argue that it's a dated one, likely to go away once we all come to our senses and realize that what we call teenagers practicing abstinence only is "parents.") It's the difference between eating a really good cut of prime rib and cheap, sugary Dairy Queen ice cream. The first is nourishing; the second is just empty calories. It's also about characterization. Bella, I'm sorry, is just a cardboard foil who doesn't change or develop from one book to the next. It's not so much a coming of age story as an anti-coming of age story. In a way, she seems almost to regress as she falls deeper in love.

You can certainly make a million bucks telling a good or at least a resonant story; just don't expect your books to outlast you. There's no shame in it. People have different goals for themselves and their work.

I'd also point out, though, that good prose is not synonymous with "snooty" prose. In fact, I've always thought that there's something ineffably snooty and condescending about Meyer's prose, as if she knows she's writing a bestseller and you won't be able to control yourself once you get your hands on it.

robinC said...

Story is absolutely essential. You have to have a hook, a compelling reason for the reader to keep turning the pages. Of course both writing and storytelling in balance is a win/win, but pretty words without anything happening…may as well read a thesaurus.

The Frisky Virgin said...

Excellent post, Nathan. I love when I can lose myself within the pages of a good story. I love characters I can relate to, sympathize with, cheer on, etc. The book may not be what some consider brilliant writing, but it's effective writing...effective storytelling. As for Twilight--it's a fun story with fun characters, and isn't that half the battle?

Brian said...

I remember when I first started taking writing classes, I'd spend hours working on making my sentences as "artful" as possible.

When it came time for my critique, the professor always skipped over my toiling by saying "the writing works fine" and would then spend the rest of the time making suggestions about the plot and characters ect. More "story" oriented.

It used to drive me crazy! All I wanted was a ten minute discussion about how cool my similes were. It took almost a year for me to realize that without a good story to tell, with pacing and rhythm and flow, I wasn't going to connect with any readers.

It's been many years since that revelation, and I still haven't gotten the storytelling part figured out....

Mira said...

Great post, Nathan. I completely agree!

For best-selling commercial fiction I believe you need two things:

a. smooth writing that keeps the reader engaged without a break.

(It doesn't have to be great writing, just smooth so the reader is immediately immersed and 'captured.'

As a side note, most readers, unless they have training in the craft, won't really know the difference between good and great writing. And lest you think I am a snob, I include myself in that. I'm grammar challenged.)

b. a story that hits on a shared archtype.

Men probably won't 'get' the archtype of Twilight, and that includes Stephen King, unless they are very in touch with their feminine side. Meyers hit on the same feminine archtype that you find in Cinderella and most romance. Edward is a protective father figure, and most women with distant fathers who yearned to have their fathers finally cherish and protect them will find the story speaks to them.

It's the archtype of being seen as special and loved and then rescued by Prince Charming.

Meyer's writing is very smooth, the story speaks to an archtype and it totally makes sense that it was extremely popular.

Ishta Mercurio said...

Beyond the very basics, storytelling is more important, for the reasons that everyone has already mentioned.

Mira said...

Oh, I want to add one thing.

Just as a balance, there are other reasons to write than the desire to entertain and sell well.

In fiction, some may write for high ART. They are exploring the beauty and artistry of words. Although high art doesn't sell well, since you usually need training to really appreciate it, it's still extremely valuable to the culture as a part of the on-going artistic dialogue.

And then there is another catagory. The creation of a masterpiece.

A masterpiece is so beautifully crafted and speaks to the human condition so profoundly that it.......well, it usually sells very poorly at first. And then picks up later on.

Okay, I'm done now.

Very much enjoyed your diplomatic, thoughtful and clear-thinking post and the chance to pontificate, Nathan. :)

Terry Stonecrop said...

I understand what you mean about prose craft and I work on it. Maybe too much. I still think storytelling trumps prose craft.

Maybe it's because I so loved my grandmother's stories about her life. She told the stories, orally, didn't write them. But maybe she was good at craft, too, now that I think about it.

Maybe there's also craft in the oral tradition that makes or breaks a story. She had insight into characters, and made observations about them and her descriptions brought her time and place so alive for me as a child. I was entranced and saw it all in my mind's eye.

Beth Barany said...

I absolutely think there are no absolutes... And that storytelling trumps craft just about every time. That said, there is a point at which I will put down a book because the writing doesn't flow.

Lila Swann said...

Oh, and I'd just like to clarify my word choice from my previous post... I used the word "snooty" multiple times to describe the high-concept prose that we're all discussing.

I do NOT think the authors are actually being snooty themselves. While there are, undoubtedly, language snobs in the world, I would never assume that all those who write spectacular prose are snooty.

However, teens will always perceive that as being snooty, just as we think our parents are out to get us and that everyone is secretly talking behind our backs. In the YA market (which is Meyer's audience), I don't think classical prose would work well at all.

Timothy Fish said...

Storytelling always comes first and always has. Look at the classics. While they may have more interesting prose than what we see today, they didn't become classics because of their prose. They all have something important to say.

RJ Hipling said...

Storytelling definitely keeps me reading but the writing is equally important. It's usually the stories with good, if not great, writing that has me returning to a book over and over again, never tiring of either aspects.

The ideal would be to have both but if I were to settle on anything, I would go with storytelling and hope that the writing is good enough to get me through at least one read of the book and have me thinking about the story long after I've turn the last page.

LeAnne said...

I believe that in commercial fiction, storytelling nearly always comes out on top. Look at some popular novels written in first-person. Authors will write short, conversational sentences without the overwhelming complexity of some prose writers, yet their book is deemed 'complex' and is praised as a fabulous work of art.

Here, for me, it's the how. How does an author tell a story? How does the plot attract the reader? It's how the writer lays out the story and attracts the reader; story-telling. You can have absolutely amazing prose, but if your characters are unlikeable and the plot moves nowhere, what is it worth?

Hence, I'm putting my wager on storytelling over prose.

And, as a lurker and first-time commenter, I do have to randomly ask you; Do you offer suggestions for an author's query letter even when you reject it? I've never submitted one before and I was hoping when I finish my novel that I can have the hope of getting a one-liner or so of advice if my letter doesn't work out. Is that possible?

Nancy said...

I like what Jeni Decker said: "Simplified. The Twilight Series, the Sookie Stackhouse series, Evanovich---these books are simple and the commercial masses tend to buy simple."

Most readers today fall into the mass reading market and this simplicity, which I think is a reflection on the fact that not many people have the time to read flowery, victorian prose anymore (think James Michener, carryover from those times). We live in an internet and TV world of ten-second blurbs. We want to see it and hear it now and we want it fast. We have to pick up the kids in a few minutes. We have a few minutes on the subway. Or we read long enough to fall asleep at night. That kind of life pacing leaves us with needing to get to the story right away; no long side tracks of prosey explanations or descriptions.

So in reality, the storytelling comes first. On the other hand, when I pick up a book (or first pages) for the first time and the writing lacks professionalism I will usually put it down and go on to the next book. For me, both writing and storytelling are essential if I'm going to get into the tale. Otherwise, I'm constantly distracted by the writing errors (such as 'alright' instead of 'all right') which ruin the story for me.

bsgibson said...

A story comes from the imagination of the writer and of life experiences to enhance the storytelling. Not everyone has an imagination that can flow into words and capture the pictures in the writer's head. That said, storytelling first, then writing it. Pacing, beginning, middle and end with a good plot. That holds my interest. If it's not perfect writing, but the story is interesting, I'll read and enjoy.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Writing is words on paper in a specific order. It's an exceptionally broad action rooted in habit. Storytelling is a bit like "X" factor. It's an infusion of flavor not called for in the recipe and something rooted in feeling your way without knowing your exact route.

You write in English lit, but you rarely tell stories.

To be a storyteller, you not only have to pour your blood and breathe into the characters you create, you have to allow them to breath it back into you.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Nathan: your blog is always thought provoking, and I find it difficult to refrain from thinking out loud.

I consider story telling first and foremost the job of the writer. To me, language is for communication--to transfer ideas, concepts and perhaps, experiences to readers.

That said, to me great writing communicates a story, or stories, so well the reader may not even be aware, at first, that some sort of understanding has passed from the writer to the reader.

And I don't know, or don't necessarily believe, that even those who can and do tell stories artistically, that is, with great care and consideration of what they're doing and how they're doing it, for a certain effect, become stars either in their time or later.

Perhaps, as Mira suggests, such writing is for the few who "get it." But it does add so much to our culture, to humanity and, hopefully, to our understanding of ourselves or others.

And Mira, agree with you as I do on most other subjects, I have to object to your suggestion Men won't get Twilight unless they're in touch with their "feminine side."

This always seems to imply, to me incorrectly, that sensitivity is solely the purview of women. Archetypes, on the other hand, are universal (or they wouldn't be archetypes).

And one with an inkling of understanding of symbolism can't help but see the very basic archetype of the male prince and protector, or a girl just at or about to emerge into womanhood.

What perhaps is more intellectually interesting is the fact such an archetype still strikes a chord with so many, in a world where one might believe women seeking such from men (or girls from boys, daughters from fathers or father figures) long ago passed into history.

There is the other, always subtle subtext of Vampire stories from the time of Stoker's original "Dracula," however--the desire for immortality, the cost of immortality, and the lust for whatever it is that gives youth its flower. And the danger "beautiful" men pose to "impressionable" women (young or old), or even men...And the lure of "experience."

Xena said...

great post, i guess it does put hings into perspective

scarlettprose said...

First of all, I agree with Lila Swann's posts.

Secondly, I once had the flu. Rather than hoist my lifeless body from the couch to get more tissues, I ripped out a page from my English Lit book and blew my nose on it. Then I set it next to "The Host" on the coffee table.

Nuff said.

BrownEyed said...

I am reading "Twilight" presently, and I must acknowledge that fact that I don't like the way she writes. Some things are off but not everything is up-side-down in her prose. Definitely, I see the difference because the plot and the characters are really brilliant, unlike the style and writing. I am not disliking her completely, but yes, in comparison to Rowling, Meyer is not close. However, both the authoresses have a great story to tell--so that makes Meyer a winner in one sense.


S Yarns said...

@Lila Swann. I would completely agree with you. Meyer's audience was YA and that is who she wrote to. I enjoyed the books myself, and I am well above the YA market. The story is what got me.

But what about The Host, also written by Meyer? To me, the language was more mature, not so simple. I found it to be a very interesting book, and have reread it multiple times.

Ahh, here is that s word again. How subjective it all is. I adore Dean Koontz and Stephen King. Koontz is a master of prose to me. King is a master of storytelling. Both equally compelling.

Ok, that's enough of my late night ramblings.

Oh, wait! One more thing!
If I never here the s word again, it will be too soon. Why can't everyone just think like me? It would be so much easier getting my novel published...

Anonymous said...

Writing vs. storytelling--this seems like a false choice to me. Where does the story exist if not in the writing? We look to the Twilight series or Dan Brown as absolute proof that story matters more, and yet, suppose that Dan Brown's writing *were* more than merely competent. Suppose it were more sophisticated, more pleasing to the eye and ear--how much better could the story be? How much longer would he stay relevant? How many more readers might he attract? Answer: at least one more (me).

"The Sun Also Rises" is one of the best books I have ever read. The beauty comes just as much from the prose as it does from the story. Maybe more so. No, definitely more so, because the story is nothing but a condition of the prose. The story *is* the prose. The story is authorial choices, interesting phrasings, vivid details, poignant and heartbreaking revelations. It would not achieve the same beauty if offered up by a lesser writer.

Just my 2 cents.


JDuncan said...

I believe there are far, far more good storytellers out there than good writers. The knowledge and precision required to craft great prose is, in my opinion at least, much more difficult than creating a good story. If the litmus of bestseller was on the prose, we'd have very few. There's also this whole art versus craft discussion, which is another post entirely. The point is, there's a whole level range of writers out there whose stories are marketable. And given the public's vast subjectivity on writing and storytelling, it's a good thing.

I for one, am an adequate writer. Good enough to have sold or at least pique the interest of a publishing house. I have a looong ways to go to be a great writer, and to be honest, won't likely be one. And I'm ok with that. I don't have to be a great writer. I do however want to be a great storyteller. I love creating stories, and want to be good enough at presenting them for people to enjoy the experience along with me. I have a wee bit of envy for those who are great at both. Those are one in a million.

Lila Swann said...

@S Yarns -

Oh, how funny! I actually despised The Host. I bought it in the month before Breaking Dawn was released as a way to pass the time. (I was ridiculously excited.)

Umm, yeah, I don't think I got past the first five chapters. Hated it.

The difference, I think, is that The Host is actually not a YA book, it's marketed for adults and (I'm pretty sure) is sold only in the Adult section, unless it gets grouped in with the "Stephenie Meyer Table."

I'm simply not a big Science Fiction fan, so in this case, the story didn't do it for me.

So yes, that's why you liked The Host more and found it more "mature." It was Meyer's attempt at an Adult novel.


Luc2 said...

I know Miss Snark always used to state: "Good writing trumps all." Given the discussion here, I believe the more accurate statement is: "Good storytelling trumps all." If a story is compelling, many readers will forgive less than stellar prose. I believe that fewer people will enjoy a novel with meticulous prose but without an interesting story. I know I do

Jovanna said...

Normally, I just concentrate on getting the story down, before I try to figure out the writing itself. The story to me, is much more important. On occasion though, I focus instead on the writing... and then I get some interesting pieces. For some reason, they all come out flowery and poetry like. It's weird.

Anonymous said...

LeAnn, clue -- 1) don't post a personal, off-topic question in a comment's section of an agent's blog.

2) the answer is no. You will not get feedback on your query letter from agents and you should not expect it (or you'll be very disappointed). Agents are not your teachers, your writing group, your beta readers, your family or your friends.

They are very busy people who have learned not to spend time with rejection emails to queries, explaining what was wrong with your query. Think of all the queries they reject in a day and you'll figure out why.

Your first lesson as a professional writer (because that's why you are querying agents) is to suck it up, and get your feedback from support groups. There are plenty online if you can't find one in your area.

Other Lisa said...

I'm really tired, I have a cold, I'm on Benadryl, but, WTF.


Good writing and good storytelling are bound up together. Good writing adds complexity and depth to storytelling...or maybe it's the other way around.

The better the prose craft, the better the story. I honestly don't think you can separate the two.

Stephen Parrish said...

I'd like to think that writing and storytelling are equally critical, and certainly I want both from the next novel I read. But whereas I can't get through a great story told poorly, I can be moved by a mundane story told beautifully.

Poetry provides a good example: often I don't know what the author is trying to say, but the words make me shiver all the same.

flibgibbet said...

Some level of writing competence and story-telling ability is required, no doubt about it.

But a great/catchy premise, and a true understanding of your target audience is worth an awful lot more than all the "rules" we're constantly being lectured about--at least if we're talking about best-sellers.

I don't think Meyer is a great writer or a great story-teller, but she more than succeeded when it came to understanding what her audience craved. (Teenage girls with forbidden love fantasies). Right time, right place.

And I'm not poking fun at that. I couldn't do what she did if you gave me a lifetime.

In any case, it should be pretty obvious where writer frustration lies in discussions like this. The experts pontificate at length about the "rules", then those same experts extoll the virtues of yet another book which reads (to many of us) like a first or second draft.

I just wish more experts would admit this simple truth.

Phyllis said...

This post made your point very clear: There's a quality threshold in writing that makes it publishable. I would argue there's a similar threshold for storytelling, too.

We writers who are unpublished and still honing our craft do well in assuming that our abilities may lie below the quality achieved in published novels, even the ones we consider the pit of literary achievement. Even they can teach us something. It pays to read outside one's own comfort zone, and I found I learned lessons in most unlikely places.

Still, I'd like to add a point that makes your statement a little less provoking: You can choose your masters. There's no need to spend hours with Dan Brown to learn the craft of a high-stakes thriller if you hate The Lost Symbol, take a Ludlum instead. There are many great and successful authors out there, and each of them has a lesson to teach.

Elie said...

The story and the way it's told are so meshed together I find it hard to separate them. I've had the strange experience recently of being physically unable to finish a couple of books because the story & writing style were incompatible (IMHO). I wanted to read on, but I really couldn't.

I'm going to some live storytelling events this summer, and listening to a story told by a real live teller is a different experience again .. interesting to compare it to reading, and it's worlds away from ipads & such.

Scott Foley said...

Great post Nathan. To me the difference between prose and storytelling is like getting a present all wrapped up. The wrapping (prose) must look attractive and want you to open it, but it's really all about the present (storytelling). Wrapping with no great present inside sucks ;-)

Hillsy said...

Anecdote + Paraphrasing of Nathan's post + Personal example of opinion/own writing = Comment

Now THAT's formulaic

Word Verification - Inativ: How ingenious people get across what they have in only 6 letters

G. Jackson said...

Love this post. Good writing alone can't carry you. Storytelling means you have to make story choices that work - in a way you have to intuit your readers' needs and emotions, just like in product development, and make decisions about your story based on that. You have to do this while writing a story that you feel connected to, not one that someone else owns.

I may be a strong writer, but that doesn't mean I am a strong storyteller. It always goes to defining craft, practicing, and always striving to be better.

Great topic, Nathan!

Sheila Cull said...

Great Post Nathan. Fantastic way to explain the success of Meyer and I agree (now, after hearing the way you explained it!) that the charm is in her story.

Gabriela Lessa said...

Great post, Nathan.
I do think there is a difference between writing and storytelling. Both are very important, but it seems to me that, in the end, storytelling will take you further. It's exactly the comparison between J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer. J.K. Rowling has both. She knows the craft of writing and does it beautifully AND she is able to create a story that people want to read. Meyer doesn't write as well, but the storyline attracts readers. Now, can you find a recent example of someone who wrote beautifully but didn't tell a good story, and still got published? I can't think of anyone.
Will I recommend someone who can both write and tell a tory over someone who is not that great on the writing? Always. But the ones doing great storytelling and average writing will get places. The ones who think their writing is so damn good they don't need an attractive storyline won't.

Teresa said...

Good writing is about good communication. I can have the greatest story in the world, but if I can't effectively communicate my characters feelings, environment, or plot, then I've failed as both a storyteller and a writer.

For me, in both my own writing and in novels that I read, there must be good writing and good storytelling. Good writing doesn't mean the author has to use tricky phrases and creative prose. Cormac McCarthy uses very simple prose to convey his stories. However, my all time favorite novel for both storytelling and beautiful prose is Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. The novel's prose is lyrical from beginning to end with a powerful story behind it.

As writers we must strive for both good storytelling and excellent prose. Otherwise, we've killed the very art we've chosen to honor.

J. R. McLemore said...

The only distinction that comes to mind for me is in some stories I read where the writer tries to sound too literary and uses big vocabulary words in order to impress the reader. While it is nice that the writer may have an extensive vocabulary, it severely detracts from the writing and pulls me out of the story. In most situations, the story might be very good, but told in this way, I can't see that fine storytelling because I'm running for the dictionary.

Nathan, not sure if you've already done a post about this, but it might be nice for many writers to know that impressive vocabulary doesn't make for a impressive storytelling. Case in point: Ernest Hemingway.

J. R. McLemore said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J. R. McLemore said...

Maybe I wasn't clear when I mentioned Mr. Hemingway. I meant that he uses simple vocabulary and told great stories...just a clarification. :)

Anonymous said...

Yes, the Twilight saga is a hit, and its storytelling is compelling and page turning -- but does that excuse a writer or editor from working to improve their basic grammar knowledge?

Repeated adjectives, zero transitions, incorrect grammar, characters suddenly having nicknames (Jazz) when they've never had a nickname in the three books prior, banal, repeated dialouge, characters acting against type, and canons broken right and left...

She's a masterful storyteller, but shouldn't you, as a writer, take pride in your work enough to continue to grow as a writer? I saw no difference in grammar/repeated phrases/etc in the beginning of the series than I did in the later books. I think that's a shame, really. Either her editor didn't give a damn, or she had to hurry to meet oppressive deadlines -- there's SOMETHING going on there.

I don't think that's jealousy -- I think it's mind boggling that something can make that kind of money and be so uncared for by seemingly all involved. Book 4 almost read like a rough draft.

If something that makes that kind of money gets shoddy editing, where's that leave the rest of us?

King did insult her -- by saying she's a great storyteller (which is hard to do) BUT THEN saying she's "just not very good" about WRITING. That's a huge insult. Because the one thing you can practice and refine is the writing -- page critique, anyone? And either Meyer didn't take the time to do that, or her editors didn't expect her to, but how much better would the books be if she had?

Janny said...

1) Short answer? Story trumps all.

2) I'm still spitting-nails angry about the assertion that we "ought not" to ask ourselves the question, "Do I Like This?" on the grounds that it's somehow "not important" whether we "like" something or not. Of course it's important...we're readers as well as writers. If we DON'T like something, we won't buy it--and affecting sales in the marketplace is hardly unimportant to the business, to the craft, or to us who are trying to make our mark in both.

Yes, I understand that whether we like something or not isn't the be-all and end-all of whether it "sucks." But I also think it's disingenuous to pretend that we're all reading--or SHOULD BE reading--with our analysts' glasses on all the time, either. That's simply not true, no matter how much we protest otherwise--not if we're truly reading, at least part of the time, for enjoyment.

And if we're not reading at least part of the time for enjoyment's sake, then, in the end, what's the point?

A bit of analysis goes a long, long way. But approaching the craft cerebrally all the time may be part of the reason so many so-called "classic" books are so colossally boring to some of us. No, it has nothing to do with whether we've "studied" them or not. You can "study" something that bores you, if you have to. But life is too short to spend any more time doing that than necessary.

On our deathbeds, I doubt if any of us is is going to say, "Darn, I should have spent more time studying that mawkish, badly written stuff by the author who sold a gajillion copies, just so I could learn something from what they did." I think we're much more likely to say, "Darn, if I'd just remembered that reading for enjoyment was how I got started in this business in the first place...and trusted my own instincts more."

My take,

gsfields said...

I read The Road a few weeks ago. The prose was good, almost too good for my taste. I was looking for a good end-of-the-world story but by the end of the first chapter I began to suspect the book was all prose and no story.

However, I stuck with the book and was not disappointed because the story was excellent and I think the prose simply helped elevate the story telling experience.

Nicole said...

Right on, Lila! And whoever made the "know your audience" comment. I think this is something a lot of writers forget. Your writing has to resonate with your readers - whoever your particular readers are.

No one will care about your beautiful prose if they don't first care about your characters and your story.

Sommer Leigh said...

Wow how timely. I just posted about this on my blog yesterday because I went to a sci-fi convention last week and even though I do not like Stephanie Meyer's writing, I ended up in several heated arguements about why she works as a storyteller. The Meyer bashing by other authors at the convention made me crazy, as if millions of readers who found entertainment value in her storytelling were just somehow misguided.

Missives From Suburbia said...

I always thought the interesting part about that King interview was that he thought Rowling was a good writer. I think the first Potter book was terribly written, but the story was fantastic. She improved dramatically as a writer as the series progressed.

Magdalena Munro said...

I am glad you followed up with this blog as the last one bothered me enough that I thought of the topic for HOURS (bravo for eliciting such a response) and decided not to respond. I'm glad as your current blog clears things up for me. You're not ascribing judgment/good/bad on success, simply that something is being done correctly. I agree.

Regarding writing and storytelling, I am a snob and can't read books that aren't excellent on both fronts. I need both. The Book of Evidence by John Banville (The book is about an amoral scientist who murders a servant girl during an attempt to steal a painting from a neighbor) has both superlative prose and kick ass storytelling. I demand and want it all as my time is limited and I need to immerse myself in literary luxury. Sorry for the long winded answer.

Adele Richards said...

I love what you say about the author doing 'something' right.

I've just finished reading a novel in which the writing sometimes made me roll my eyes because it was erring towards cliche (in my opinion!) and yet when I think about what the author was doing really well and what kept me reading - it was the characters and the romance that kept me going.

For me 'The Book Thief' is an example of a novel in which the amazing writing matches a fantastic story. I read it recently and absolutely loved it.

Gregz said...

To me, good storytelling is the ability to draw me in, make me care about the characters, and transport me into the fictive dream. King is an absolute master at this, even if his tales sometimes are a little gross. Bad writing disrupts that process and throws me out of the dream, leading me at times to give up on a book.

Reading fiction is about reading good stories for most people. People have different tolerances for, and definitions of, bad writing, and each of us will make our own subjective decision about whether a book meets that standard.

I don't have any opinion about Twilight, as I have not read it. Kudos to Stephanie Meyer for writing something so popular. Knowing what I know about the story, I could not be less interested in reading it, but as I am a 41 year old male, I'm not the target market.

Anonymous said...

As so many others have already said, in the end, it's about the story. But if possible, let's have the gorgeous prose, too.

Just a reminder to those who say all YA writers who complain about Twilight are jealous--not true. Some simply think it's badly written or passes along problematic subtext/troubling messages. And they're allowed to think that. :)

Anonymous said...

I love this point.
I am unable to put down a good story,but I have walked away from good prose when I could not locate the story.
A main differences: I may ignore the less skilled writing, but only if the story is popping
I may try harder to follow when the writing is dense or sophisticated because I think/hope it may take me somewhere.

S.R. said...

The last anonymous is very right. Honestly, if you told me that through an Amazing Body Switch I could be Stephenie Meyer right now, I wouldn't take you up on it. She's written what former LDS people assure me is almost a direct crib of the Book of Mormon and inflicted it on a lot of young women who aren't old enough to understand the line they're being fed, and a lot of older women who should really know better. It offers a deeply conservative (and destructive) worldview and tells us that there are no consequences for holding it. Oh, and the characters are lame stereotypes of themselves, there's basically no conflict, and it's completely skeevy in almost every way, from Jacob's forced kiss (and Charlie's non-reaction) to the theme that you should have babies even if it will literally kill you.

Sometimes, books break out despite the best efforts of their writers to assure that they don't. This woman got very, very lucky, for reasons that only the universe understands. It's a testament to the skill of her agent and the marketing department of her publishing house. Think about it. Why are a million little kids wearing those rubber band bracelets around? Because it's a unique and lasting fashion statement? No, because it took off for some dumb marketing reason. Ten years from now, nobody will remember it. And let's hope nobody will remember Twilight.

In the meantime, thinking about why a book is good or bad helps me improve my storytelling and my prose. Critique, self- and otherwise, is an essential part of the writing process. It helps us position ourselves as writers and think through problems that other people have encountered and dealt with, successfully or unsuccessfully. If all we ask ourselves is "what is working here?", we miss out on the other half of the equation--what isn't. Just because something got published doesn't mean that we need to do exactly that to get published ourselves. But too many people ask themselves just that, which is probably why the YA shelves are loaded down with Twilight clones at the moment: they are trying to follow the Stephenie Meyer formula, and not trying to produce something new and innovative.

Now, if you're offering me a body switch with Cory Doctorow, another hugely successful YA writer...let's talk.

The Red Angel said...

I guess in this sense, writing is more about the syntax and diction and language that is used when doing the actual storytelling. In my opinion, storytelling can often be more important in making a reader engaged than the sophisticated writing, especially if it appeals to the reader (like Meyer's Twilight appeals to preteen girls).

I see what you're coming from, Nathan. Meyer may not use very impressive writing, but she tells the story of Edward and Bella in a way that attracts many readers. Thus, she is a successful author.

Also, several classics such as Little Women, Hucklberry Finn, etc. tend to have some
grammatical errors and use unnecessary verbose that we would scold at today. However,
because the books' authors were so good at storytelling, their works were considered "classics" and have been very popular for hundreds of years.


Serenity said...

This is a great point. I'm acutely aware of it in my own writing. Most writers say they have an indefinite well of story ideas. Not me. I enjoy the craft of writing, but I have yet to imagine any truly compelling story.

John Jack said...

Smirk. Giggle. Chuckle. Guffaw. Harrumph. The two great irreconcilable conundrums of literature: What's good; what's bad? The other conundrum, of course, popularity or language artistry and sophistry. Both pitted in a battle royale high-brow and low-brow class war, the diehard human nature need for self-worth at the expense of others' self-worths. You think you're better than me. on the one hand, You are beneath my station. on the other, and maintain the entrenched status quos at any expense by any means to an end. Divide and conquer. Those who would maintain class distinction foster dissent among the class they are not of, and thus elicit rationales and excuses for preserving the status quo. Isn't it time enough to put paid to the last bastions of class stratification?

No brow recognizes facility with language in all publish-worthy work. Not just diction and syntax, but purpose and point, method and message, content and form, expression and construction, entertainment and challenge, structure and aesthetics.

High brow tends toward sophisticated language arts. Low brow toward invisible language arts. But low brow is no less sophisticated. The sophistication comes from deft facility with backgrounding language arts for the sake of a narrative's purposes and points. The main purpose of a plot is evoking readers' emotional and intellectual responses for entertainments. A subtle subtextual purpose is packaging a message, taking a stand, making a credible point, and delivering it. The methods successful writers use to deliver messages are the art of persuasion. I haven't read a published novel, short story, or nonfiction narrative that lacks for artistically persuasive facility. And I've read a few.

Sophisticated language narratives are read by readers who take delight in sophisticated language. Popular narratives are read by readers who take delight in spectacle and scandal and slapstick and drama and comedy entertainments. The latter more popular and therefore more commercially successful, duh-huh. The former more challenging and niche oriented.

But here's a distinction worth noting: Sophisticated language narratives create reader surrogacy with author viewpoints and maintain distant narrative distance for the purpose of keeping readers thinking intently, consciously, and critically. Popular narratives create close narrative distance and reader surrogacy with narrators' viewpoints, or the more intimately engaging and popularly desirable reader surrogate, with viewpoint characters living their dramatic, private larger-than-life lives.

John Jack said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

This post is awesome and raises some interesting questions. Yeah - I do see a distinction between storytelling and prose. The prose itself, at least for me, is different in style depending on what I am trying to acheive in a project. There are writers who do incredibly intricate things with very simple, straightforward prose (I am thinking of Paul Auster) and then there are other writers who do some simple but poignant and honest things with extremely intricate prose (David Foster Wallace - some of the short stories )

jan said...

On the 'jealous' issue -- one reason why I would not be jealous of someone who had an interesting/compelling idea but wasn't really up to decent level of skill, but got published and sold a bizillion copies -- Her lack of skill is now out there for EVERYONE to see -- and for some sadly well-earned mocking.

On top of that with the kind of sales she saw, she then had to face the pressure to produce novel after novel FAST when she didn't have the skill set to handle that kind of speed. When we're still fairly early in learning any skill, how many produce better work when forced to do it really fast?

Who would be jealous of that? To me, that's like some kind of nightmare. Some of my early stuff (okay, some of my middle stuff too) that was published tended to suck. I was delighted with publication (since I had bills to pay) but I would HATE for my skills NOW to be judged by that work forever because it sold millions of copies.

Sure, those sales show something in the story hit teen girls (and some adult women) where they live, and that's great. But a writer can't be comfortable knowing her training novel is now her "masterpiece" -- no matter how she grows, she's going always to be tied to that level of work because of sales.

Really, for me, that's right up there with the nightmare about stepping out on stage for a play and realizing you not only don't know the words, but you're naked too. For me, yes, I'm delighted when I get letters from kids who read my book and loved it -- but it's the places where I see my own stumbling skills that ultimately make "ME" recognize my place as a writer.

Mira said...

The comments here are fascinating, and I liked what John Jack had to say about class stratification as well as his distinction between sophisticated language vs. invisible language. Rang true.

Terin Tashi - that's okay, we can disagree! :)

And I definitely didn't mean to imply that men weren't sensitive, or couldn't identify an archtype. It probably depends upon the individual, but I think most people tend to see the world through gender viewpoints. It's difficult to transcend.

For example, Toy Story. That is very much a male archtype about competition between men. I can tell you that much, but without researching it, I would be hard pressed to really elaborate on the archtype and what it means. It doesn't speak to me in the same way that the Sleeping Beauty/Snow White archtype does. I could expound on THAT one for hours. Without research.

In terms of Twilight and the damsel/rescuer fantasy, I think it still strikes a chord because it's not really about adult romance. It's about child/father dynamics. At least in the first book. I'll admit I haven't read the others.

What's interesting is that the vampire archtype - that of a sexual predator/devourer - is a very different archtype. So, it's sort of funny that writers are encouraged to write vampire books in the wake of Meyer's success. She didn't write a true vampire story. She wrote a romance, and the archtype for that is very different.

It's fun to discuss this. :)

Ganz-1 said...

I'm a storytelling guy.

To me writing is like a double edge sword. It needs balance otherwise it'll dampen the whole experience.

Dana Bailey said...

Style also plays a part. I just finished a book that someone said was jumpy. She didn't like it, and would probably put it in the bad writing category. I however enjoyed the book. I can see where she got jumpy. The writer does jump a bit and uses a lot of sentence fragments, but that was part of her style. It worked for me.

Nancy said...

@ anon 6:04 a.m.

As far as time spent on the craft of Meyer's novels, especially the last, to a publisher it doesn't matter. A lot of these questions could be easily answered by thinking like a publisher. Meyer has a huge reading audience that is willing to spend a reasonable sum on anything she writes. As a publisher in a highly competitive field, whose business is further jeopardized by the advent of e-publishing, am I going to spend a portion of the company's budget on our in-house editing team to polish an A-listed, fantastically selling author? No. Keeping the company in the black is the pidgeon hole to aim for.

Mira said...

Terin - actually, I thought about it some more, and I may be wrong...there are men who read romance and resonate with the archtypes in it. It may depend more on the individual and what they are working through, then on their gender. So, I might agree with you. :)

Okay, I've posted enough on this thread. :)

Katherine Hyde said...

For me personally, a book has to have both good writing and good storytelling to make it to my "personal faves" list. Good writing alone will sometimes keep me reading; good storytelling alone, if the writing is really subpar, will not. But that's because I'm a literary writer with a high degree of sensitivity to good writing compared with the general public. I think for the average reader, good storytelling is much more important. Literary writers neglect it at their own peril.

Tabitha said...

Well...I think writing and story telling are equally important. A writer needs to be able to find the best part of the story, and he also needs the skills to put it on the page such that the reader can connect to everything. Personally, I don't see how it's possible for one to be more important that the other. FYI, I'm saying this as a writer and a reader--a non-writer might have a different perspective/preference.

In SM's case, her books clearly connected with a large audience, both positively and negatively. Some gush about her books, and some rant about how evil/horrible they are. I don't particularly like her books (they trigger my own issues, which clouds my objectivity), but all we need to do is look at the very vocal reactions to her stories and we can see the chords she's struck in so many people, which means SM created a vivid enough story with vivid enough writing that elicited such strong responses. So, she's doing something right. Quite a lot, actually. :)

Anyway, back to the topic. :) There is so much that goes into writing a book (characters, story arc, subplots, tension, dialog, voice, transitions, pacing, description, setting, the list goes on), and all of these pieces are equally important. I think the truly amazing stories are the ones that balance everything and still create that connnection to the reader. It's *really hard* to do, and I always end up with a healthy respect for an author who can do this. :)

Nishant said...

AS LONG AS I love to read a book, as long as I keep turning the pages with excitement or passion, I don't care to distinguish between writing or storytelling.

I am a choosy person and if I am tolerating a book, that means its good for me. And till now most of the published work I have read, I have read it completely without putting it down in the middle or after a few pages.

Daniel L Carter said...

I've often described myself as being a story teller rather than a writer. I always think of a writer as someone who delves into sentence structures and word usage as an art form. I however am inclined to tell the story in such a way that is more story oriented. Not sure if I'm explaining myself clearly or not but hopefully you understand.

Daniel L Carter
Author of The Unwanted Trilogy

Peter Damian Bellis said...

I wrote a short piece in my blog a couple of months ago on the basic difference between between story (storytelling) and narrative (writing)that I think speaks to the discussion here. When I think about the books that speak to me, whether it is Beloved or Ulysses, I connect to them immediately, on an emotional level, but now that I think about it, I don't know if the emotion or how much emotion comes from the book or if and how much of it comes from what I bring to my interaction with the book. The better the book, the less emotion I need to bring to it, the more I draw from the emotion of the book. When I do not connect with a book, I usually think that the emotion is flat, which is just another way of saying that I do not recognize the emotion of the book as expressed by the book. Now if I am reading an emotionally "flat" book, but that book happens to be "southern" fiction, then I can fill in the emotional gaps with my own emotions. If it is Twilight, I cannot do this. But other people will not be able to do this with southern fiction and they will with Twilight because southern fiction is not their thing and vampire fiction is. So maybe that's it (not entirely sure, as I have been thinking and making this up as I type, but it is worth thinking more deeply about).

I will say this - for me story is about emotion, and narrative is about providing a structure to interpret that emotion. Story is the flow of events and experiences that connect to an emotion. And narrative is the art of ordering these events to uncover the meaning behind the emotion (which is also theme). This is why it is the experience of the story (the oral storytelling component) that compels the emotion, but there is little effort or need given over to interpreting the meaning of the emotion because it simply is. The emotion becomes the experience. Through narrative, however, when writers have the opportunity to order or re-order experience, then the emotional depth we feel is the emotional depth of many moments, many stories, layers and layers of experience - and hence meaning.

E. Elle said...

I think it's very important for an author to have a substantial level of writing ability but I agree that it's possible for a book to work with even subpar prose. So many elements go into a book, some are strong and others suffer but that's the nature of all things. It can't be perfect 100% of the time (if anything can ever be perfect).

If millions of people across the world are reading a book or a series, then you're absolutely on the mark: something is working. No matter who it is making it work, we need to respect that.

Very interesting topic; I've never really considered it before!

Livi Wells said...

Nathan-I wholeheartedly agree with your explanation. Talent in putting beautiful sentences together is not enough to write a gripping story with interesting characters, it's more like poetry. Storytelling is a whole different thing.Of course it is perfection when the two intertwine.

I have never read the Twilight books because I happen to be working in the same genre and I didn't want to be influenced in any way, but I did read many of their reviews with many mentioning King's statement about Meyer's bad writing. I am glad you posted the rest of the interview. No matter how bad her writing is, she obviously struck a certain cord with her readers, and that takes talent too.
-Livi Wells

Anonymous said...

"Do you have any thoughts on the distinction between writing and storytelling? Do you see one as being more important than the other?"

Yes. All the time.

Yes. Story. Characters.

If a story is powerful enough for the reader to forget about the words, it can work, regardless. However, a great story with great writing skills can certainly elevate the chances of successful publishing.

Structuring great sentences does not always make storytelling successful if a writer has an MFA but no imagination.

Draw the reader into the story to a degree that they forget they are reading making it difficult to put the book down.

Kellye Parish said...

On the other hand, I find that if the story is good, but it isn't written well, the book won't be a favorite of mine and I will never want to re-read it again.

^ AR, this is me too. The writing doesn't have to be Somerset Maugham-worthy, but it has got to be better than serviceable. It's got to be at least good.

With regards to Twilight, my issue with those novels was the writing in conjunction with the storytelling and the characters, which I personally don't think are that great either. They certainly aren't good enough to redeem the writing (just my opinion as a reader, not necessarily an editor - if you like the novels, I give you joy of 'em).

Twilight is a blockbuster because it hit an untapped vein in the YA market, pure and simple. This is its observable magic for me and the aspect of "bad books" that is worth study.

It's not a blockbuster because it tells a good (or new) story - other authors have done vampire romance and/or vampires vs. werewolves, and better. [Laurell K. Hamilton jumps to mind, even though she's adult fiction and not YA.]

It's not a blockbuster because it's lyrically written either. I don't think anyone is trying to make that particular claim.

It's a blockbuster because most Americans don't read on the regular and aren't trained to differentiate good writing from bad, so prose quality doesn't necessarily factor in as heavily on their book-buying decisions. Which means in the market, story absolutely trumps prose, hands-down.

Which is more important, good writing or good storytelling? I won't read a book that has one without the other. There are too many writers out there that can and do regularly pull off both, whether or not they hold the heart of the mob. There are also hundreds of books on my "to-read" list that have stood the test of time as classics - why read a serviceable book when you can read a great one?

It all comes down to subjective realities, really. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and people trained in literary critique are, naturally, going to tend to hold prose to a higher standard than those who just grab a book for the beach.

Beach-goers buy more books because they're a bigger demographic - guess which way the market is going to trend?

Great topic Nathan, I really enjoy reading your discussion and everybody's opinions.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Sheesh, I agree with Stephen King's analysis so much, even if I'm not a TWILIGHT fan. He nails it with this one. I've had many writing-related conversations where someone ponders how TWILIGHT could have been published, and what editor was out of their mind to pick it up. I counter that I can totally understand why; it had enormous potential to be popular, as it's proven to be. I don't have to like it to understand why large segments of the population do.

If a published book doesn't have the best writing in terms of craft, it was published because it did something well: appeal to people's emotions, capture their imaginations, present interesting ideas. I think these things, and storytelling skills in general, are more important than the technical aspects. If you write beautifully but your stories don't captivate anyone, they'll be recognized as empty as abandoned. But if you've got a great story, you might be able to get people to look over your could-be-better prose.

Lila Swann said...


"She's written what former LDS people assure me is almost a direct crib of the Book of Mormon and inflicted it on a lot of young women who aren't old enough to understand the line they're being fed, and a lot of older women who should really know better. It offers a deeply conservative (and destructive) worldview and tells us that there are no consequences for holding it. Oh, and the characters are lame stereotypes of themselves, there's basically no conflict, and it's completely skeevy in almost every way, from Jacob's forced kiss (and Charlie's non-reaction) to the theme that you should have babies even if it will literally kill you."

I would really love to hear your examples of how Meyer's storyline is a "direct crib" of the Book of Mormon. If anything, I'm sure you'll come up with typical values present in many Christian denominations (and other religions, as well). I'm not sure how a conservative viewpoint is destructive, so I'd like your elaboration on that, too.

As for your baby comment - there are many women out there who, faced with a dangerous pregnancy like Bella, would make the same choice she did. If anything, Bella had a somewhat easier choice, since she had the "vampire card" in her back pocket to ensure her survival. The other characters tried to convince her to give up the baby, even her beloved Edward and Jacob tried, so you can't say that Meyer didn't present another viewpoint.

I'm sure I'm wrong here, but it seems as though you're suggesting that Bella should not have been given a choice over what to do with HER baby in HER body, since it's apparently such a "skivvy theme."

Feminism is all about women making their own choices, and Bella chose (totally of her own volition) to get married, have a child, and then become a vampire all at a very young age. Anyone who disagrees with that choice is being decidedly against feminism, even if Bella's "choices" aren't typically those of the feminist movement.

It's not like Bella wanted to get rid of the baby and Edward forced her to keep it. Everyone was against her having it, but she stuck to her guns and made her choice, which is actually quite admirable.

...why do I have a feeling that I'm about to get flamed for this?

Anonymous said...

So many modern short stories focus on stylistics and neglect fundamental storytelling. In these stories, nothing much happens in terms of conflict or the characters changing. Writers expect their readers to drift along with their characters, enjoying a turn of phrase or a bit of dialogue. Storytelling draws readers into the story's world. Without this element, readers remain outside this world, looking in but not involved.

Joshua Peacock said...

My bad, Nathan. I was one of those guys! But now I see what you mean.

I still don't think it constitutes soild, intelligent literature, however. Is it good at something? Yes sir! Is it good writing? Is the plot intelligent, are the characters actually real? With many of these books, It's debatable, but in some cases, many cases, it's also opinion. (I'm not talking about Twilight; just in general, so ease off the trigger twihard fans!)

I think both of them are equally important. Story first, however, as Stephen King says (write with a "closed door") then worry about fixing the prose when you come through again.

MedleyMisty said...

I have to say that when I hate on Dan Brown's sentence structure, it ain't 'cause I'm jealous of the man. It's 'cause he can't write a sentence to save his life. And I can't imagine being jealous of someone's inability to write a sentence.

I know that some hate does come from envy - I've been a target of that sort of thing online. But it's possible to not be impressed by a creative work without being jealous of its creator.

It's also possible to put together beautiful sentences in an exciting story, and that's my personal expectation of a book.

I wish Stephanie Meyer and Dan Brown all the happiness in the world, but they have nothing to teach me. I'm not trying to write a badly written book that will make a lot of money. At the moment I'm not even trying to get published - I'm sharing my stuff for free online. Which yeah, Valley is a Sims story, but I've started a full text serial now.

I've thought about the social stratification too. I don't have a MFA. I have a two year degree in information systems. Does that count?

I think that story and language are equally important. But that's subjective - I'm sure you've heard of Nancy Pearl's theory about doorways into stories. My main doorway is definitely language.

I see writing as art. I have spent eight hours on a paragraph. I have agonized over a sentence that needed just the right adjective, with the right letters to fit the rest of the sentence. Words are notes, and I use them to create symphonies.

I don't hear literary snobs congratulating me on my pretty turns of phrase, though. I hear teenagers fangirling over my villain. I hear adults saying they were just going to read a few chapters and ended up reading the whole thing. A fellow author has me on her blogroll and advertises my story as "thrilling and suspenseful".

It's not a dichotomy between pretty sentences for literary snobs who only read for social status versus badly written bestsellers for the people, who read it because they pride themselves on not being able to read or on not being fancy like them rich folk with their metaphors and suchlike. Story and language don't cancel each other out. You can have both.

When I was a kid, I got bored with Sweet Valley and the Baby Sitter's Club and wandered over to the classics section. Without social status ideas, without literary criticism classes, with nothing but a child's innocent curiosity. My parents were factory workers and my father died when I was seven. It's not like my mother was pushing me to be well-read to score points over the other mothers down at the country club.

I went into them with only the idea of enjoying a good story written well, and so I learned my trade from the Brontes and Austen and Dickens and Poe and Hugo. Couldn't ask for better teachers. :)

I guess my point is - you get out what you put in. If your goal is to write books that sell well, then yeah - study what's selling well. But some of us have different goals. And so we have different teachers and different examples and different books we should read for analysis and craft. And different is just different, not better or worse.

Anonymous said...

Great thread. I judge a book based on whether it drew me in and held my interest. Dan Brown does it for me, even though I snicker at some of the writing. But I keep turning pages.

I don't do this with all thrillers.

Could not get through Twilight, tried several times, but think the movies are a guilty pleasure.

The Host, her adult venture, is really hard to get through. Am sure it wouldn't have been bought as is by a publisher if she hadn't been the author of Twilight.

Vinda Sonata said...

thank you for the article, nathan. this is very acknowledging.

Anonymous said...

As a big fan of the Twilight series nyself I would say Meyer owes her immense succes to her story telling abilities. Anyone who says they read Twilight because of Meyer's writing abilities is simply absurd. This is not to say that Stephenie is a bad writer. Her talents as a writer prove far superior to many fellow best selling authors. In conclusion.\, although I agredd with King's inquires pertaining to the reason behind Meyer's sucess,by no means do I agree with his insights about her ability to write. The manner in which he phrased the insight was rude and insensitive. After years of dealing with the media, King should know the importance of how things are phrased. If the article is any consolation, King may be a good writer, but he's not the best speaker.

If you want a good story read my own novel tittled Fallen that i have sent to you.

Dana Fredsti said...

I'm greedy. I want good story-telling AND good writing. The lack of the latter can derail my enjoyment of a story (and apologies to the fans, but Twilight is a good example of that for me. Okay, I also couldn't relate to the characters and I don't like sparkly vampires, but still...) no matter how compelling the story.

Janet Sunderland said...

With so many comments saying so many wise things, the only piece I want to ad is that I read the first Twilight book, and finished it, because of the VOICE. Stephenie Meyer has a compelling voice. She sounds like a teen and writes like a teen. The story wasn't particularly compelling and I thought she could have used a good editor, but the VOICE - well done! I believed her.

Nina said...

I was born in Wales, but moved to Norway when I was 6. I still speak English, but I guess I talk like a 13 year old, and I have to mix between both languages to make myself understood. In other words: For me to write a novel in English is a big risk which I am willing to take, in the hope that I find a good editor and that my story is exciting enough for YA.

If I were to read a novel written by an author who has a high degree in English litterature, I'd probably be sitting with the English dictionary and trying to translate the words in to common English. So I'd prefer the story to be exciting, rather than it being well written. And I know that I'm not the only foreign speaking reader out there!

kaleighsomers said...

I can understand what you're saying about what makes people read YA versus not. I read Twilight about four years ago, and at the time, I loved it. It practically made me an insomniac. But New Moon was good, not overly exciting, and after I talked to some people I realized the writing was what didn't stick with me.

Meyer obviously knows what she's doing because her books sell like crazy and she's got a tremendously loyal fan base. I don't think it's fair to say she's a horrible author or to completely disregard the books, but I think some people focus on the story and other people want to focus on the story but the writing bogs them down. I tend to look at the writing. When I pick up a book, the first thing I do is read over the beginning and see how I feel about the tone. If that's the kind of reader you are, Meyer's writing might not cut it for you. That doesn't mean it can't work for someone else though.

Erica said...

I love stories. To me, a good story involves great plot, a scenic location,some suspense and of course a bit of romance. As a reader, those are things I look for- not prose style or if the sentence is in perfect shape.

As a writer, I hope to write well, but be true to story and not fret over too much writing mechanics. I just write. Sometimes writing has to be adjusted to get the style across correct and thus provide understanding of the story better, but storytellers are only interested in...telling the story. Period. If you get it, you get it.

Twilight is a hit because of the power of story and the complex characters, but mainly because it is based off of SM's dream. How profound is that.

Anonymous said...

The "Twilight" series works so well because it's an engaging story that appeals to teenage girls (and women). Stephenie Meyer can wrote worth a crap, because the style she uses is perfect for what she does. The timing's also perfect, as porn is so readily available and it has, in many ways, cheapened sex and love to this mechanical paint-by-numbers fantasy. Girls and women love "Twilight" because Edward and Jacob want to protect Bella, and they do not expect her to put out and perform on the first date.

Anonymous said...

You know, I love this. When I heard of the "Twilight" phenomenon, I went straight out to get a copy and find out what all the fuss was about.

During the first two paragraphs, I just wanted to scratch my brains out. Something about scraping bits of cells out of my skull was much more appealing than listening one more time to Bella whining and espousing her virtues. However, I soldiered on determined to find out what was drawing fans. Than I found it, quite simply, where Stephenie Meyer found it.

Ms. Meyer has always said that her story grew from a dream in which she was in a meadow of flowers. You know, that perfect meadow where Edward glitters and Bella falls in love. When you read that section of the book, it's blindingly clear what makes Stephenie's story worthwhile - the dynamic between Edward and Bella. *That* is something she manages to convey well in her writing.

When I plunked myself among members of my critique group and criticized the writing skills of Ms. Meyer, I was filleted by slitted eyes. When I mentioned to friends who are part of Stephenie's fandom my dismay at the daunting editing task left to her publisher and agent, I was branded a traitor.

But the reality is, Stephenie Meyer writes poorly. The proof is in the lackluster performance of her other work. Bella is less than appealing as a heroine, which doesn't surprise me. As a Stephenie-archetype, she was doomed. I'll be honest, when I've tried to write myself into a piece, I come off pretty unpalatable as well. There's something about using one's self so completely as a main character that, well, reeks. (Yes, fish rotting in the now empty Tempe Town Lake kind of stench.)

Still... where the strength is in these books, it's there in spades. Say what you will, I went on to read the rest of the novels and, yup, I saw the movies. (Thank goodness for Kristin Stewart who makes Bella much more bearable.) On top of that, if I was an editor or an agent, I would have handed a contract to Ms. Meyer as well. Granted, I probably would have insisted on more edits but, considering one dedication Ms. Stephenie wrote in her books, perhaps the amount of time invested in them had already proved prohibitive to further improvements.

So, we have an alluring story, poorly crafted. Proof given by people who want the books rewritten from Edward's viewpoint (most likely a result of conscious or subconscious reactions to Bella's melodramatic angst) and intimated by Meyer's confession of inexperience with writing. Still, I found a lot to learn from Ms. Meyer's work. I mapped out the intention for Bella's character (she's really set up to be a motherly figure - parenting her parents; the staid, reasonable voice among friends) and rewrote part of the story by hand. If you haven't figured it out yet, the best way to improve your writing is to edit other people's work. ;)

Since she's mentioned... Seriously, people, you've gotta give MAD PROPS to J.K. Like her work or not, read anything she's written and it's clear the lady has skillz. WORD! ;-p


Anonymous said...

You know, I love this. When I heard of the "Twilight" phenomenon, I went straight out to get a copy and find out what all the fuss was about.

During the first two paragraphs, I just wanted to scratch my brains out. Something about scraping bits of cells out of my skull was much more appealing than listening one more time to Bella whining and espousing her virtues. However, I soldiered on determined to find out what was drawing fans. Than I found it, quite simply, where Stephenie Meyer found it.

Ms. Meyer has always said that her story grew from a dream in which she was in a meadow of flowers. You know, that perfect meadow where Edward glitters and Bella falls in love. When you read that section of the book, it's blindingly clear what makes Stephenie's story worthwhile - the dynamic between Edward and Bella. *That* is something she manages to convey well in her writing.

When I plunked myself among members of my critique group and criticized the writing skills of Ms. Meyer, I was filleted by slitted eyes. When I mentioned to friends who are part of Stephenie's fandom my dismay at the daunting editing task left to her publisher and agent, I was branded a traitor.

But the reality is, Stephenie Meyer writes poorly. The proof is in the lackluster performance of her other work. Bella is less than appealing as a heroine, which doesn't surprise me. As a Stephenie-archetype, she was doomed. I'll be honest, when I've tried to write myself into a piece, I come off pretty unpalatable as well. There's something about using one's self so completely as a main character that, well, reeks. (Yes, fish rotting in the now empty Tempe Town Lake kind of stench.)

Still... where the strength is in these books, it's there in spades. Say what you will, I went on to read the rest of the novels and, yup, I saw the movies. (Thank goodness for Kristin Stewart who makes Bella much more bearable.) On top of that, if I was an editor or an agent, I would have handed a contract to Ms. Meyer as well. Granted, I probably would have insisted on more edits but, considering one dedication Ms. Stephenie wrote in her books, perhaps the amount of time invested in them had already proved prohibitive to further improvements.

So, we have an alluring story, poorly crafted. Proof given by people who want the books rewritten from Edward's viewpoint (most likely a result of conscious or subconscious reactions to Bella's melodramatic angst) and intimated by Meyer's confession of inexperience with writing. Still, I found a lot to learn from Ms. Meyer's work. I mapped out the intention for Bella's character (she's really set up to be a motherly figure - parenting her parents; the staid, reasonable voice among friends) and rewrote part of the story by hand. If you haven't figured it out yet, the best way to improve your writing is to edit other people's work. ;)

Since she's mentioned... Seriously, people, you've gotta give MAD PROPS to J.K. Like her work or not, read anything she's written and it's clear the lady has skillz. WORD! ;-p


Anonymous said...

{hides with shame}

Sorry about the double-dip. Got an error that it failed to post. Props to Nathan if he deletes the doppleganger as well as this one. ;^)


Audrey said...

I have to say,slightly sheepishly, that I'm prose's greatest henchman. A strong story gets a gasp; strong prose alters body chemistry.
Clearly, though, if you have a unique story, then it doesn't matter *that* much how it's delivered. Take Cecilia Ahern's P.S I Love You - so simply delivered; almost rudimentary, and then it sells gazillions.I don't think there's a golden formula. Our musings are as subjective as our personal taste. Fun, though :)

Maggie said...

For me, writing is paramount. There have been too many instances where clunky writing or similes and metaphors that don't make sense have pulled me out of the story, even if it was a good story, and I was unable to finish it.

Cher Green said...

Thanks for adding that bit about what SK said in the interview. All I had heard was that he said she couldn't write, and did wonder why he made such a comment.

Great post.

Sarah said...

A good indication of a good, well done piece would be to say it as a storyteller. Storytelling has history, there's the use of tone and gestures that can make the method far more viable and enchanting to the reader. Writing is relatively new and infinately more difficult as a result of the lack of communication. In writing the words have to be the gesture. You remember the words just as you remember a good storyteller. The best writer can combine the two.

PS Bartlett said...

When I saw the title of this blog I was sucked in because about six weeks ago, I wrote something similar although it was personal to me. My blog was titled "I'm Not A Scholar, I'm A Storyteller." Although some reviews have given both my story and my prose high praise, a small group of others have disliked both. As with everything else in life, beauty - be it a story or prose, is in the eye of the beholder.

M Sageer said...

Your shared an interesting thought. In face i have always wondered about the relationship between one's proficiency in a given language and the ability to tell a story that get rapturous attention from readers. After years of hard work in my attempt to achieve a reasonable amount proficiency in English language i have almost come to the conclusion that one's ability to craft a sentence well enough does make him good storyteller.

The ability to tell a good story to a great extent rely on a combination of factors including a penchant for social observation, uninhibited imagination, a friendship with fantasies and flair for creating suspense to name a few are perhaps what is necessary to become a good story teller. I have come to realize that our skill to craft a good sentence may help writing a good thesis or essay but it may not necessarily be sufficient to create an interesting character or conceiving a unique and intriguing setting, with all the twists and turns to go with the story. It is indeed a fact that the expression would involve a great amount of writing but such crafting is like a supplement. To make the reader stay glued to the story we need more than our word power and it absolutely rests with what exactly we are trying to say and how we say it.

Many well known classic and popular novels many not qualify to be categorized as such if they had lacked the right plot and settings and characterization. I feel the language element is secondary when it comes to contributing to good story telling. A good example is the visual portrayal of a story where language often becomes a handicap. Every Painting and a piece of music in a way attempt to tell a story in its own way sans language.

However if a story is told in written words , then your ability to express in the given language plays a bigger role in providing the details. The poetic language may not be a guarantee for the acceptance of a story by its readers.
If the possession of language proficiency were a criteria that ensure the transformation to becoming a good story teller, then all the English professors would have turned into modern Shakespeares and all the journalists and essayists would have churned out fiction books with wide fan following . But it doesn’t seem to be working that way. On the other hand we have as many examples who have been dropped out of school writing novels that have later become classics . The craft of weaving a story sprinkled with elements which generate a level of anxiety, a sense of empathy with loads of suspense and a climax that jolt the reader is far more important to be accepted as a good story teller that just being able to write a sentence well.

So what exactly make a good story teller ? Well the answer lies in the question. It is the story.

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