Nathan Bransford, Author


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Where Are Your Reading Habits on the Writing/Storytelling Spectrum?

Last week we discussed writing vs. storytelling and parsed out how it's often the storytelling and not the sentence-to-sentence prose that is drawing people in when a book is extremely popular.

Let's imagine two sliding scale spectrums:

0-10 on the writing scale
And 0-10 on the storytelling scale

10 writing, 0 storytelling would be experimental fiction and other prose-centric musings without much/any story.
0 writing, 10 storytelling would be novels where the story is fantastic but the prose is basically indistinguishable from another book or otherwise not very strong.

Everything in between would each be a combination of strengths. For instance, 7 writing/10 storytelling would be well-written edge-of-the-seat genre fiction, 10 writing/10 storytelling would be a book that melds beautiful (if challenging) prose with expert plotting, and 10 writing/6 storytelling would finely wrought novels where we mainly admire the writing.

So. How important is writing vs. storytelling to you? Which is more important to you when you choose a book? Do you have a sweet spot? Do you gravitate toward a certain combination of writing and storytelling? Do you have limits?

Speaking personally, my favorite books are close to 10/10, but as long as the storytelling is great I'm very willing to skimp on the writing scale. I can't do less than about a 5 or 6 on storytelling no matter how good the writing is.

What about you?






163 comments:

Amanda Sablan said...

I'm with you, Nathan. 10/10, but I make exceptions all the time. I just have a passion for lush prose, but I need a compelling storyline to keep me reading.

Jaimie said...

I value storytelling over writing. Storytelling needs to be at least an 8. Writing can be as low as a 4, if the storytelling is 9 or 10.

For instance, I'm reading Eat, Pray, Love right now, and I'm losing patience because, while the writing has remained consistently at a 9, the storytelling drops to a 5 during the latter portions of India and the first parts of Indonesia. It's all tell and no show.

Oh well. The movie's out this weekend.

Cameron said...

I go 5+ writing and 8+ storytelling. Obviously 10-10 is the top end, but if I get bored with the story, I put it down, sometimes indefinitely, no matter how good the writing.

Rachel @ MWF Seeking BFF said...

I imagine everyone would hope for a 10/10 -- I am trying to think of an example of one and would love to hear what books you, Nathan, would award such a high honor. Harry Potter maybe? I need a good storyline. I also might give Owen Meany a 10/10. To cite your example of Gilead last week, I liked that book fine and could respect the beautiful writing, but needed more story for sure. Even if it did ultimately have storytelling, I could have used more. Thinking about this, the books I have on my list but never pick up are often books that I think will be a 10 -writing but below 5 story. The best is when I am pleasantly surprised. That happened to me with Plot Against America. I loved it because though I expected great writing, I didn't realize what a great story it would be. Those pleasant surprises are the best...

Jason Black said...

Personally, I love a good story. Love it even more when it's also well written.

But lyrical prose that adds up to nothing more than an average story, that doesn't really do it for me.

Locusts and Wild Honey said...

I'm a 10 on writing and a no less than 5 on storytelling.

I can definitely handle a slower, quieter book if the writing is still good.

Nathan Bransford said...

Rachel-

I thought about assigning books to different combos, but didn't want to offend anyone. I will say I think a book like ATONEMENT strikes pretty close to 10/10.

j.leigh.bailey said...

I'm about a 5/9--I'll forgive a lot in the writing if the story makes up for it. And writing that's too "good" feels very elitist to me.

Terry Odell said...

Before I started writing, my reading preferences weighed heavily toward the storytelling. But now, alas, that internal editor wants to take over. It takes about an 11 on storytelling to shut it up. Or, I think even more for me, on the characters. I'll tolerate a 5 or 6 in storytelling with great characters.

Terry
Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Kat Mortensen said...

@Jaimie - I haven't read, "Eat, Pray, Love", but someone I know who has says Roberts is an odd choice for the lead.

I value writing, but it IS a good story that will make me stick with a book. Otherwise, I'll ditch it. I have no patience for poor writing and if a story isn't compelling, I just don't have the time to persist.

I can probably lean to an 8/8, but no less on either.

Kat

Mrs. The King said...

I love an unusual combination of usual words. I like imagery that is crisp. If it takes a writer ten pages to describe the architecture of a building my interested bone falls asleep. I think I would be a 5/10. Which is probably a sad state of affairs for my brain, but after having kids, I'm lucky if I remember to change out of my pajamas before going to the grocery store.

February Grace said...

10/10- and this is why.

After you go blind and you can't read books for a long while, you get really freaking picky.

Five eye surgeries last year, some sight regained, no guarantees how long it'll last and I cannot afford to squander it. I have to be very careful what I risk eyestrain for.

Unless someone has it all, gripping storytelling and mad technical skills, I have to stop reading really quickly. There are just too many books (not to mention things I want to write) for me to spend my limited eyesight on something that isn't as darn close to perfect as it gets.

Yeah, I am a lot pickier than I used to be.

~bru

piscesmuse said...

This totally sparked an idea for a new way to rate books for book reviewers. A rating for pros and a rating for storytelling. I often find myself using one or the other to sacrifice a book from the meh end of my rating scale. I always want to love a book, but sometimes I find I am grasping at straws for reasons why I should.

Definately like a good 10/10 book. But to be perfectly honest if the prose are too precisely purply and well thought out and witty, it kind of makes me feel like they are trying to distract me from their lack of story. So I would say about an 8 on the writing and a 10 on the storytelling and its a good fast read for me that is satisfying.

Escribladora said...

Who would prefer inferior storytelling or writing? 10/10 is optimum.
Storytelling is more important to me, but the writing certainly has to be decent. I think to some extent they're intertwined; after all, it's really hard to see how great a story is if the writing is terrible.
I would probably stop reading at about a writing 4 if the storytelling is 10, but if the storytelling isn't that, a 5 would be pushing it.

Alyson said...

I can skimp on the story but never on the writing. Great language is what made me want to become a writer. Rich characters can be made without much story. I look for an 8-10 in writing and can go as low as 2 with story. I love experimental fiction. But, I never bring it to the beach with me. I guess it all depends on what I'm looking for on any given day. I'm not anti-story. A good story is priceless. But I won't touch it if it's not well written.

Anonymous said...

For me, the writing can make or break a story. I've read some books with good stories that I'll never read again or recommend simply because they're poorly written in terms of grammer, punctuation, consistency or their style made it difficult to follow the story.

On the other hand, some books are wonderfully written, but I'm just not interested in the subject. At least with these I don't feel robbed of my life by the time taken to read them.

Nathan Bransford said...

Oh -- and I don't think everyone really wants 10/10 actually. I think a lot of people would find 10 writing unnecessarily challenging even if the story is good.

Erick Pettersen said...

I would have to go with a good story, but good writing definitely helps. I am more likely to turn to the next page if the story pulls me in than if the story bores me, regardless of the writing. Well . . . not totally regardless.


Erick

Anonymous said...

I'm a 10 storyteller and maybe a 6-7 writer? I dunno :( I know my limits as a writer and am still learning (hence reading this blog)which is why I'm not writing literary. My book is a comm. fiction page turner for sure, and I'm still revising to make super clean.

Nathan, does this mean a book has to be a 10/10 to be published?? :(

aye carumba

Anonymous Jen (who can't figure out the name URL thing)

undsh said...

Hmm. Your definitions of either end of the writing scale are enlightening when added to your insistence that there are not many bad books published. I consider "indistinguishable from another book" and "not very strong" to be two different things. I guess I would call the "indistinguishable" writing "serviceable prose" and give it a 4-6, and save the 0-3 rating for actually clunky, incorrect, or incompetent writing. Which do get published.

Zee Lemke said...

Lately I've been reading a lot of "trashy" romance novels, partly to learn what makes a "bad" book move fast and partly because they make me happy. I actually appreciate invisible writing more than "good" writing--I do sometimes read for the words, but more often for a fantasy escape. So I want over 5 on storytelling (I have fun picking apart what didn't work on the under-sevens) and UNDER 8 on writing. For now. When I go back to trying to improve my own prose, I'll probably switch those numbers.

Anonymous said...

Jamie and Kat, I also agree Eat Pray Love dropped in storytelling quality as the story went by. I lost patience after Italy.

Good choice Nathan on Atonement, that's a 10/10.

Dennis Lehane is a 10 storyteller as well.

Anon Jen

Kim Batchelor said...

I wonder if it's easier to just sit back and enjoy the story, giving high marks to the writing, if you're not a writer yourself and accustomed to taking prose apart. Dan Brown's incessant use of italics drove me crazy, and I wanted J.K. Rowling to not use "clamoring" so much in the first Harry Potter. (Gasp! Did I just write that?) I want strong storytelling and writing that's at least not annoying.

A.C. Tidwell said...

First of all writing at a 10 is relative to the readers. Some people assume something is difficult simply because the writer has become an indistinguishable writer. In some cases even Cormac McCarthy suffers from an indulgence of overwriting. But I have to assert that what is well written today is not the same as what was well written yesterday. The fundamental shape of storytelling/writing has become catered for the ADHD generation. We like excitement over art...quick plots over character development. Ideally, as a writer I strive for 8/10. As a reader I want the same. But as a pop fiction writer once told me: write at a 4th grade level for mass appeal in the US.

C. C. Harrison said...

It depends on what I'm in the mood for, but because I'm so busy writing my own books, I look to my outside reading to weigh more heavily on great story telling than great writing.

If a book is so beautifully written that I want to read the lovely sentences over and over, I put it aside until I have more time.

Any reading I do now has to have a story compelling enough to keep me from my own work in progress.

Nathan, your blogs sure are food for thought.

Ted said...

Obviously we all want to push both those sliders to 11... err 10.

Maybe a more telling question would be, if you were only allocated 15 points on a 20-point scale, how would you allocate them?

I'd go as low as 5 on the writing if I could get a 10 on storytelling.

Optimum would probably be 6/9 or 7/8. When the storytelling drops below 6, I don't care how good the writing is, except maybe as a clinical demonstration of craft.

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

Well, first of all the scales are subjective, right? We've been all over that. But I like story bestest. I also prefer more serviceable writing than many other people do.

For me a 10/10 would be where I feel the writing accurately matches the story. (Maybe that's good voice?) But I hate when writing gets in the way of the story. So maybe it'd be writing/story: 5/8- 8/8 for a book I'll finish...

Eric J. Krause said...

I want the storytelling spectrum to be high. If the writing that goes along with it is high, too, then that's a bonus. But as long as the writing isn't dismal, I don't need it to be very high on the spectrum. If the storytelling isn't very high, even if the writing is a 10, I likely won't like the story.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Well, I think we all prefer 10/10 books, but like many others, I'll choose storytelling over writing. I'd probably go as low as 5 in the writing department if the story was an 8+. I'd prefer higher, but I've definitely read some 5/5 novels in the past. The main problem here is that I'm still not quite sure our definitions of 5 match up. You outline your criteria in your post, but I can't help but think of 5 as "average" writing/storytelling.

flibgibbet said...

I can't enjoy a book if it's poorly written. The quality (authority) of the writing has to be at least a 7 so my inner editor doesn't ruin the experience.

Storytelling has to be at least a 5 or 6.

This is all very subjective, however. One girl's 7 is another girl's 1, and so on.

I'd give a 10/10 to writers like Kingsolver, W. Lamb, R. Davies, P. Roth, McCabe...while others might heartily disagree.

Anna said...

I don't know if all stories need to be a 10 on the storytelling spectrum. Yes, we want to be entertained, but not at the expense of a chaotic plot. I've also read plenty of books where the authors break writing rules but the story is still interesting, thus leaving me with an enjoyable reading experience overall. So I would say 6/8 for me.

Mira said...

I'm not quite sure how to answer this, because I'm not exactly sure what 0 writing means. It's an interesting discussion, though.

So, what I'll say is this, in the spirit of the post. I read commercial, all the way. So, if it's not an engrosslingly good story, and I can't figure that out within a page and 1/2, I stop reading.

If the book isn't fun to read, I stop reading.

If the writing calls itself to my attention and is at all clunky, stop reading.

If the writing is incredible, but the story bores or disturbs me, I toss the book. Actually, I probably wouldn't even get that book because it would be labeled literary, and I don't read literary unless I'm doing it for a writer friend for various reasons.

Thinking about it, I'm pretty picky about my commercial reading.

On the other hand, when I find a book I love I read it over and over and over and foist it on all my friends, so it probably balances out.

J. T. Shea said...

Nathan, I wouldn't give a 10 to unnecessarily challenging writing. I don't see challenge in either writing or reading as a virtue in itself, though it may be necessary for some other purpose.

Like yourself and all commenters so far, I favor story over writing, IF such a choice must be made. But I also agree poor writing can spoil the story.

Charlee Vale said...

I find I can ignore poor writing if the story draws me in. If I'm totally engrossed, I don't even really notice the writing, because I'm watching the 'movie in my head' and not really conscious of the words anymore.

Leah Petersen said...

I can be very forgiving with the writing if it's a good story. I've been known to devour books where the prose made me wince form time to time.

Although this isn't quite accurate. I can even deal with a fairly lame story so long as I care about the characters. If you can get me invested in the characters, I can forgive almost anything else.

I can't deal with truly BAD writing. But if it's decent/average, I'm in.

I'd say 1/10

Anonymous said...

In Ender's Game I loved the writing and the story telling (maybe more story telling). Later I read Xenocide and I loved the writing but found the storytelling to be much less compelling. It took me at least twenty times longer to read the latter. In fact, I had to keep coming back to it in small chunks.

It might be an issue of attention span. If I have more time interruption-free down time, I can get into a work like Les Miserable, but most of the time something in the range of The Hunger Games is more likely to keep me engaged.

Jenny said...

I could go to 6-7 on the storytelling scale if the writing is phenomenal. Other than that, if the storytelling is a 10, I can go as low as a 5-6 on the writing scale. So, if one can counterbalance the other, I'm cool. Obviously, 10/10 makes me very happy and I'll read those books over and over.

Josh said...

8/10 is optimal for me. It's not that I find the 9s and 10s challenging, necessarily, but I find myself getting lost in pretty prose. And some stories lean too much on the writing and not enough on the story

5+/7+ is my minimum, but I'm a sucker for genre fiction.

Leah Petersen said...

Now that I think about it, unless I'm looking specifically for beautiful prose, for my recreational reading, I don't want to notice the writing at all.

My standard for "good" writing in most fiction is the kind that melts away so you see the story not the sentences.

Anonymous said...

Right now, I am stuck with a book that I am having trouble getting into.
The writer is very famous and well thought of. But the sentences are so thick. I have to work a LOT.

Even beautiful sentences can keep the STORY at arm's length. It kind of then turns me off as much as over world building in fantasy and names with no vowels.

Dan Holloway said...

Like a lot of people I have two completely opposing tastes, depending on my mood, the time of day, what's going on in my life etc. Sometimes I love nothing more than a Dan Brown or a Harlan Coben, and I honestly don't give a fig about the writing. Other times I'll immerse myself in Elfriede Jelinek or Herta Mueller and not care about the story.

Steph Su said...

I'm a little confused. Does a 10-writing necessarily mean experimental writing, or just whatever writing style you enjoy best and resonates most with you? Does the storytelling scale take into consideration originality? I would say that the seven or so "classic storytelling tropes" could all be considered 10-storytelling by various people to a certain extent, since they are the stories that are retold again and again in various forms.

I guess I'm wondering where personal preference and originality fall into this. Not to mention what type of writing style best fits the story that is being told. Because I've read many books with little storytelling and subjectively great (read: experimental) writing, and those are often considered canonical texts. Where, then, does genre fiction fall? A story can have a 10 in storytelling entertainment value, but that doesn't necessarily mean that an experimental writing style would fit it best. Is there an "ideal place" to fall on this scale, or are we going for personal preference here?

Greg Mongrain said...

I agree with Nathan on this one. Unless the writing is so bad that it's pulling me out of the story, I will overlook prose problems if the style and storytelling are interesting.

Ian Fleming made dozens of third person errors in his James Bond novels, but I still read them every ten years or so. The 'Fleming effect' makes them worth it.

Down the well said...

I think Wolf Hall is my favorite of the books I've read so far this year. For me, it's a 10/10.

Story is more important to me in a novel, but the writing has to be at least a 7 or 8 for me to stick with it to the end.

crystal said...

I notice so many of the commenters say they can forgive (to a degree) poor writing for good storytelling, which I understand to a point. But, I guess my question is, what has happened to our writers, that we have to?

I suppose this is why I don't read as much as I once did. It's getting more and more difficult to find books that have both excellent writing and storytelling.

For me it is very important that they have strong writing and storytelling skills. I love unique stories, told in unique ways. There is nothing more disappointing to me than picking up what appears to be a 10/10 only to find out it's not. I read less and less because of this. I refuse to sacrifice my personal preferences simply because the quality of writing has decreased.

John Jack said...

I don't see writing as distinguishable from storytelling in modern novels. Sure, for many acclaimed classics the writing is overwrought by today's standards but for a reason. Censorship limited how much responsibility for subjectiveness an author could pass off to narrators and viewpoint characters. In other words, authors' presences were a vital convention of the past.

Contemporary writing-storytelling might at times be overwrought for some reader comfort zone sensiblities, but it's all voice driven. Purple prose, erudite diction, strings of adverbs and adjectives in a character voice or an overt narrator voice are a large part of a narrative's narrative voice.

It's the subtleties of voice that count. Notably, who's reporting who and what? Author reporting fictional narrators and characters doesn't do as well anymore as does author reporting nonfiction. Irresponsibility and unreliableness are the domains of modernday fiction. For nonfiction they're death knells in many situations.

Even some of the more maligned pulp novels of the recent past were written with writing panache. However, because their voices suited their subject matters and their audience expectations and reading skills and native dictions, their overwroughtness is invisible to their audiences. Their subtexts are often also invisible. I speak specifically for example to Mickey Spillane's I, the Jury.

Mike Hammer's noir private-eye lingo by contemporary standards might be considered overwrought, if not trite, but it is exactly appropriate to the times and the subject and the audience.

So, no, I don't evaluate writing separately from storytelling. My reading habits are omnivorous, fiction in all genres and ages, and nonfiction, expository and creative.

It's all good when a point of interest is conveyed effectively. Method perhaps can be distinguished from message, but only to a point before the method becomes recognized as an indivisible part of the message and vice versa.

Becca said...

Storytelling has to be closer to a 10, but writing can't be far behind.

Stephanie Barr said...

You know, I think I favor something closer to mid-range on writing but high on story-telling.

When I read a novel that's less than say 8 on the storytelling side, I'm unlikely to like it. However, too high on the writing scale, and I often find the writing distracting to the story, where the writer got so excited about description or imagery that I begin to lose interest.

Need a minimum level, of course, not less than 3 for writing, but I probably favor books more in the 6-8 range on writing.

When I think about my favorite classics, it's true of them as well with the only exceptions folks like Poe. But he's less likely to be the book I pick up when I want to read.

myshorterstories said...

I will put up with less than perfect writing, but need a '10' story. Glorious use of language may pull me in, but it can't keep me without a story to tell.

Gabriela Lessa said...

I'm with you, Nathan. 10/10 is always the goal, but I am willing to overlook a 5 or 6 writing if I have a 9 or 10 storytelling. However, I do refuse to read books that are too low on the writing, no matter how great the storytelling is. In the end, I feel it gets mixed a little. You can have a great story idea, but if your writing is poor it will eventually affect the storytelling, and vice-versa. I think I'd rather read a 6/6 than a 10/0, no matter in which end the zero is.
Can you think of a book that is a 10/0 or a 0/10 and is still worth reading because the 0 doesn't affect the 10? I'd love some examples in your scale!

Nina said...

The writing can be a 20 for all I care. But if the first chapter hasn't caught my attention, then I probably won't read the rest of the book.

Genevieve said...

Hey! For me, the storytelling has to be a 9 or 10 - if the story doesn't keep me interested then I put the book down. I'll sometimes read genre's that I normally don't like if the actual story is really good.
I've noticed that some writers, including myself, have a tendency to get so caught up with the storytelling that they'll make numerous error's in writing. I can forgive that if I'm editing a story but I believe by the time the book makes it to the shelf, it should be on a scale of 10 writing and 10 storytelling. That's why editors are hired in publishing houses, right?
Opinion does play a role here so what I might consider a good story, you may not.
As for writing, I tend to stay away from those who over write description and use big words that are not part of every day conversations.
If I'm reading a legal thriller, then sure I want to read legal jargon but if it's a story about everyday ordinary lives, then stick to everyday ordinary words & phrase. It's all about the story first, then writing comes next.

Leah Raeder said...

Going against the grain here:

I don't think storytelling can be completely separated from writing.

Prose has both narrative and poetic components that don't peel away into neat and self-contained halves.

But I think people also have a stilted view of what "good writing" is, as evidenced by some of the comments in this thread. Those who express discomfort with "good writing" and say that it "distracts" them or comes off as "elitist," aren't actually talking about "good writing." They're talking about indulgent, self-referential writing for the sake of writing--prose that makes you feel like the author is trying too hard to show how smart and clever she is.

That isn't "good writing" and never has been. "Good writing" is prose that aligns with narrative in such a way as to cast a spell over the reader, to create an immersive experience that is greater than the sum of its parts.

This doesn't mean prose should be stripped down to utilitarian basics, either. Look at period fiction like Austen--rich language that unites with intricate narrative to produce masterpieces of literature. More contemporary writers like Virginia Woolf--or, for someone alive and writing today, China Miéville--achieve the same: heady, descriptive prose entwined with fantastical narrative to create something greater than either element alone.

So, I always look for 10/10.

And I find that, in a book where the writing is not up to par with the storytelling, the storytelling does suffer for it--there's a feeling of unrealized potential, of unfulfilled hope.

It's like coming to table hungry and devouring a bag of potato chips instead of a real meal: technically you were nourished, and you kept popping those chips into your mouth because there's just something addicting about them. But when it's all over, you don't have that same earthy, natural sense of fulfillment. And you'll probably have a bit of a tummy ache later, too.

gsfields said...

7/10. Both my reading preferrence and what I generally leave on the bowling alley.

Kate said...

Truly. In a perfect world, 10 and 10. But one can definitely balance each other out. I might read a story that wouldn't normally interest me if the writing is great and vice versa. But the writing has to be at a certain level, regardless of the story telling, so I'd say at least a 5-6 on that front.

I just started a book I'm really enjoying (A Friend of the Family, Grodstein). The story could be murderously boring. The story alone isn't enough to pull me along. But the writing is so great.

I definitely choose books based on story, or what the book's about. I keep reading based on writing.

lodjohnson said...

I'm a toss up. I'll read anything. Sometimes I read Kingsolver or Conroy because their prose is so beautiful even though the stories remind me of a slow simmer than a rapid boil.

But then again, I love the lightening pace of Dan Brown and Jodi Piccoult.

IMO, Stephen King is a good example of a happy medium(at least on some of his books). Take It for instance, sit on the edge of your seat suspense, but writing that draws you in.

I agree with Atonement. I have another one for you - I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak (writer of the Book Thief). Simple prose that draws you in (amazing voice), yet masterful in the story telling - 10/10.

evelonies said...

storytelling has to have a minimum of 8 for me to even pick the book up. writing needs to be at least a 7 for me. anything less, in my mind, is too distracting from the story due to grammatical and spelling errors. i just finished a series of books that had an EXCELLENT story, but it felt like there was no editing. there were spelling errors, grammar errors, and inconsistencies from book to book and even paragraph to paragraph. it drive me nuts. i could only stand it because the story was so fascinating. it still made me cringe every time i read something glaringly wrong though. i've been toying w/ the idea to find how to write the author and suggest taking a little longer to edit their books before having them printed.

Ned Bast said...

About a 9/4, and the only reason I'm not at a 10 for writing is solely because of ATONEMENT, which was so interminably boring I threw it across the room. Sorry Nathan.

I'm not sure a 10/10 novel has ever been written (I'll assume the person who suggested Harry Potter was joking).

Maya said...

Undsh said I consider "indistinguishable from another book" and "not very strong" to be two different things.I guess I would call the "indistinguishable" writing "serviceable prose" and give it a 4-6, and save the 0-3 rating for actually clunky, incorrect, or incompetent writing. I agree.

On top of that, I'm not sure that a 10 in writing equals experimental or extremely challenging prose. Some people may think Finnegan's Wake is a 10. For me, a 10 is Libba Bray. Her prose is not experimental but it is extremely beautiful and atmospheric.

I didn't think the Gemma Doyle series had the best storytelling but that is one example where the prose itself was worth it.

Still most of the time, I prefer fast-paced books that are about the storytelling. Someone said Harry Potter would be a 10/10 but I didn't find anything spectacular about the prose. In that case I thought it was more like 6 or 7 on prose and 10+ storytelling since it was the best story I've ever read :)

In terms of storytelling, there are certain categories that I read a lot of and it doesn't have to be particularly unique. I'll read the occasional light rom-com that is probably a 5/5 altogether so that's the minimum. But I expect more from sci fi and fantasy. Then it has to be a 6/8 to capture my interest. This is because my purpose in a beach read rom-com is to relax; my purpose in sci fi is to read about cool, interesting ideas. In other words, it depends on what I hope to get out of the book.

Phyllis said...

I find it hard to rate along your scale because it mixes complexity with quality. Where does James M. Cain fit in who is a master of simplicity? Okay, he wrote genre fiction, so according to your scale he might be a 7/10. I guess most of my favorite books fall between 7/8 and 10/10. Salman Rushdie's Midnight Children would be a 10/10 for me, for example. It's on my 10 Best Books Ever list.

I tend to favor genre fiction with over-avarage prose, like Elmore Leonard, Jim Burke, James Ellroy. Rate that as you like. The writing can't get lower than two, maybe three points at most. I get pretty impatient if I find it's too – um – predictable. And the raciest plot in the world cannot save the book.

But I also like some action, the plot can't be all below the surface. I want to get someplace, and I like conflicts between people, not only a character reflecting and getting insights. Mostly, that is. One of my favorite books ever rates pretty low on the story-telling scale, The Notes of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rilke, it's something like 10/2. Every page was an emotional challenge written with unique and pleasurable prose.

Nicole said...

I like books that are at least a 6 on the writing side and at least an 8 on storytelling. However, if I'm going to deal with 6-point writing, I need 10-point storytelling.

I agree with the earlier comments that the best writing seamlessly (and often invisibly) supports the storytelling. No matter how great the prose is, it should never distract from the story.

Nathan Bransford said...

Naw, sorry, I think writing quality is more objective than some of the latter commenters are suggesting. There are different techniques and styles, and I'm not strictly equating difficulty of reading with good writing or simplicity with bad writing, but good writing is good writing. Hemingway is a great writer and Faulkner is a great writer - their language is precise and beautiful even if their styles are very different. I realize there's a certain degree of subjectivity to this, but not infinitely so.

Mira said...

I think Maya has a really good point. It depends on why someone is reading.

I read purely for escapist entertainment, so I want invisible prose/excellent story. Someone who reads to savor an experience, may prefer gorgeous prose and enough story to support it.

In terms of numbers, you'll probably find many, many more folks like me, which is why bestsellers tend to be genre fiction. But that doesn't mean there isn't a market for a 10/0.

If I were an agent, I'd have commercial to make me rich and literary to win awards. And non-fiction to round it out. Like a beautiful smorgesboard of books. Then, I could open my own bookstore and be an agent/bookstore owner.

I think I'm wandering off topic.

Jill Elizabeth said...

After spending college analyzing prose for my major, I prefer somewhat more accessible writing for my pleasure reading. I think an 8/10 split would be ideal.

Anonymous said...

A boring, pointless tale that is written "well" is like a serving Gatoride in a Dom Perignon bottle. Stupid and pretentious.

Besides, far too often, "great" writing means 'meets the standards set by academics and critics', as in standards that the paying book reader has no use for.

And, I believe that a fantastic story will automatically elevate the writing. When you reach true "page-turner" mode, I've noticed that a certain level of grammatical standard and craftsmanship is pretty much a given.

Jil said...

I favor writing over story. I can enjoy a slight story beautifully written but I cannot endure any story badly written.

Joanne Sheppard said...

I almost always favour writing over storytelling. I agree that a 10-10 would obviously be ideal, but I'll happily read something that's a 1 or 2 on the storytelling scale if it's a 10 on the writing scale. I'll quite happily read a beautifully-written book where almost nothing happens. But I won't read a brilliantly plotted novel if the writing is clunky and plodding. Bad writing just sucks the joy out of a good story, for me.

Bane of Anubis said...

Both scales are obviously subjective (e.g., NB thinks The Road is a 9, BofA a 7 on the writing scale); girl y thinks Twilight a 10 story-wise, boy Bane thinks something less), so I'd say we all strive for 10/10 on our own scales... now were it on a Joycian scale I'd probably be at 2/10 because that dude was on some serious writing crack.

D.G. Hudson said...

Writing/Storytelling = 7/9

If the storytelling is done well, adequate writing can be tolerated in a genre book. I have a much lower tolerance for poor writing if the book is in the literary strata.

Bethany Brengan said...

I echo J.T. Shea’s “I don't see challenge in either writing or reading as a virtue in itself, though it may be necessary for some other purpose.” Some of the best stylists are the most sparse.

And I steal undsh’s point about the existence of published “clunky, incorrect, or incompetent writing.”

I’m still a storytelling girl. Without a good story, I reach the end of a book and think, “I went through all that for this pretty nothingness?” But the more I read, the more I find that there really are only so many stories in the world. It’s difficult for an author to surprise me, plot-wise, anymore (though it still happens). Now it’s the quality of the writing that separates one boy-meets-girl-girl-is-a-zombie-spy novel from another. But I suppose I could just as easily refer that to as the “quality of the storytelling.”

my lonely journal said...

For me, writing ALWAYS trumps storytelling.

I never want to read an amazing story poorly told. I'd happily read a poor story amazingly told. For me, the writing is everything. A great writer can make a trip to the bank fascinating, epic, funny, wrenching. A bad writer can make a near-death experience on Everest dull, tedious, overwrought, incomprehensible.

Great technique and great content -- books like Swann's Way demonstrate both. I mean, that first line! "For a long time, I went to bed early."

swampfox said...

I agree with Rachel, but isn't it true that a 10/10 for one person may not be a 10/10 for another? I never thought Bo Derek was even a single 10.

Lisa said...

One of my submitted ms came back (from an agent) – "too couched in literary prose, you'll have a hard time selling it."

I didn't think I was writing literary prose, I thought I just writing a murder/mystery, and while I strive to write well and spin a good yarn at the same time, objectively its hard to tell if the balance is out

For my own reading, I fall in love with beautiful writing, I'll make do with a fragile storyline

Scott said...

For me it's all about the story, and anything I can get in the way of quality writing is gravy. Although I will get bored and annoyed if writing gets below 3 or 4.

Nathan, you should put together one of those fun-awesome polls for this to summarize all these results.

Melissa Pearl said...

I'm with Nathan. I say the story telling is the most important aspect, but if the writing is really bad, it ruins the book.

Joe Words said...

10/8 is my score. I need a good plot to hold my attention. I also admire great writing that can convey the emotion of the characters. It's great to come accross a paragraph that is written so well you gasp, stop and read it twice. Like this para from Peter Carey's Oscar & Lucinda..
Oscar waited for his father to return. And while he waited, while it became clear, even to him, that his father had left forever, he could look nowhere but towards the busy bulkhead through which the old man had departed. A great pan took possession of his heart and clamped around his lungs so that although he stood, in the midst of his friends, with his red lips parted, no air came to rescue him.

Brandon said...

Writing / Storytelling.

An interesting series of posts, Nathan. The posts and the responses made me think about my own idea of the writing/storytelling distinction and its connection to the topic of literary fiction. I am twenty-one years old, and I love literary fiction.

In so many ways, it is the heir of great classic literature, at least that seems to be the popular mode of thinking. Literary fiction speaks with moments of truth so deep that they stir me in the same way that tides or sunsets stir me. I'm a little biased toward literary fiction over 'popular' fiction. Where this ties to writing/storytelling debate is that literary fiction puts a focus on “writing” whereas popular fiction puts the focus on “plot or story”.

Like so many people, I thought in that way. It was a clear and easy argument, but I realized that I was only listening to the incredibly vague instincts that always speak up at the moment of selection. Going with my gut.

The posts have gotten me to think outside of that comfort zone, and to really ask myself what is about literary fiction and “prose-centric” writing that compels me to read it over popular fiction. Truth is that I love Tolstoy, Conroy, Austen, Conrad, Updike, Camus, Anatole France, Andre Gide, Marcel Proust, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Hemingway, Johanna Lindsey, and Kathleen Woodwiss.

The last two are romance novelists.

I have loved romance novels my entire reading life. They were the books I read as a kid. I didn't read Suess or YA literature. I read “grown up” books almost right away, so my appreciation for the genre of YA is not very well-founded. I can appreciate the success of authors in that genre, but I am not drawn to those novels. The point to all of this is that I love not only “complex” novels with complex, beautiful writing but also novels that have emotional story.

It's all about the emotional connection, and I get that from writing that speaks closer to the human condition. I get emotions from writing that is not aware of itself, but instead is speaking of concepts deep and intrinsically human. I love writing that creates the complex structures of the human emotional spectrum in the dark of my consciousness. I love, love, love the writing but not because it is “writing-centric”. I love the writing because of the messages within it and the journey to those messages. I don't always need a plot to get there. I don't always need beautiful words. What I need is an author so connected to his story and to his message that he can render it the same way some trick of cosmic light rendered the depths of our universe before our eyes.

My experience is that prose-centric writing IS the story. The way the author handles his language is the articulation of something that's more than a simple series of events. It's the same feeling I get when a carefully planned story reaches its climax, and I grip the book and my heart pounds. It's all about the emotion for me. Beautiful writing isn't the author turning tricks on a page, it's the author telling us about something so human and primal that simply laying it out in a series of plot twists wouldn't do it justice. Beautiful writing is its own story. I stopped waiting for things to happen, and instead started looking into the deeper meaning of what was going on in the story. That's the real thing. It's not the surface, it's always about what this story is saying. Even with plot-centric novels, it's about the emotion, what the guy is trying to say.

Whoa. Long post. I apologize for rambling, haha. I love the discussions on this blog.

To answer the question, though. My habits. I go for great writing. Because there's always a story being told, even if you don't realize it.

Brandon.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Nathan , this is beginning to sound a little too much like math. Algebra , axioms , idioms and algorithms are not my strong point . ( Had to add idioms in there as I thought it sounded nice )

Brandon said...

Writing / Storytelling.

An interesting series of posts, Nathan. The posts and the responses made me think about my own idea of the writing/storytelling distinction and its connection to the topic of literary fiction.

Like so many people, I thought in that way. It was a clear and easy argument, but I realized that I was only listening to the incredibly vague instincts that always speak up at the moment of selection. Going with my gut.

The posts have gotten me to think outside of that comfort zone, and to really ask myself what is about literary fiction and “prose-centric” writing that compels me to read it over popular fiction. Truth is that I love Tolstoy, Conroy, Austen, Conrad, Updike, Camus, Anatole France, Andre Gide, Marcel Proust, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Hemingway, Johanna Lindsey, and Kathleen Woodwiss.

The last two are romance novelists.

The point to all of this is that I love not only “complex” novels with complex, beautiful writing but also novels that have emotional story.

It's all about the emotional connection, and I get that from writing that speaks closer to the human condition. I get emotions from writing that is not aware of itself, but instead is speaking of concepts deep and intrinsically human. I love writing that creates the complex structures of the human emotional spectrum in the dark of my consciousness.

I love, love, love the writing but not because it is “writing-centric”. I love the writing because of the messages within it and the journey to those messages. I don't always need a plot to get there. I don't always need beautiful words. What I need is an author so connected to his story and to his message that he can render it the same way some trick of cosmic light rendered the depths of our universe before our eyes.

My experience is that prose-centric writing IS the story. The way the author handles his language is the articulation of something that's more than a simple series of events. It's the same feeling I get when a carefully planned story reaches its climax, and I grip the book and my heart pounds. It's all about the emotion for me. Beautiful writing isn't the author turning tricks on a page, it's the author telling us about something so human and primal that simply laying it out in a series of plot twists wouldn't do it justice. Beautiful writing is its own story. I stopped waiting for things to happen, and instead started looking into the deeper meaning of what was going on in the story. That's the real thing. It's not the surface, it's always about what this story is saying. Even with plot-centric novels, it's about the emotion, what the guy is trying to say.

Whoa. Long post. I apologize for rambling, haha. I love the discussions on this blog.

Brandon.

Miss Pickwickian said...

I probably can go as low as 3 with storytelling as long as that writing really makes up for it. 10/10 is obviously ideal!

Really enjoyed looking around and reading your blog. Thanks for your work!

Phyllis said...

Nathan, I got the feeling your last comment was in part directed at my comment, so I'd like to clarify.

I agree with you that quality isn't all relative and a matter of taste. Neither is simplicity or complexity related to quality.

I was having trouble with the combination of the scales, and with your earlier comment that most people wouldn't want a writing on the scale of 10. (I even looked up the prose in Atonement to see what you mean.)

I guess I just found it hard to define my own reading preferences without more references. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

John Jack said...

While I agree with what Nathan wrote at 2:22, I disagree about what's objective and subjective about writing. The main subjective difference I see is whether any given reader can or will make the effort to intrepret a writer's intentions.

While Hemingway wrote accessible narratives, many readers reject them out of hand for being inaccessible.

Meyer writes highly accessible narratives. Many readers reject them out of hand for being too accessible.

I disagree with the latter. There are unexplored plumbable depths to Meyer's writing. Just as there are unexplored plumbable depths to Hemingway's.

And that for me is what distinguishes any given narrative's objective values, it's accessible depths, and subjectively, how deep any given reader is willing to go.

Suzi McGowen said...

I'm a story teller. I come from a strong storytelling background. (I thought my family was normal this way, until I was a teenager.)

I have strong writing skills but still tend to scaffolding, and a deplorable use of commas. I'm working on it.

I'm guessing 7 or 8 writing and 10 story telling.

Jeff said...

Nice post Brandon. You didn't ramble at all. I recently pulled a dusty old book off my book shelf to read while I wait for the water to boil in my kitchen, it's actually two short novels by Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locusts, and I can easily set this book down for the next time I cook but I've noticed how much I really enjoy reading it. I look forward to it. The plot isn't spectacular and the writing isn't really anything but clean and readable, but, as you wrote, it has an undertow that captivates me. It's just good simple writing and story-telling. In the perfect world, I would be a 10/10, but I rarely find that, so, since I also can't think mathematically, I guess I lean more towards a decent, well written story. I think that's called back to ground zero.

SSB said...

I am a sucker for a good story teller. Story telling 9 writing 3.

Anonymous said...

I have a friend who is a writer who is a "snob writer," i.e. she likes to talk to people in ivory towers and leave the commoners behind.
She has a great story, but every innuendo, every aspect of her fiction is ex-clusive. She was told by a number of people that if she brought people in, she would be more marketable. She refuses. Her books sit in her drawers.

So maybe that means that some books should sit in drawers.

But some, perhaps, should try writing at a 7.

Just look at who could be reading your story. Sometimes it IS the art.
But sometimes, the snobbery of education can be more of a handicap than a passport.


word verification: ficon

Matthew Rush said...

I have no idea how you keep coming up with something even better than the last time constantly Nathan, but this is an amazing question.

Personally I like to read for both. I don't have a single example of a 10/10 but I don't think that it's close to necessary, or even possible, even with the greatest books of all time.

A few quick examples of my completely subjective opinion when scoring novels this way:

Harry Potter (entire series):
Writing 6/7
Story 9

The Lord of the Rings (whole trilogy)
Writing 8/9 for the beauty of the prose, but
Writing 5 for pacing, plot, tension and some other foibles (I realize these are aspects of story as well)
Story 9

The Road (Cormac McCarthy)
Writing 10
Story 6/7 (I still consider this the best novel I've read in years)

A Lush Life (Richard Price)
Writing 7/8
Story 7

Moby Dick
Writing 9
Story 9 (no one's perfect)

A Tale of Two Cities
Writing 8/9
Story 8

The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett)
Writing 5/6
Story 8/9

The Sound and the Fury
Writing 9
Story 5 (there were moments of such beauty and tragedy in the prose that I will never forget them, but honestly I'm still not exactly clear what HAPPENS)

I could go on but I would also like to say that every single book I listed here is amazing. I would recommend every single one of them to anyone who ever asked.

I would never share publicly scores of books I didn't like because that's petty and bad karma, and it's rare that I don't like a book anyway.

I also think you could break this down further. Using Harry Potter as an example; Rowling has been accused by some of simple writing. And sure, the prose is not the most purple flower ever spawned but there are moments of pure comedic genius in it. Beautiful writing can bring me to tears, yes, but hilarious prose (or dialogue) can bend me over in laughter ... and one is much better for you health than the other.

On the other hand Rowling's storytelling is nearly untouchable. She doesn't have the most twisting, convoluted plot of the best mysteries or the life and death good and evil stakes of classics like LOTR or A Tale of Two Cities but what she does have is one of the best balances of all storytelling elements of anything I've ever read.

I won't go into characterization, which could be argued as a subset of story, or writing, or both, or neither, but the Potter characters are unforgettable.

Anyway I've rambled on long enough, likely making little sense, and somehow I feel less than I did before.

Thanks for making me think Nathan.

Perry said...

I like a good story and a decent writing but I have to say I like the story most.

I'll take 5 for writing and 9 for story.

Rusty Webb said...

For me, storytelling trumps the prose if I'm forced choose between them. Exceptional writing is certainly something to be admired, but can pull me out of a story if it's too noticeable. I'd rather finish a book and be thinking of, and talking about, the twists and turns of the story - not discussing how large a vocabulary, or lyrical a voice, the author had.

Give me a 10 for story and I'll live with a 3 or 4 in writing.

Wendy said...

I have to admit, the more time I spend editing, the less tolerance I have for bad writing. I mean, seriously, did the person really care about the story if they couldn't be bothered to clean it up enough for the rest of us to sit through it?

Poor writing throws me out of the story, anyway. It doesn't matter how good a story concept is, if it's bad writing, it simply is packaged in a vehicle that will never let you immerse yourself in the joy of the ride.

So, while I don't need to be riding in a Bugatti, I absolutely, positively refuse to ride in a Yugo without air conditioning cross the Arizona desert in July... No matter how pretty the scenery is! But, you know, if it's a Dodge Ram with decent suspension and cold air, I can dig it. (Even little girls like leg room!)

I'd say that puts me about a 5 on the writing scale... (although I would prefer more, but that can be slim pickings) and definitely need an 8 for the story. I mean, seriously, I got so many other things to read (like Nathan's blog!) that I'm not going to waste "Me-time" on an US Weekly or the Enquirer.

That being said, I actually refused to get past the 2nd chapter of a book I was reading for research the other day. The pain was equivalent to what I experienced when I watched FernGully (one of the few movies I've actually walked out of). The book, of course, was returned without having been properly read.

On a happy note, I've decided that my current role models (professional heroes) are Adam Rex and Mac Barnett. I want a blue whale to take to *my* school! :-p

Barb W said...

There needs to be an intriguing story to pull me in, but I am a grammar freak. So if there are poorly written sentences or typos it is distracting. Therefore, my answer is 8 for storytelling and at least 6 for writing.

Interesting post.

Matthew Rush said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew Rush said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew Rush said...

Doh! Sorry for the double delete but blogger said my first post was too long, even though it obviously worked.

ryan field said...

If the story is good and the voice is strong, I can forgive anything in the writing department between 4 and 10.

The problem is that anything below a 4, even if the storyline is 8,9,or 10, tends to get tired and most readers lose interest.

Kristi Helvig said...

I just finished MATCHED by Ally Condie and it was definitely a 10/10 for me. The Hunger Games and The Book Thief (although very different books) also score 10/10. I'll go with storytelling over writing every time, but if a book has both, I'll praise it to everyone I know!

I'm working really hard right now to pull my writing up to my storytelling in my final (hopefully) revision.

Andrea Franco-Cook said...

IMHO, I don't think a story can be told well if the prose is deficient.

To answer your question, story telling is more important than beautiful prose. I usually read to relax and escape from the world. If the story draws me in then it is unlikely I will pay attention to the writing.

robinC said...

Hmmm...These days I do the majority of my reading right before I go to sleep, so storytelling has to be at least an 8 for me not to nod off too quickly. The writing can be a 5 or 6.

That's not to say I don't enjoy a good 10/10 now and again or read at other times of the day - :)

I have found if I love an author's voice - no matter how far they meander from the main story - I will follow. Not sure what number that would fall under though - so if the writing is an 8-10, and you make me laugh, I can accept a 7 for storytelling...but the ending better be satisfying...just sayin'.

Nikki said...

I can't read a book unless I can engage with the prose style. When choosing a book I open at a random page and if I don't like the "voice", I don't read the book. I don't know where this would come on your scale, though - I just know it when I see it. For example, I love Margaret Atwood, Douglas Coupland, Philip Pullman.
A well written book with a great plot I read recently was "Water For Elephants." I couldn't read one of those thrillers that's all plot because the writing just doesn't draw me in. I need some...soul...there? is that the word?
I don't mind a book lacking plot if I love the characters and the writing. EG: Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto or Dubliners. Nothing much happens but in a really beautiful way.

Zee Lemke said...

You know, I think Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics" has the best treatment of the craft/content difference I've ever read. I didn't make the connection until just now, but I totally write because I have something to say and only want to learn the craft as a vehicle.

Nancy said...

Nathan, do we know now what your opinion is of an acceptable submission, or one you will consider publishable?

Aimee said...

Everyone shoots for the 10/10, I'm sure, or at least I do. But right now, I am like 8 writing and 4 storytelling, which probably isn't very good.

Judy Douglas Knauer said...

7 writing/10 storytelling. Strong characters should tell the story and elicit empathy to keep my attention. I've read the 1st two Steig Larrson books and kept turning pages despite finding viewpoint discrepancies and over-telling of boring stuff. It was better storytelling than writing in my opinion.

D. Michael Olive said...

While a 10/10 is great in theory, I'd settle for a 5/10. If the story doesn't grab me, it doesn't matter how brilliant the prose. I donate books with brilliant prose but a boring story to my local library.

Anonymous said...

To me, the writing has to be up in the 8 or above level or I just feel a under-challenged. I want a writer's words and style to push me to think; I want to grapple and marvel at the words and how they work to move me and evoke imagery. The story needs to be just as good, but I can forgive the lack of story slightly if the writing is top notch. To me, Cormac McCarthy takes the cake in the writing department-without equal. I will also say that I am currently reading TINKERS, by Paul Harding, and let me just say: the guy can freakin' write! Unbelievably beautiful writing. Leaves me gasping at times.

Anonymous said...

The salmon mousse!

#167 Dad said...

I suppose I see storytelling as part of writing.
Hey, I have a question for you. How many copies does the average book published by one of the major publishers sell? I've come across conflicting numbers.
griggit@yahoo.com

Koneko said...

5+ writing, for me, and 8+ story telling, but I'll make exceptions on both sides for characters that grab me.

Adam Heine said...

To me, writing is like icing. A good cake doesn't need it, although it can make a good cake better. And no amount of icing will make a bad cake good.

I don't know what specific combination is my sweet spot, but I'd probably read a 0 writing if it had 10 storytelling. And like Nathan, I don't much enjoy stories below 5 or 6, even if the writing were 15.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

I gotta agree with Nathan on this one. I'm pretty much 10/10. If the writing seems to me obtrusive--trying to draw attention to itself more than story--I can't get through the book.

If, on the other hand, the writing is invisible (clear, concise, emotive, communicating), and not drawing attention to itself, but there's no "there, there," I can't get through a book, either.

Unlike Mira, however, I tend toward the "literary," I think. I like a good story, told well. I'm more impressed by a story I get because I'm drawn in and can't stop trying to find out what happens next, I care about the characters and I want to know how any conflict is resolved.

But if a writer seems to be trying too hard to impress me with some style or technique, as opposed to communicating whatever it is they appear to want to communicate to me (the purpose of written language and, one could argue, all language), I'm less inclined to get into the story because the prose is in the way.

I'll confess it here and now: I personally did not like The Shipping News. Couldn't get past what struck me as stilted prose. Forced myself to discover the story in it. Was not impressed. (*Gasps, shunning...*)

So. I rather like Mira's idea, though, of liking commercial fiction for money-making, literary fiction for some sort of cultural experience, and opening a bookstore for wanting to spread the disease of reading (and therefore, perhaps by extension, independent thought and opinion based on a variety of disparate sources).

Brings me to a question, though, as we've been discussing the subjectivity of these questions of preference: Mr. Agent Man--you seem to like Hemingway, and Faulkner, as 10/10s. I happen to agree. However, as an agent, do you think you could sell either writer's books ("A story about expatriates in Paris suffering and trying to overcome the effects of The Great War" or "A story about an old fisherman who hasn't had any luck and others believe is cursed eventually catching the greatest fish of his life, only to have it ravaged by sharks before he can bring it in to show his detractors...," not to mention "a story about a bear hunt as allegory...") in today's market?

The characters alone aren't battling with issues of sexual identity, substance abuse (at least not self-knowingly) or seeking gurus to answer their questions about the meaning of life.

And just to throw a monkey in the works, a possibly 10/5, "This Side of Paradise" is perhaps THE MOST narcissistic and ultimatley "why should I care you've learned who you are" novel touted as literature in the early 20th Century. Yet it put F. Scott "on the map," and was followed by what in my book definitely is a 10/10, The Great Gatsby, metioned before as not selling that well when it first came out but falling under the category of "literature" despite being, ultimately, a "who-done-it" murder mystery.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

I gotta agree with Nathan on this one. I'm pretty much 10/10. If the writing seems to me obtrusive--trying to draw attention to itself more than story--I can't get through the book.

If, on the other hand, the writing is invisible (clear, concise, emotive, communicating), and not drawing attention to itself, but there's no "there, there," I can't get through a book, either.

Unlike Mira, however, I tend toward the "literary," I think. I like a good story, told well. I'm more impressed by a story I get because I'm drawn in and can't stop trying to find out what happens next, I care about the characters and I want to know how any conflict is resolved.

But if a writer seems to be trying too hard to impress me with some style or technique, as opposed to communicating whatever it is they appear to want to communicate to me (the purpose of written language and, one could argue, all language), I'm less inclined to get into the story because the prose is in the way.

I'll confess it here and now: I personally did not like The Shipping News. Couldn't get past what struck me as stilted prose. Forced myself to discover the story in it. Was not impressed. (*Gasps, shunning...*)

So. I rather like Mira's idea, though, of liking commercial fiction for money-making, literary fiction for some sort of cultural experience, and opening a bookstore for wanting to spread the disease of reading (and therefore, perhaps by extension, independent thought and opinion based on a variety of disparate sources).

Brings me to a question, though, as we've been discussing the subjectivity of these questions of preference: Mr. Agent Man--you seem to like Hemingway, and Faulkner, as 10/10s. I happen to agree. However, as an agent, do you think you could sell either writer's books ("A story about expatriates in Paris suffering and trying to overcome the effects of The Great War" or "A story about an old fisherman who hasn't had any luck and others believe is cursed eventually catching the greatest fish of his life, only to have it ravaged by sharks before he can bring it in to show his detractors...," not to mention "a story about a bear hunt as allegory...") in today's market?

The characters alone aren't battling with issues of sexual identity, substance abuse (at least not self-knowingly) or seeking gurus to answer their questions about the meaning of life.

And just to throw a monkey in the works, a possibly 10/5, "This Side of Paradise" is perhaps THE MOST narcissistic and ultimatley "why should I care you've learned who you are" novel touted as literature in the early 20th Century. Yet it put F. Scott "on the map," and was followed by what in my book definitely is a 10/10, The Great Gatsby, metioned before as not selling that well when it first came out but falling under the category of "literature" despite being, ultimately, a "who-done-it" murder mystery.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Correcting typo in last post: ultimately.

And for an example of writing with definite purpose in a particular style that does not detract from the story, I still highly recommend The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy.

Read it while living in South Carolina's "lowcountry." The rhythm of the words, the way in which they're strung together, almost immitating the waves of the ocean and the sound of the ocean breeze in the palmettos...I can't describe how well the style of the prose evoked the story being told.

kimberlyloomis said...

For a 10 in writing all words must matter to the story in feel and plot. Loads of books I've grabbed from the library have gotten below a 7 (the lowest I'll tolerate) in writing because almost half the pages wind up being unnecessary to the movement of the story and/or development of the characters. If I wanted to watch a movie, I'd watch a movie but since we're talking about books the words used matter.

10/10 for me would be something like "The Road", "Lord of the Rings" or "To Kill a Mockingbird". If the writing is excellent and the story something "normal" that writing will make it seem different and unique enough to warrant my time investment.

Susan Cushman said...

I go with 10 writing/5 story. Even where movies are concerned. Where Jamie thought Eat Pray Love got slow in the India part, I was just happy to enjoy the beauty of the characters, the acting, the film making. I'm the same with books. I'm into character-driven more than plot-driven, and just beautiful literary prose.

Anonymous said...

I think I can deal with a 5/5 as long as the writing makes sense to me. Otherwise, I'm opposite of Nathan, I think...there are certain extremely popular authors I can't get through page 1 and I saw the movie, so I KNOW it was a heckuva story. Yet the prose... And this coming from someone unpublished. It's not snobbery...habit, maybe? Like I just can't stick with it and it's frustrating, 'cause (not to be redundant, redundant like a tiny morsel redundant...:)) I know I'm missing a great story.

So, I work toward both better plotting and more lucidity in my own writing.

Cathi said...

My attention span is about the length of a gnat, so the story has to be close to a 10. Then again, weak writing is a distraction. I just finished a novel that was so poorly written, and the plot was so blah, it was hard to concentrate on because I kept editing as I read.

Ishta Mercurio said...

I tend to be higher on the storytelling end. I can take really low-scale (like, 2 or 3) writing if the story is really good. But without a good story, the writing has to be at least an 8 to make up for it, and the characters still have to be really compelling.

treeoflife said...

0-5 Writing
10 Story

I honestly don't like overly fancy writing. I've put away more than one book where the writer was more determined to show off their mastery of language than actually tell a good story. Too many authors do this in the first few pages of their books, and it irritates me.

It's all about the story. The writing must do nothing more than let the story be told well!

bsgibson said...

Storytelling has to be high and the writing at least a 5 or 6 and better if 9 or 10. However, I'm forgiving on the writing side, but demand an interesting story that carries me page to page.

cheekychook said...

I'd have to say my ideal ratio is 10 storyline/8 writing. Here's why.

If a storyline is fantastic (10), and is explained decently (anything over a 5/6 writing), it will lure me in---an awesome story (great characters, interesting plot)will have me hooked. If the writing is a also a 10, meaning it is consistently flawless throughout the book, chances are there will be some points where I'm actually pulled out of the story because the writing is so....well...good. The writing will command as much of my attention as the story---and that will break the spell. (Below average writing breaks the spell in an equivalent way, no matter how good the story is.)

I think part of the reason the writing can get away with being less-than-stellar, as long as the storyline is amazing, is that less-than-perfect writing (say 6-9) still hits the occasional 10---the sentence here or there that is so off-the-charts spot on that you gasp and think "Wow" because it was the ideal way to express that particular nuance. Those occasional *gasp* moments of perfect prose can be the "sweet spots" of below-10 writing that are the sublime compliment to a 10 storyline---like when you take a bite of an ice cream sundae and manage to scoop up the perfect ratio of ice cream to toppings.

Storyline is the ice cream...I can enjoy it with or without the toppings---I prefer it will a few, but if the ice cream is awesome I can eat an awful lot of it straight up. Writing is the hot fudge/whipped cream/sprinkles/etc. I enjoy the toppings on their own too, but (no matter how much I like hot fudge, and I really, really like hot fudge)I can't eat as much of the toppings as I can ice cream...and I like them best in combination. I always look forward to those perfect bites.

k10wnsta said...

Some notable authors on this scale:
Author - Writing/Storytelling

Stephen King - 10/10+
Mark Twain - 10+/10
Harper Lee - 9/9
J.D. Salinger - 9/8
J.K. Rowling - 7/10
Stephanie Meyer - 5/3

Yes, Stephanie Meyer is a mediocre writer and a poor storyteller, but those traits are offset by the fact that she tapped in to tweens everywhere by writing on their level and made a mint doing it.

People are quick to dismiss Stephen King, but the sheer volume of unique stories he's told - and the astonishing number of voices he's told them in - places him comfortably on the 'Greatest Writer Ever...Ever' pedestal. There is no caveat - his body of work is staggering in its accomplishment (if you need a refresher, read the oft-forgotten The Eyes of the Dragon).

If you disagree with any of these, you're wrong.

JDuncan said...

10/10 is really, really rare imo. For me, like many others here, the storytelling has to be in the 8-10 range. Over the years though, I've noticed my tolerance on the writing end has gotten more severe. I would say twenty years ago, 5 and up would have been good, but now? Seven or better. Even good storytelling loses me now if the writing is pretty darn good. And mediocre storytelling will always lose me no matter how good the writing is.

Melanie said...

Leah Raeder and Brandon managed to explain EXACTLY what I've been trying to find the words for, but I wanted to second the notion that good writing puts a spell over the reader. Anyone who thinks good writing is stuffy or elitist, thereby ruining the experience, is not actually reading 10 level writing. Someone also mentioned slow pacing as a fault of great writing. To me, pacing is a feature of storytelling.

My scale: 8+ writing and probably anywhere on the scale for storytelling. In fact, I prefer books that are probably more like a 2-5.

Marilyn Peake said...

I prefer 10 writing/10 storytelling in novels. For me, that would include novels like THE POISONWOOD BIBLE by Barbara Kingsolver, THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy, and THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES by Sue Monk Kidd.

I love reading 10 writing/6 storytelling novels the way you describe them: "finely wrought novels where we mainly admire the writing". To me, truly great writing blends beautiful prose with meaningful insight into life, and isn’t simply well-constructed sentences and pretty words. Sometimes novels are able to explore life more deeply when the plot is looser, e.g. TINKERS by Paul Harding, the indie novel that received numerous rejections because it was felt that "Nobody wants to read a slow, contemplative, meditative, quiet book..." but went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year. I’m reading this novel now, and feel gripped by the beauty of the prose and Harding’s extraordinary ability to describe significant life moments.

I also love novels that include brilliant theories and concepts, books that might be 10 writing/6 storytelling/10 concepts. In this category, I’d place novels like THE GOLDBUG VARIATIONS by Richard Powers, a brilliant story that makes connections among music, computer programming, art, and the cracking of the DNA code, and ENCOUNTER WITH TIBER by Astronaut Buzz Aldrin and Science Fiction Author John Barnes, with its fantastic story and complex descriptions of scientific theories, and THE GLASS BEAD GAME or MAGISTER LUDI by Hermann Hesse.

I thoroughly enjoy well-written experimental novels in which plot takes second place to fantastic writing and creative experimentation, e.g. HOUSE OF LEAVES by Mark Z. Danielewski and CLOUD ATLAS by David Mitchell. The degree to which David Mitchell effectively changed genres and historical time periods for each section of CLOUD ATLAS was impressive. I especially love the section, SLOOSHA’S CROSSIN’ AN’ EV’RYTHIN’ AFTER. When I first started reading that section, I thought I’d never make heads or tails of it; but, when I realized that the story was set in a post-apocalyptic island world and assumed that Mitchell had created his own post-apocalyptic language, I started seeing enough connections to interpret the language and found it both mesmerizing and beautiful.

You asked if we had limits. I definitely do. I find it excruciatingly painful to read a poorly written novel with simplistic language, grammatical errors and themes that cater to baser instincts, even if those books are huge best-sellers.

Marilyn Peake said...

I prefer 10 writing/10 storytelling in novels. For me, that would include novels like THE POISONWOOD BIBLE by Barbara Kingsolver, THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy, and THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES by Sue Monk Kidd.

I love reading 10 writing/6 storytelling novels the way you describe them: "finely wrought novels where we mainly admire the writing". To me, truly great writing blends beautiful prose with meaningful insight into life, and isn’t simply well-constructed sentences and pretty words. Sometimes novels are able to explore life more deeply when the plot is looser, e.g. TINKERS by Paul Harding, the indie novel that received numerous rejections because it was felt that "Nobody wants to read a slow, contemplative, meditative, quiet book..." but went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year. I’m reading this novel now, and feel gripped by the beauty of the prose and Harding’s extraordinary ability to describe significant life moments.

I also love novels that include brilliant theories and concepts, books that might be 10 writing/6 storytelling/10 concepts. In this category, I’d place novels like THE GOLDBUG VARIATIONS by Richard Powers, a brilliant story that makes connections among music, computer programming, art, and the cracking of the DNA code, and ENCOUNTER WITH TIBER by Astronaut Buzz Aldrin and Science Fiction Author John Barnes, with its fantastic story and complex descriptions of scientific theories, and THE GLASS BEAD GAME or MAGISTER LUDI by Hermann Hesse.

I thoroughly enjoy well-written experimental novels in which plot takes second place to fantastic writing and creative experimentation, e.g. HOUSE OF LEAVES by Mark Z. Danielewski and CLOUD ATLAS by David Mitchell. The degree to which David Mitchell effectively changed genres and historical time periods for each section of CLOUD ATLAS was impressive. I especially love the section, SLOOSHA’S CROSSIN’ AN’ EV’RYTHIN’ AFTER. When I first started reading that section, I thought I’d never make heads or tails of it; but, when I realized that the story was set in a post-apocalyptic island world and assumed that Mitchell had created his own post-apocalyptic language, I started seeing enough connections to interpret the language and found it both mesmerizing and beautiful.

You asked if we had limits. I definitely do. I find it excruciatingly painful to read a poorly written novel with simplistic language, grammatical errors and themes that cater to baser instincts, even if those books are huge best-sellers.

Heidi C. Vlach said...

Interesting question! I'm going to have to say 9 writing, 6 storytelling. If the characters are unremarkable and the writing is just okay, then I don't care what those characters are doing. They're welcome to carry on doing it without me. Whereas if a character's voice is well-crafted, I think they can make the smallest moments feel significant. I'd rather enjoy the small things and the greater themes than run around with a breakneck plot.

Scott Foley said...

Nathan, you must have been reading my mind, I blogged about this topic the other day!

http://warlordsofthedreaminggod.com/2010/08/10/when-the-words-disappear/

As for me, it's storytelling every time, although not at the complete expense of writing quality. So 7+ writing/8+ storytelling are my favourite books. Though I notice that some writers lure you in with a great premise suggesting 10 storytelling and the plot turns out a bit flat. Iain Banks did that to me once, never again :-(

Frances said...

I like a book which makes me feel that I don't have to keep score - where the prose carries me beautifully along the storyline. Overall I'd take story over prose but I think a writer has to use language well in order to tell a good story. I'd go for 5/6 on writing and 8 on story.

Of course, it also depends on the genre e.g. I don't want a serial killer stopping to admire lush green meadows. He might well do so in real life but in fiction it just wouldn't ring true. Another pet hate is an author who takes an inordinate amount of time to describe a place. I begin to feel like I'm reading a travelogue.

Angus Bearn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Angus Bearn said...

You can be too analytical. The writer must offer something the reader wants. That could be just anything. From being seen to pretend to read it, to historical research, to arousal...

Patrick Neylan said...

Lots of people are looking for double-10, but you seldom find it (Cormac McCarthy springs to mind).

James Patterson is a 10 story, 3 writing. In another genre, Isaac Asimov successfully pulled the same trick and even made a point of it. It's often the way with genre fiction, though occasionally someone like Ian Rankin or Raymond Chandler will give you a 10/10 piece of genre fiction.

Jeanette Winterson does it the other way round, which brings us back to the definition of literary fiction discussed earlier.

Both have their place, on my bookshelf anyway.

Hillsy said...

Apologies if this has been mentioned before...but

How important is writing vs. storytelling to you? Which is more important to you when you choose a book?

How do you know how good the storytelling is until you've read the book?

If, using your (accurate) barometer of "Did the writer achieve what he set out to do", a literary novel's story hits the mark, it's a better feat of storytelling than a sweeping, all action epic poorly executed??

Therefore, shouldn't the storytelling category be more "scope of story" or "Action based plot" rather than quality of said story??

Sorry, if I'm being pedantic...=0)

RosieC said...

I'm also willing to put up with poor writing for a fantastic story. What I'm reading now is such a great story that I couldn't put it down last night (or maybe I just had insomnia?) but there are jarring points in the writing. I wouldn't say it's below a 7--all things considered, it's quite good--but since the story is 9 or 10, I'm happy to continue reading.

Deb said...

So what you’re basically asking is: What’s the upper limit on your crapometer? For me, good writing and storytelling are seamless. They are not independent of each other. Good writers can take stale storylines and turn them into brilliance while bad writers can butcher a great plot. We all have the airport read that we’ll tolerate if it’s compelling enough and for the mere fact that we just spent 10 euros on it and the candy wrappers are written in a foreign tongue. But I don’t believe there are good writers who are bad storytellers. A story cannot flop and the writing be brilliant. Perhaps parts can be but not the whole. Otherwise, it would work. The potential was there but not fulfilled. Great writers do it all. Well.

reader said...

I only find a 10/10 book every two years or so and I read a lot.

Because I like characters over plot I like a higher "writing" score over a higher "storytelling" score -- mostly because I've found authors that pay attention to the writing also pay attention to the characters a lot more.

Amy Lundebrek said...

Love this post, Nathan! Thank you for helping us discover a new way of thinking about fiction. It reminds me of how enlightening "the political compass" is (incorporating a scale of authoritarian/libertarian in addition to just left/right). Consider placing your two scales perpendicular to one another and talking about placing novels in one of the four quadrants.

Dara said...

Probably close to 10/10. I'm similar in that I can drop maybe as low as a 6 or 7 writing wise, but the story has to be at least an 8. I think I don't finish books because the story loses momentum and I get bored with it.

Now the trick is to try and apply that to my own writing. Not as easy!

Noelle Pierce said...

Only recently, after I started writing myself, have I noticed bad writing. I mean, things like too many adverbs. I always noticed typos, but I can look past those. For me, it's the story, the plot, the characters. if I don't care about that, I won't keep reading. That said, books that are too writerly shut me down faster than a textbook. I can't read the classics. I can't get past the flowery prose to read Shakespeare and actually understand the story. Austen? I've tried repeatedly over the last 15 years, but can't get past chapter 2. Maybe 6.

I appreciate the skill and talent necessary to achieve lyrical prose, but I can't stand reading it.

For me: 1/7+

Anonymous said...

Some of the denser literary works I've encountered were only surmountable for me in college, where it was fun to dissect and analyze the writing and the story. It was more participatory to project and share the questions. (What does it mean? etc.)

But, on the other hand, I read for pleasure and information all over the map. I liked Twilight for the story. I liked Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice for the story. There are stories and movies that are just fun and entertaining and have that mass appeal.

And here and there, there is profound writing and profound story, that does more than entertain or help the reader escape:
It helps the reader discover himself or makes the world open up or changes one's life. Or they are just so perfect, not a single word should be changed.

But I cannot rate some things in the same system.

Niagara Falls does not take away the joy of the bubbling brook.

Robert Michael said...

I use a sliding scale. I read everything from Star Wars Legacy novels to Ken Follett to James Joyce to Stephen King and Dan Brown. Whew! Now, I just picked up Tom Clancy again after a 10 years and am struck by how low he is on both scales.

What I read is determined by how I feel. Sometimes I want a guilty pleasure read and will pick up RA Salvatore or Anne Rice. Sometimes I want a long, sticky, read-that-paragraph-twice type novel and will pull a Faulkner or a Dostoyevsky off the shelf.

I guess what matters most to me is that whatever I read, it must keep me interested. Portrait of a Lady was compelling to me because the characters were so vivid, the settings so lush. Dirty White Boys and Hot Springs (By Stephen Hunter) made me want to read Havannah and Blacklight because the character was interesting and the action so compelling.

I guess I just love books. Do I judge their merit? Of course. I know the difference between a good book, a poorly written book and a superb piece of literature. There is subjectivity, to be sure, but the elements of excellence in writing are eternal. The best writing melds the art, creativity and imagination of an artist with the craft (exposition, sentence structure, word use, imagery, punctuation, syntax, etc.) of a wordsmith.

simon said...

Why would 10 out of 10 writing be challenging?

wonderer said...

I'm getting increasingly picky about the writing side. The wrong voice will make a novel unreadable for me. I'll read novels with utilitarian prose, but my favourites all have prose where clear attention has been paid to the word choice. That doesn't necessarily mean the writing is poetic or fancy, though.

On the storytelling side, I like variety. I'll read one novel that's mostly about plot, then the next one I pick will be more literary.

If the storytelling is 10/10, I might overlook poor prose. Here's where I admit to devouring several Dan Brown novels...

Hart Johnson said...

The 10/10s are fabulous if you can find them. I am willing to let the storytelling go lowish if the writing is fabulous (a 10/3) but I am only willing to tolerate writing down to about a 6, no matter HOW great the story--though that doesn't have to mean LITERARY writing... simple is fine, if the word choices are good and the author has included and excluded the right things (for instance, I happen to think Harry Potter was BEAUTIFULLY written--they were the perfect words, even if it is simple language)

Katrina L. Lantz said...

I'm reading Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz to my 3yo and have been thinking about exactly this point.
Baum's Writing:5
Story: 9

Currently, I like Libba Bray and Gayle Forman for a great mix between writing and story. Discovered Libba Bray on goodreads from quotes alone. That's good writing when a quote makes you look up the author and buy her books.

My own? Presently? Writing: 6 Story: 6 I hope I'm improving all the time.

A.M. Guynes said...

The storytelling HAS to be compelling and interesting if I'm going to read more than a few chapters. The writing can be ok, but certain things will make me put a book down even if the story is interesting.

So I'd say, for me, the storytelling has to be at an 8-10 while I'll tolerate writing as low as a 7. Anything lower on either spectrum and I put the book down because I'm either bored or irritated with the author.

Anonymous said...

I'm shocked that Nathan could EVER skimp on the writing even at a 6. LOL! As for me, I need a good story and great writing only adds to the flavor.

Cora L. Foerstner said...

The comments on this post are "awesome."

My tastes change and it depends. 10/10, as many have said, is ideal, but I love character and will make allowances for good characters. Sometimes I just want a good story, and sometimes I read because the writing is wonderful.

I cannot tolerate poor writing and poor storytelling.

James Rafferty said...

Great topic. Like several commenters above, my tolerance for weak writing is a lot less than it was before I started writing my own novels and stories. For my reading, I want a balance of strong story and writing that avoids cliches.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

The only thing with the 10 writing, it seems to me, is that somehow the dialogue mysteriously vaporizes, you have characters who are doing, thinking, etc., just not TALKING. After a few chapters of no talking, the novel starts to seem very very quiet to me...a looming silence, as bad as those we can experience in real life...sometimes there are work situations like that, very weird, nobody's talking to anyone...the painful silence til you can finally leave at the end of the day!

So, hey, 10/10! Just keep the dialogue coming, please, even if your characters don't speak in polished prose.

Dawn Pier said...

Okay, I'm going to comment despite being #149 (wow, Nathan, you are a blogging God).

I'd like to give a specific example of two books written by the same author that I believe provide a good example of how the "storytelling" part is key to reader satisfaction and delight.

Michael Ondaatje is probably best known for "The English Patient" because it was made into a movie. However, I personally believe his earlier book "Coming Through Slaughter" to be a 10/10. It is beautiful, sensual and greatly suspenseful. His most recent book "Divisadero" is beautifully written like every book of his that I have read. The story left me wanting and very disappointed - a 5 or 6 at best. So given a very similar level of writing in both books (in fact, the writing in the latter book is probably better), the one with the better story will win every time.

Question: How much can we as writers expact an editor to help with the "bad writing" aspect of things?

Margaret Fleming said...

Yes,Nathan, my faves are close to 10/10. This goes for JOhn Lescroart,The opening page of A Plague of Secrets. Also lately for Tom Peters' The little BIG Things. It's breaking your Huffington rule about the big print and exclamation points that I love--would have kept me awake for certain B-School courses. And his language, while not polite, is what I use when I'm excitefd or irritated, so I don't feel talked down to. Margaret Fleming

Dawn Pier said...

(blushing, she looks at the floor, the curve of her index finger gently aligned with her mouth) um...

*expect, what can we EXPECT of our editor

Noriko Nakada said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Noriko Nakada said...

I need a sum of 15... it might be strong writing to keep me at the page even if the story isn't (Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient). If the writing is okay but the plot moves I'll stick with it (Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones). In glancing through my shelves I favor writing with a strong unique voice and have a high-than-average-tolerance for non-traditional plot structures: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers by Lois Ann Yamanaka, Beloved by Toni Morrison and MAUS by Art Spiegelman.

Great post and conversation!

Ganz-1 said...

I'm going with 6 Writing/10 Storytelling.

No powerful prose can keep me glued to a book if the story is bad.

Steven Till said...

I think I'm 7 Writing / 10 Storytelling. Sometimes I can even slide down to a 5 or 6 on writing if the storytelling is amazing. I immediately think of Pillars of the Earth. It's probably a 5 or 6 on the writing scale in my opinion, but the storytelling is definitely a 10. As such, I tend to give storytelling more weight because I would give Pillars of the Earth 5 out 5 stars.

The Red Angel said...

Interesting post. Hmm, I will have to go for 4 for Writing and 7 for Storytelling. If the writing is really bad, I can't concentrate even if the story itself is fantastic and will constantly get distracted by the weak prose. However, the storytelling is extremely important to me and it's the main factor in determining whether I keep reading or not.

~TRA

http://xtheredangelx.blogspot.com

Laurie said...

I love this series of posts, Nathan, and I completely agree with making the distinction. I definitely divide my favorites up into "great storytelling" and "great prose" and then marvel at the ones that are both.

I love Margaret Atwood, for instance, for her prose (does anyone write a better simile???), but her storytelling always leaves me lacking. I forgive the storytelling, though, just to read her sentences over and over again. She's the person I still re-read most. Gorgeous prose.

On the other hand, I often pick up a genre novel when what I want is pacing -- when I want the roller-coaster, leaning-in-around-the-campfire experience for the evening, I'll go with a great genre storyteller who can make my heart pound. I'll forgive a lot of the prose (simpler words, simpler sentences) because that's not what I'm reading for.

For me, personally, books that have delivered both were The Time Traveler's Wife, The Book Thief, and anything by Jhumpa Lahiri.

Horserider said...

For me, I think it depends on the story. Some of my favorite books I like the plot but mostly adore for the prose (Paper Towns), love the plot and the prose (The Book Thief), or love the plot and like the writing (Harry Potter). I think I learn more towards 6-9 on both sides of the spectrum.

Lale said...

I'm probably more into the story, but I can't deal with writing less than a 5 under any circumstances- it makes me cringe and want to run for my red pen.

Louis Duke said...

I am definitely a 10 on the story telling and whatever on the writing. I will read a novel with a magnificent story where the author can barely put a sentence together. Some of my favorite novels that I have reread countless times have incomplete sentences in them.

I really think that is across the board too. People don't read a novel and think, wow, this sentence structure is fantastic, we think wow, I love this story.

Daisy Harris said...

I most enjoy writing that showcases story and ideas over style. I won't read a book for the loopy/interesting prose very often.

Sentences over 3 lines long bug me, even if I like the story.

Unsurprisingly, I love non-fiction in the sciences and graphic novels as well as literature. And pulp fiction-style romance holds a dear place in my heart- so long as it has a touch of irony.

But my question is- is clear/straightforward writing "bad" writing?

I used the Flesch Writing Index on my last book (a rompy romance I was pretty happy with) and I scored 82.9. To me, being almost as readable as a comic book seems great! But then I saw that a score of 60-70 is generally recommended.

So I should write less clearly. Hm.

I suppose there's a reader for every writer. But I feel a little defensive now. (Not about your post, but about my simplistic writing style.)

Do you feel that writers who focus on story, while using a staight-forward style should consciously try to write more interestingly/less clearly?

Bryce Main said...

When I was a child my mother used to bake the most amazing sponge cakes. Not only were they mouthwatering to look at, but they practically melted in your mouth....and the taste!!! She never measured anything out...never had a baking 'system'. Just went with the flow. But she knew how to put it all together.
In my writing, I often think of her baking skills, and I've learned to go with the flow, also....in storytelling, prose, pace etc., I never measure the ingredients, just settle for what feels right (which may be a 10/10 I admit, but not a conscious one).
The curious thing though......my sponge cakes are crap!!

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