Krissie and I were talking about writing the other day (well, e-mailing about writing), and I’m still thinking about what we were talking about. So I thought you all should be part of this conversation. Excerpts from the e-mails below:
Krissie: There was basically a rave review of Dark Shadows in the NYT today, and there was a fascinating line. In the midst of all the praise, it said that Burton had never been big on narrative, he was more interested in the telling, not the tale.
I found that a fascinating concept. What do you guys think?
Jenny: Isn’t “telling” what narrative is? Narrating? Are they saying he’s more style than substance?
Krissie: He’s saying the journey, not the destination, I think. Which I think is extremely interesting in terms of narrative. It’s the way to live your life, to write your books, concentrating on the journey and taking joy in it.
It just fascinated me that such a notion could be applied to fiction. The narrative lines in some Japanese movies are like nothing Joseph Campbell ever thought of.
Read the review. Makes the movie sound divine. If you can’t get it, I’ll see if I can cut and paste.
Jenny: I think that’s the reason his Alice in Wonderland failed for me. Gorgeous, gorgeous movie but no there there. It was all about the show and not the story.
But there are other things I think he’s done that are fabulous. Beetlejuice had a great narrative. The Corpse Bride was very tightly told. Nightmare Before Christmas.
I don’t trust the NYT critics. I think they’re all about show and not substance.
Krissie: Here it is. As for the NYT, it depends on the reviewer. This sounds like someone who understands Tim Burton. It’s a very thought-provoking review.
Jenny: Huh. Seems a long winded way of saying, “He was an art major, not a drama major.”
Krissie I was thinking more about the telling and not the tale. In a way, that’s what romance writing and my writing (and most genre writing) is. We know where the story is going to go, that the hero and heroine will meet, have conflicts, resolve them and live HEA. It’s the telling of the story that makes the difference.
I don’t know why I was so struck by that.
Jenny: I think you’re right about romance writing and the telling not the tale. I think what I object to (if I’m interpreting that right) is that this is what literary fiction uses too often to excuse the fact that there’s no damn plot and nothing happens, and it’s also what’s at the basis of so much bad romance fiction. But then to me, fiction is storytelling and that’s an almost sacred calling. Telling the tale beautifully is important, but if there’s no solid, lasting tale in there, it’s the emperor’s new clothes.
Krissie: I agree with that, completely. But I’ve read a number of romances with nothing new in them, but the characters are so delightful and the writing so charming that I’ve loved the books. And when you said storytelling I was again thinking it was the telling. Not the punch line.
Jenny: I agree, not the punch line. But I think sometimes people coast on delightful characters and how much fun the romance is, and forget that there has to be something underneath there. Not theme, that just gets in the way, it has to emerge organically, but solid story, somebody in trouble fighting back. I think the great stories of the world all have that, I think great storytellers always know that. I think that’s why people who aren’t particularly good at beautiful writing are more popular than the people who really can write. Stuff like Bridges of Madison County, or The DaVinci Code or Twilight (although I haven’t read either of the last two so they might be really good writing, I’m just going on what other people have said), I think that stuff hits big and sells like crazy because there’s story in there. I don’t know much about Bella from Twilight, but I know there’s a story there.
The best of all possible worlds is beautiful writing AND story, but I think if you can only do one, it’s story. I was ANNOYED by Alice in Wonderland. It was visually enthralling, but I didn’t give a damn about it because the visuals overwhelmed the nightmare it should have been. Everything was so stylized that the story went.
So taking as a given that the best stories are both great writing and great storytelling, if you can only choose one, which do you go with?