The Telling and the Tale

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?

84 thoughts on “The Telling and the Tale

  1. Totally agree about Alice in Wonderland. I had the same reaction. Thank goodness Johnny was worth the price of admission. Mostly. I’ll take the storytelling. And I asked an editor this same question a couple weeks ago at a conference panel. Would she rather find a writer who had beautiful craft but needed work telling the story, or a storyteller who needed work on her craft.

    She chose the storyteller. Said she could teach craft but teaching someone to tell a good story is much harder.

  2. Storytelling! I made this distinction for the first time on a blog post of Dean Wesley Smith’s. He was talking about the difference between being a writer and an author. I said that I needed to think of myself as a storyteller instead because when I thought of myself as a writer, I got all bogged down in the words needing to be perfect. As a storyteller, I want to get from point A to point B and make sure that the ride is as entertaining as the destination, and if the words aren’t exactly right, that’s okay, maybe they’ll be better next time. If I let myself get trapped into the need for the words to be “beautiful craft” the story never gets told because I’m too much of an editor to ever believe that the words are as good as they could be. Definitely not saying that works for everyone, but I find thinking of myself as a storyteller comforting.

    1. Wow. I think you just helped me with engineering. I’m always looking for ways to convince myself that not every job has to be done to the best of my ability, but rather to the amount of my need – which sounds exactly like your problem. Sometimes I have projects that just need doing. As long as they meet a threshold of goodness, they are going to suit out purposes. But my training is in Elegant Solutions, as is my temperament. Not only must it be solved, but it should be solved in the best of all possible ways, or I feel bad about it, unsatisfied. It can really waste a lot of time to polish up something that works fine without the shine. Maybe if I think of it as storytelling I can let myself do the job that needs doing and save the spit polish of the craft for places where it counts more. That said, I don’t regret painting *behind* the new kitchen cabinets even though they won’t ever be seen.

  3. Oh, Sarah you are a good storyteller. I just finished, A Gift of Ghosts, last week and thoroughly enjoyed it.
    This is an interesting topic because my daughter and I had a similar discussion by phone at the weekend. She’d just devoured the trilogy The Shades of Grey. My argument was I’d heard the writing wasn’t great. She said , “Mom, the story is so fabulous and you get so engrossed in that story that you overlook any oddities.” And then she went on to say some of the odd things were just unfamiliar phrases. She laughed and said her SO had started hiding the books because all she’d do was read. She finished all three books in five days. I had to think about what she said because the writer in me wants to get things “right” but do I sacrifice “right” for story and end up pouring the juice down the drain?

    1. Oh, thank you so much for telling me you liked it. I’m really close to the end of A Gift of Thought now and doing that swing back and forth between “everything I write is horrible” and “oh but this part is really good” so the encouraging words are perfectly timed. (I did have one early reader tell me that my heroine had just made her “Fictional Characters I’d Want Around in the Event of the Zombie Apocalypse” list, so I’m hanging on tight to that thought, too!)

      1. Okay, Roben, you intrigued me. I’m heading to Amazon for “A Gift of Ghosts.” Sarah, I’m looking forward to the read.

  4. I remember liking Alice and not being able to get into Corpse Bride or Nightmare, but then again, I only like one of Woody Allen’s movies, the Jade Scorpion, so maybe my tastes are just different.

    As for Twilight, I read all 4 books. It was one of those stories that you start out of curiosity and are 1/2 way through before you realize it. I.E., a quick read. But I was completely annoyed by Bella’s choices and the last book was a complete story structure cop-out so in the end I was so, SO annoyed. Still am. And I wouldn’t really call the writing great. For the age group, YA, it had none of the substance of JK Rowling or Meg Cabot.

    As for Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code was fascinating because it looked at something familiar in a way that it hadn’t been looked at before (come to think of it, same thing with Twilight). But I felt that Angels and Demons was better because it was not only a great story line, but also really great writing (see the Camerlingos speech). I do think I’m definetly a plot girl though because I can’t stand horror movies where everyone is running around screaming and being chased by something so unreal it becomes comical and I hate action flicks where it’s all explosion and martial arts and the plot is an afterthought.

    1. Actually, I enjoyed The Davinci Code too. I read it before it became really popular, and before the controversy hit the media. I wanted an escapist read because I had a bit of down time, and I got it. Part of the plus, for me, was that it was set in Europe, so I recognized places I’d been, and imagined I was at places I hadn’t been, and took a quick mental vacation. I passed the book on to a friend because it wasn’t due back at the library yet, and forgot about it for a few weeks until the controversy hit. It hadn’t bothered me in the least, and I was really very amused by the whole fallout, and subsequent changes on Brown’s website defending the piece. I’d already visited it, and he was much more “theoretical” in tone before the media paid attention.
      I went backward and read Angels and Demons, and remember liking that speech as well.

    2. If you haven’t read it, Dan Brown’s guide to how he writes plot-driven fiction is a) accurate and b) inintentionally hilarious. If only Tim Burton had applied some of this to Alice…

      “Can my plot be summed up in a single sentence?…Do I employ the three C’s? Do my characters exist in the shadow of a ticking clock? Are they constrained by some sort of crucible? Do I make contracts with my reader… and then follow through?”

    3. The DaVinci Code was perfectly enjoyable, and didn’t deserve the bad press it got, IMO. But it was definitely Umberto Eco-lite. “Oh, look, spooky Templars, parading around Europe!” I enjoyed UE more, but UE (or his translator) can be very opaque sometimes. (-: DB was transparent. I always knew what he was trying to say (or I thought I did, anyway).

  5. So, I was with you up until the end where you said I had to CHOOSE. Okay, honestly… I would probably pick the telling. If I HAD to pick one. But when I say that, I don’t mean I’m choosing style over substance, because I think substance can come through in the telling. I mean, if you’re doing it right, isn’t the style designed for the substance, the telling unique to the tale? You mentioned theme, but organically, etc, and I think the telling is a big part of that. Maybe essential. Can you have an underlying importance with only a story and horrible telling? Yes, but I think it loses its effectiveness. So maybe a choice would be impossible. It’s interesting to think about which one we favor but without one or the other, the entire thing would fail.

    /end ramble

    1. I’m with you, Amber – how can one CHOOSE? They have to both be there. The most important ingredient for me is the characters. If I don’t like the characters, especially if I don’t like the MAIN character, it doesn’t matter how good the story is, I don’t want to spend time with the book. The best books for me are ones where I love the characters and I enjoy their world (or, if their world isn’t enjoyable, I at least become completely involved in their world). I like that world to be clearly depicted (which doesn’t have to mean a lot of words), so that I’m THERE when I’m reading. With that kind of book, whenever I’m away from the book, I’m thinking about the characters and eager to get back to their world. (That’s what happens for me in the books we were discussing a few posts ago – authors like Heyer, Jones, Crusie, Pope, who just carry me right into their books.) So you’re probably thinking I should shut up and just pick writing. But that doesn’t work either. Those characters can only carry me so long and then if nothing real is happening, I get bored. Sometimes, in a mystery or somewhat scary adventure, the action gets started and I do think, “Oh, wait. I don’t want to be on the edge of my seat yet; let me enjoy these characters a little longer.” But a book that is all characters and setting and lovely writing, with nothing happening to and with those characters, doesn’t hold my attention either. It used to be harder for me to find good books, so I’d go ahead and finish books I found somewhat weak. Blessedly, nowadays I find so many more that I like. I guess if I HAD to choose – gun to my head – I’d go with writing, by which I mean characterization, setting, banter, VOICE – but truly, although you can’t always have great, if a book doesn’t have both at-least-good writing and storytelling, I usually don’t finish it.
      P.S. Sorry about all the capitals. I can’t figure out how to get underlining or italics to work in my comments (though I see others have managed it), so I’m left with capital letters.

      1. To turn on italics, before the word or phrase you want to emphasize, type the following without the spaces

        To turn them off (after the word or phrase), type

      2. Well, that didn’t work. Let me try again. The code uses the greater and less than signs around a lowercase i
        So, to turn it on it would be (greater than symbol)
        To toggle it off, you add a slash / before the letter, and use the less than and greater than signs to bracket the letter again.

      3. Italics on: left-pointing carrot i right-pointing carrot
        Italics off: left-pointing carrot /i right-pointing carrot

        1. Testing, testing. I’m hoping the next line will be italicized, but either way:
          Thank you, Julie B.

  6. For me it is characters making the story – if I don’t like the people in the book, I don’t care that much about the story, beautifully told or not. They don’t have to be cuddly or gorgeous, but they do need charisma and agency. Once you’ve got great characters who do stuff, the story comes, and I also think journey meh, the best books combine super-zoom resolution with great story-telling emerging from characters who have lives.

  7. Very succinct chat. Haven’t seen the new Dark Shadows yet but heard about the review. What I thought was interesting when I saw the trailer was how Burton’s take on the story differed from all the other versions which basically retell the same story of Barnabas–the old TV show, the movie immediately after it, and the miniseries in the early 90s I think it was. But the key is, I thought Burton was still going to tell a story. And hopefully he does.

    I agree that story is integral, but I think there also has to be a reason it matters to the characters. Otherwise, I lose interest. Ideally, I want three things: story, character, and journey. But I’m greedy like that.

  8. Further thought: While a great story can carry not-great writing, poor writing is so annoying that it pulls me right out of the story, no matter how exciting it may be. I find a gripping story loses its grip if the writing is poor. Gotta have both. (Get that gun away from my head!)

    1. Totally agree. I checked out a book last night that might have an interesting story, but the writing is so bland that I’m not even interested in trying to find it. It’s going back to the library tonight.

  9. Hrm… great writing with no story is like artificially sweetened, processed food. It looks pretty but there’s nothing in there. I’ll accept that in a movie that I go into expecting over-the-top entertainment, if the movie delivers on the visuals. I’ll even accept that in a book on a line by line basis, as I admire the craft or turn of phrase. But I won’t be satisfied that I’ve just experienced something that could be retold around a campfire.

    Great storytelling is like food that’s homemade from scratch, full of butter and sugar and salt and spices. Utterly satisfying, no matter how much it slips around on the plate or might have been investigated by the dog before it was served. I might take a while to get into a book if the writing is crap, no matter how engaging the story, and I’ll whinge the whole time I’m reading it about how badly it was written/edited, but I’ll enjoy it overall if the author takes me someplace interesting. However, chances are I’ll never buy another of that writer’s books. A movie with great storytelling but lots of holes around the writing? No problem. I’ll pop popcorn and suspend as much disbelief as I’m able.

    So I choose both. Homemade food on fine china. Now I’m hungry.

  10. OK. I forgot what I was going to say for a moment after the italics debacle, but I think I remembered.
    I now understand why I’ve never finished Alice In Wonderland (Burton version) before. My kids enjoyed it, and I’d always wander off before the end. I really _expected_ to like it, because Tim Burton! Johnny Depp! Anne Hathaway! But it wasn’t enough story to compel me to the end.
    Contrast that with The Story of an Hour. Every time I teach that, I’m impressed with how much Chopin packs into those two pages. My students’ reactions vary from ‘Woah! Didn’t see that coming,’ to “huh?” When we start analyzing, on the surface they often have a problem coming up with the conflict, but by the time we’re done, they’ve seen it build throughout with contrasting sentences and beats and turning points through the story. It’s a gem, but part of it’s brilliance is it’s adherence to the idea of the unities for dramatic structure. It could not survive as The Story of a Day.
    I know you asked us to take a side, and I’m getting there.
    I believe that every story has to have enough craft to get the story out there somewhere. As I’ve said, I read the DaVinci Code and I wasn’t annoyed by any aspect of it. I expected a thriller to have cliff-hanger chapters, and I don’t think that’s playing unfairly at all. It escalated the pace for the reader, and it makes sense to me. I picked up the book wanting a fast read, and I got what I wanted: a book I could read in less that 3 days. I don’t really remember any of the other criticisms for the book beside that one point.
    So, I think everyone who can tell a story has to have enough craft sense to be able to make the story work. I have little patience for naval gazing works, and although my vote probably won’t be counted, I suspect that in the long view, most of those works will drop out of favor eventually. The world will be left with the stories that blend both story and craft, because that’s what will always resonate with people.

  11. *HATED* Alice in Wonderland, but love Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. (But I thought the fault lay in Alice in Wonderland–isn’t it kinda a crack house story anyway?) I loved when Johnny & Tim did SLEEPY HOLLOW–that had story and style. 🙂

    The life-and-death fiction (the STORY) stuff can lean too heavily on boy-glamor, where something is blown up or the sidekick dies and the heroine is a bimbo; but girl-glamor can rely too heavily on introspection, relationships, and emotions, which can Hamlet-hamstring a perfectly good life-and-death story. If I tend to prefer “girl-glamor” in my writing, how do I strengthen life-and-death aspect I need? How do I keep it from being smothered to death by her relationship with her mother…or whathaveyou?

  12. If the consensus is more or less storyteller, could you possibly do a next blog post about what makes a storyteller? It can’t be as simple as following beats so I would really like to get your guys opinion on this. Another great post! Thanks

    1. I can talk about it, but honestly, I wasn’t looking for consensus. I don’t think there’s a right answer because readers are so different,

      1. sorry, perhaps consensus wasn’t the right word then…we love these craft posts! and congrats re: latest refab post, way to go!

        1. There’s an excellent Letter of Note from John Steinbeck to his old writing professor — her views on what make a good story/storyteller seem really pertinent.

          “If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced that there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes but by no means always find the way to do it.” — Steinbeck writes.

  13. Definitely story telling. We’ve been watching Whitechapel, a UK TV series about serial killers, not my thing, and the last one disturbed my sleep. I told DH and he said yes, but the characters are great. Their idiosyncratic ways woven delicately throughout the plot. I thought about that for moment and he was right. The ghastly things happening, weren’t as significant to him as the characters. Without them the story telling would’ve been ghastly

  14. I’d have to agree – storytelling. If I start to think of myself as an “Author”, I freeze up. I much prefer to be a storyteller, telling people’s individual stories.

  15. Plot can carry me through a story — but only on the surface. There are times I’ll pick up a romance from the library and the writing is so thin and the characters so stereotypical that I’ll start major skimming. I do want to know how it ends but that is only a momentary enchantment. If something interrupted me and broke the very tenuous hold the plot had on me, I wouldn’t bother to go back later.

    But rich storytelling, with characters that have depth, will get me. Is it possible to get that without much plot? I don’t know. I love Michael Ondaatje’s writing, for instance, and the English Patient is one of my absolute favorite novels. There is plot there but the writing is so beautiful, the plot almost disappears. And for some readers (I’m thinking students because I’ve taught this book), the plot is invisible and they are annoyed. So when I’ve taught that book, some students hate it and others will tell me, with stars in their eyes, that it’s the best book they’ve ever read and they LOVE it.

    I think for me as a reader, plot will carry me through a book but it is style that makes me love it and makes me love an author. I don’t know that Heyer’s plots are all that much better than anyone else’s but her style has kept me entertained for four decades: if by style I get to mean her wit, her dialogue, the way the dialogue shows me how her characters fall in love. And then there’s the world building, the cant, the clothes, the manners . . .

    Okay. Yes, I want a plot. The best books for me have both but I do think it is style that makes books live for me. I love Sherry Thomas — for instance the way she used the Capri motif in His at Night. That was just beautiful and if the writing wasn’t so beautiful, the final scene using it wouldn’t have moved me nearly as much.

    In Cruise, is the humor style or plot? The books make me laugh and feel good about humanity in general and that comes from something more than the plot. It’s the way the plot is presented and the dialogue. Is that style?

    I think. If I’m getting plot right. Which I may not be. But I think I’m saying that if style is the texture that enriches character and fills out a world and gives me moments where the characters become sublime, I just may prefer style to plot. But then I don’t think of that as style over substance. For me the style is substance.

    1. In my books, humor is part of the character, I think.
      But you bring up a good point in mentioning style. Because style isn’t necessarily good writing and it’s definitely not storytelling. I’d argue “style” is what the NYT reviewer is talking about in terms of Burton.

  16. Thank you for your lively and informative posts. I read The Da Vinci Code and books one and two of the Twilight series. They’re not well written – at times I could have wrung Dan Brown’s and Stephenie Meyer’s necks – but the stories are crackers (though Twilight could be edited into one book) but I’m not saying anything that hasn’t already been said. Sigh. Back to life.

  17. I need the story. The clearest examples that come to mind are in YA. There’s a trilogy I read in…I think middle school, possibly earlier. The writing, and especially the dialogue, wasn’t exactly sparkling, but the story she was telling, her concept and the situations, the way the plot moved, worked for me. And then there’s Armstrong’s Darkest Powers trilogy, which has both, and is excellent. Conversely, I read the first book of Kelley Armstrong’s second YA trilogy last year, and it did not work for me at all. Her writing, her characters, her dialogue were all as great as usual (I love her, and read all her stuff), but the entire book was basically set up – there was no real goal, I couldn’t find an antagonist that the main character was actually aware of, and it was slow as result. The second book came out a couple months ago and was way better – she had a story this time around.

  18. Great storytelling, I think. I think DaVinci Code is awful writing, but I still read it every couple years because it’s a great story. Whereas there are plenty of books where the writing was fairly good and I didn’t even finish them because the story was so not-there that I got bored and wandered off. Of course, there are also a depressing number of books (classic and modern) that are popular which I think have neither element, so maybe there are more than just those two elements. Or maybe I’m just picky.

  19. The longer I write (= the more I learn about the craft), the more emphasis I put on storytelling when I read other peoples’ stories. I find that I can hardly enjoy a plot if it’s not written well. I keep thinking of ways to improve the flaws I detect which draws me away from the story. On the other hand, I can bear with a story I don’t like so much if the writing style is pleasant. Although I might not want to read more by that author.

    1. I find myself really frustrated by good writers who don’t tell stories. I mean, it’s right there in front of them. They have the hard part, the great language, terrific style, and then to not bother learning craft . . . But if somebody has clunky prose but tells an amazing story, he’s got me.

      1. Sometimes I wish they would just ask somebody to suggest where they need some plot and just insert it in a perfunctory fashion. Even done badly, a smattering in the right place is enough to get me through to the end. But some writers seem to have a disdain for it – like its beneath them to pander to us.

  20. The story is most important to me. It’s a bonus when the writing is so wonderful, it makes me want to weep and give up ever trying to write again. If I read something beautiful that makes no sense plot-wise, I end up feeling cheated. I’ll forgive less than sterling writing if the plot sings to me.

    That said, Twilight still leaves me cold in both arenas.

    1. I liked the initial setting of Twilight – the school, the new angle on vampires, the general gothicness. Then it went all Mary-Sue and uninspired. The plot still interests me, but there is too little to get me through a whole book of that size.

  21. Beautiful writing without a real story is like having a stunningly crafted window leaning against a wall in a windowless room; you might admire the craft of it, but it’s failed to serve its real purpose, to open up the wall and illuminate.

    1. THAT’S it. Beautiful writing all by itself can’t communicate, it just sits there looking beautiful. It doesn’t fulfill its function which is to reach the reader and have an impact.

      1. Did you ever read that novel “Atemschaukel” (no idea what the English title is) for which Herta Müller received the Nobel prize? The story is sparse: a young man from the German minority in Romania serves 3 years of hard labor in a Russian prison camp during WW II. I’ve heard stories about that from my grandmother (British POW camp), my father (lost two teeth as prisoner in an American POW camp when he was nineteen) and all the old men in my church who were sent to Siberia. But when Müller tells it, it’s just stunning. The most beautiful prose I’ve read in a long time. She sure deserved the Nobel for that.

        That’s what I mean. I’m not talking about bad stories.

  22. So does it equate that good story telling without good writing is a hole in the wall with no frame and no glass? The view is there but sometimes the weather coming in the hole is so distracting that you forget that there’s a beautiful tale unfolding.

    I pick storytelling. The writing has to be pretty bad to kick me out of a story. But if I don’t care about the characters then forget it. I don’t have time to waste on characters with no appeal.

  23. Children say, “Tell me a story.” Not, “Do that thing where you put all those words together that sound smart.”

    1. Very wise. Maybe that is why some author’s books I can only listen to on CD. The story is good, but the writing is weak and hearing it out loud allows me to ignore the bad writing.

    2. LOL, I’m going to disagree. “Riddle me, riddle me, riddle me, ree. A little man, stuck up in a tree.” “‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” Scatman Jones. You remind me that kids (and adults) can absolutely LOVE style without substance. Anyone lived in a pretty how town . . . . Just not usually extended segments of it (-:.

  24. I’m going to go against the flow here and say that, for me, it’s all about the writing. If the quality of the writing isn’t there, you can have the best plot/story/characters in the world and it will fall a bit flat. Given the choice, I’d take Dorothy L Sayers over Agatha Christie any day – Aggie does great stories, but the quality of the writing is so much less. Also, you can have depth of character and meaning without a strong storyline, or with a story that you can’t quite understand or is just out of reach.

    If you’re going into the realms of great writing, the stuff that really holds up to fire and time, then it’s entirely possible to have a great book that you don’t fully (or even partly) understand. The example for me would be one of my favourite novels of all time: Brideshead Revisited. My husband gave me a copy when we were first dating, and (counts on fingers) over 15 years later we are still arguing about who the characters are and what the book means. I don’t know who Anthony Blanche is, or his exact function in the story, but when he describes himself leaping into a cab and saying ‘Take me to see Charles’ disgusting pictures’, I am there. It’s that click between writer and reader, when reading becomes creating and when you catch a glimpse of something even if you can’t describe it – that, for me, is a great book. And it’s all about the words on the page.

  25. My writing buddy and I have been talking about this a lot recently – the idea that writing (words) is only one part of what a writer does, only one component of a good story. Creating narrative, and really storytelling is another skill altogether.

    1. It’s one of the problems I’m having with Liz. I keep looking at it and thinking, “There’s no zazz there.” But I have craft and plot. Bleah.

      1. I was really taken by Joss Whedon saying in the Angel extras, “Every time I write each character into a scene I think about what makes that character amazing to me.” (That is horribly paraphrased!) It really struck a chord, because I can get so caught up in the ensemble that I forget to make everyone kick-ass (or obnoxious, or whatever) in their own right. My go-to quick fix for zazz is: vulnerability and contradiction. (I particularly love contradiction – it’s such great short-hand for complexity! LOL)

  26. What would be an example of good craft with poor storytelling? I can think of good stories I have read that were poorly written, but can’t think of any poor stories that were well written. Would you give some examples?

    1. They’re hard to find because they tend to sink. Any book you’ve read and thought, “Well, I never need to read that again,” was probably well-crafted with a predictable story.

      1. Storytelling it is then, which explains why I love early science fiction with its wonderfully speculative story lines.

    2. I’ll probably be crucified for this, but I think I might put Margaret Atwood into this catagory. Her stories never seem to go anywhere, yet there must be some good writing in there for her to be as lastingly popular as she is. If you stick with one of her books long enough, you get a strong sense of the characters in the scene and eventually the story comes out in drips and drabs, but on the other hand, there was never really a story to begin with. More like an event she is retelling. It’s like that friend or relative that keeps rabit-trailing in the conversation, and you keep listening because you think, she’ll make a point eventually, and an hour later, the point is still missing, but you haven’t lost your temper and screamed at her to get to the point because you kind of enjoy listening to her talk.

  27. Eckhart Tolle has given me some food for thought about story. I’ve always been firmly in the camp that there is a certain woo-woo factor about story (Chris Vogler mentions something like this in his talk on a DVD with Michael Hauge). It’s uncanny how stories, when distilled, reflect universal principles. IMO, story also elevates the individual in the context of the universal; story provides connection between things that at first seem disparate. Story reveals and affirms our humanity.

    But Eckhart Tolle jarred me a little the other day when I put on an old CD of his. He said stories trap us. I didn’t like hearing that. Of course, he was talking about psychological stories we tell ourselves over and over to avoid being who we really are. But it made me uncomfortable because my whole passion for story has been focused on reveling in that “Wow! Look how we are all essentially alike, even though we’re different!” aspect of storytelling. I’ve never seen any negatives to story. I’ve always seen story as freedom–not entrapment.

    At any rate, I wondered if y’all at SOTR have any opinion on what Eckhart Tolle said. Or is it completely irrelevant because he might be using the word story differently from the way writers do? Or is that possible? Isn’t story story no matter what? Is there anything negative attached to story–other than the glaring fact that some are poorly told?

    1. I’m slow today so I don’t know what SOTR is, but I think good stories do trap us and keep us. You can’t put the book down, and years later, the story still has a hold. But that’s not what ET meant; I think his was bad and this interpretation is good.

      I’m really fascinated by the idea that the stories we tell ourselves trap us, though. I think it’s true, and I think it’s what’s happening right now in a more public way in this country. Whose narrative do you buy about this country? Because that will determine who you vote for. I think that’s always been true, but I don’t remember an election where the division was so clear or where the two narratives seemed to be dealing from two different realities. Somebody needs to take control of the American Story and get us all on the same page again, or at least in the same damn book.

      1. agreed! This is part of why discovering romance for the first time is such a rush – you’re entering into a new narrative that describes the world to you in a new way. (It’s also why we have to keep pushing the boundaries of romance, because otherwise we do become defined by one narrative. A friend and I were talking about this today – the way genre fandom is like chasing a rush. When I think about the first m/m kiss I ever read, I remember the rush, the hotness of it. Now I read m/m and go, meh.)

  28. What AnneL said, I think.

    When I look at my preferences, they are for better writing over dreadful writing with more or less equal plots, viz; Sayers over Christie, Diana Wynne Jones over J.K. Rowling. Plots are interesting, characters are interesting, but only while they are going somewhere at speed and things are interesting and tense. If I can put down the book, the author is toast. If I can’t cope with the characters but I’m feeling tense about the plot, I’ll skip to see if what I think happens does happen, and then I can put it down.

  29. I think I might have figured it out–maybe Eckhart Tolle meant BAD stories trap us. A good story can’t do that, IMO. They reflect some kind of truth, which is always freeing.

    1. I’m guessing he means the stories we tell ourselves or the ones that have been ingrained in us from childhood. “You’re the bad seed.” If you hear that enough you start to believe it. And then you act it out. You limit yourself in that story. To acting like that person you’ve been told you are. It can also happen when writing our books. We have it in our heads that THIS happens, but maybe THIS isn’t working. Too much commitment to the story in our head can get in the way of the story we need to tell.

      IRL, forget the story. Forget what others told you or what you’ve told yourself. Let the story unfold how it will and don’t be boxed in by some pre-set narrative.

      That’s my guess anyway. 🙂

  30. I land on the side of good story telling. I worked with college freshman who had received B’s on high school papers couldn’t figure out why they were in a remedial English class in college. We did tutoring for these students. I had one girl who had horrible grammar, punctuation and spelling abilities, but knew how to make a statement and support it with stories and examples. As we were working one day, I showed her physically what happened each time I ran into a misspelled word. I stopped at each correction I had to make. Then I told her that she had the hard part down – she knew how to state and idea and support it. I loved working with her. Teaching someone how to state and idea and support it is much harder than teaching grammar. The good storyteller – understood my point and enrolled in some basic grammar courses.

  31. I have this personal theory. Nora is a great Irish storyteller who writes a great story. Jenny is a great writer who tells a great story. So, for me it is all about the story. If I had to choose.

    1. Huh. That’s a very interesting take on it. And I think you’re right (she said with no modesty whatsoever).

  32. Hm. If I had to pick I think I’d say storytelling, but I do have a threshold for craft – if something is too clunky I will abandon it (unless it’s TRULY gripping, which is why I finished The Da Vinci Code in one sitting while muttering “this is ridiculously terrible BUT I CAN’T PUT IT DOWN”).

    But yes. I think I have higher story requirements than craft requirements. Not that I can’t appreciate beautiful prose when it presents itself, but I don’t DEMAND it.

  33. Sort of appropriate to this discussion and not to be taken at all seriously, here’s Groupon’s take on what it takes to write a book: Sorry, I’ve forgotten the tags to make that a clickable link.

    I’m totally with Krissie, here:
    “It’s the way to live your life, to write your books, concentrating on the journey and taking joy in it.”

  34. I thought I had nothing to add to this discussion but then I remembered a book. I can’t even tell you the name of it but it was gripping. A lady in her 90’s wrote it and it was her life story. She was almost illiterate. Mispelled words, bad grammar, a million things that should have pulled me out of the story but didn’t. Why? Because she had lived a fascinating, mesmerizing life. Grandad was a moonshiner. Dad and husband were bootleggers. They, along with their community, were relocated when the damn was built. It was a compelling page turner that I never would have gotten beyond page one if the story hadn’t been that good from the beginning.
    And here is something sweet. It was being sold at the gift shop at the LBL visitors center and when you bought the book, you got a free doily that she had crocheted.
    Is that not precious.
    So, story before craft for me.

  35. The more I read the NYT quote about Burton, the more I get it; Burton doesn’t privilege the story, he privileges his style. I would say Meyer (who I’ve read) privileges plot. JK Rowling in her first book (I stopped reading the Potter books after the 1st because it was too glaringly derivative from better written books) privileges plot. Dan Brown who I haven’t read but from the discussion seems to privilege plot too. And I think they are widely popular because they do privilege plot. Plot when it’s privileged beyond all else is the easiest craft element to understand.

    To me good storytelling is when I forget about the craft the author has employed or lack of it when I read, listen or view it. I want to be in the author’s world and yet I want to be able to take ownership as a reader, listener, or viewer, but that goes back to my strong belief in the rhetorical triangle.

  36. Late to the party, but I think I’ll have to go with great stories, rather than great story-telling. We don’t tend to memorize long passages or even short quotes from authors so much anymore, so storytelling is really something for the Now. You read it, and it feels good (or not), and then it’s gone. A great story will stick with you forever, and a great reader will fill in the blanks and correct the grammar in her memory.

    However, of course, it is a bit like saying: I’ve got ice cream cones: what do you want, ice cream? Or cones? I have read a few books that were perfectly hideous to slog through, but three days later, I had a warm glow about the story. And I’ve read deliciously written books that were gone (completely gone) three days later, because there was nothing left to hold onto. The best books are easy to read, and have stories that have a certain permanence and value to them.

  37. Just picking this up–have seen Dark Shadows, and while it may be anomalous Burton, it does have a plot, in the sense that a lot of summer action movies have a plot–writ large, and with very sketchy characterizations. The only true character in the movie is Barnabas Collins, everyone else, including the antagonist, the witch, who is the second most interesting character, is both sketchy and cliched in some way. That is mitigated by the cleverness of the jokes and the juiciness of Johnny Depp’s presence and portrayal, and to an extent by the look of the movie and the world-making that the director and set decorators do. But it’s not really satisfying. I had no real emotional investment in the outcome, other than my identification with the Barnabas character. My conclusion is that plot without real character development leaves you with books or movies that are just as unsatisfying as books or movies with no plot at all. Hence the Dan Brown issue, maybe (haven’t read it). Don’t get me started on Jarmulsch…

  38. Melanie, go and see Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The acting is so real it seems like non-acting. Everyone stays true to character where the foreshadowing is perfection and a raised eyebrow, or the opening of a book, speaks volumes. Amazing cast. Excellent, vibrant location, full of color and passion. And even though there is no depth to the story the characters bring it to life and the ending is so feel good you leave the theater with a huge smile on your face. The audience applauded. I’m going back.

    1. Thanks for the tip, Robena. I’ve been intrigued by the ads on TV, but some of the reviews made it sound lame (I know, you can’t trust them!), so I’m happy to know it’s a winner. I need something good, and I love the actors.

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