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Good Stories And Good Writing

Several years ago, through a discussion at the writers’ forum, Faith in Fiction, I concluded that “story trumps all.” By that, I meant, readers care more about a good story than they do about a beautiful setting, intriguing characters, insightful […]

Several years ago, through a discussion at the writers’ forum, Faith in Fiction, I concluded that “story trumps all.” By that, I meant, readers care more about a good story than they do about a beautiful setting, intriguing characters, insightful truth, or picturesque language—at least when it comes to fiction.

I stand by that statement, but I have also come to believe that a beautiful setting, intriguing characters, insightful truth, and picturesque language make the story better, even draw more readers to the story.

Why, if story trumps all?

Without doing any research on the subject, just thinking through what makes sense to me, I’d say it is because we readers don’t all like the same kind of story.

Some readers actually do like intriguing characters far more than an exciting, fast-paced plot. But what if a book delivers both? Some readers do love picturesque language, or are touched by an insightful truth, or are transported to another place by a well-crafted setting. And if a book delivers all of that, and a gripping story? Why, then, wouldn’t the readership grow?

Some years ago or so, I read one of the most imaginative fantasies I’ve seen, and yes, it was a Christian fantasy. However, the weakness in craft nearly obliterated the story. At times it was so confusing, I was unclear what was happening. At other times, the clumsy writing was so hard to digest, I had to put the book down for long periods.

Obviously, that was an extreme example, but recently I read several reviews that praised a particular story while criticizing the vehicle—the writing.

I’ve read more books like that than I care to mention.

Editors I’ve heard at writers’ conferences seem to agree. Some latch onto a particular writing instruction book (I’m guessing most writers know exactly which book I’m thinking of) as if it is a writing bible. Others excoriate the use of any writing book in favor of reading and studying good literature.

Regardless, it seems that books with poorly constructed sentences, characters with flawed motivations, inexplicable plot twists, weak or transparent themes, repetition and redundancy, cliches, and a host of other craft problems, still find their way into print. And readers buy them, even give them good reviews, because the stories are creative, entertaining, unpredictable.

Are readers too easily pleased? Does good writing not matter? Or is there really a sizable audience we are missing because we writers are content making good stories without attention to the basics of how the story is told?

Are we too content to write books that sell well for three months, without any thought of creating a book that readers will talk about for years? Are we satisfied with novels that readers like rather than working to craft ones they might love?

Much of this article is a re-post of “Does Good Writing Not Matter?” from A Christian Worldview of Fiction July 12, 2007.

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

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Krisi Keley
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Hi Rebecca,
Great article – thank you! I find myself wondering the same thing a lot lately. It is certainly not across the board, of course, but it does seem like there are many more novels out there today where the originality of the story or, at least, how well it satisfies the readers of the genre it falls into, is much more appreciated than the actual quality of the writing – whether that be as regards grammar and sentence structure, plot consistency or lack thereof, character development and/or characters who are believable, etc. I think part of the problem may be the one of having two many narrowly-defined genres, in which case the author feels characters must behave a certain way, the plot has to contain a certain amount and type of action, romance, and so on. Another contributing factor might be that readers today expect books to be more like modern film and TV shows, in which character development is constrained to short action sequences rather than dialogue, spoken or interior. I, myself, prefer a story that makes evident the author is aware of the beauty and power in words, one in which I can relate to the characters, feel like I know them and understand their motivations and am left with more to think about when the story is done, and I try to write according to this preference. I agree with you that no matter how fast-moving the plot or exciting the action, if the story doesn’t touch something deeper insider the reader, it seems like it will soon be forgotten when the next new thing comes along.
Thank you so much again for the article and all the best to you.

Michelle R. Wood
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Sidedishes without a good main course are just takeout food: they lack substance. But a main course without the proper trimmings (or even a beverage to go with it) can be lacking, no matter how good that dish is. Similarly, a pig will always be a pig, no matter how much you groom it, and comb it, and teach it to trot: a horse it shall never be. But a stallion with the greatest bloodlines in the world will not win any races without the proper training.

I wish we could all get away from this idea that good writing, plotting, and characterization are somehow options or opposing forces, as if an author should somehow choose one to the detriment of the other two. If being a good author meant just one out of three, how valuable would reading really be (and how hard would it be to write)? Naturally, some authors excel at one aspect of the craft, but such talent does not excuse one for not doing the work in the other, less “fun” parts. I also have read books where the idea was great, but the execution terrible, and I always wonder if the person needed more guidance from experienced editors or self-disciplene to recognize the inadaquecies of his or her writing. We all need help with that, after all.