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.