[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know
by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post
for the rules of this discussion.]
With this rule, Masello discusses the need to create a "narrative structure with a sense of momentum," as he puts it. It's not enough to write a piece of fiction with beautiful prose. If the scene you describe is static, or if nothing changes with your characters, then you're not quite telling a story.
I thought I'd use this rule as a springboard for a discussion of the question of style vs. story. It's a topic that interests me for one particular reason, and that's because I tend to try for a simple, unadorned style in my prose, rather than an ornate one.
When I sit down to write a story, I aim for my prose to be as clear as possible. I want my readers to know exactly what's going on. It's advice I've heard often, and it's advice I've given often. Clarity is important in writing, because if your readers can't follow your book, then they'll put it down and read something else.
And yet, we find that there are many writers out there who produce dense, image-filled prose. These writers don't suffer from lack of publication, and in fact, many of these stories win awards and are praised as the pinnacles of fiction.
So what's the secret? My feeling is that you can get away with ornateness of style if it's correct for the story. And whether or not it's correct for the story is in many ways a judgment call. A classic fantasy novel can support an ornate style far better than a contemporary thriller. It's just the nature of the beast, because different works trigger different expectations in one's readers.
I think there's also a personal stake in this as well. Beginning writers tend to find that they have certain natural tendencies. Some writers gravitate to longer works, for example, and some to shorter works. Some writers prefer writing within a specific genre, and some writers prefer to write outside all genres or to jump from one to another.
And some writers are naturally ornate, while others are naturally unadorned. Personally, I've always felt that I fell into the second category. When I write, I want my prose to be clear, and I find that I have to really work at it to achieve a more ornate style in my prose. But most of the stories I write aren't intended for an ornate style. Instead, I aim for, as Masello puts it, a narrative structure with a sense of momentum, a story that is going somewhere, as opposed to staying still. If I can't dazzle with my prose, I'll do my best to dazzle with everything else that goes into a story.
And that's the word.