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Robert's Rules of Writing #40: Cook Up a Story

[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.

Comments

Speaking as an "invisible stylist," I sometimes envy folks who have a more ornate gift. Vera Nazarian writes beautiful, mythic stories that have a rich flavor all their own, while still telling nifty stories. The story I just bought from Eugie Foster brings some beautiful imagery to it. Both of these writers do things with description and word choice that I'd love to learn.

At the same time, I can't stand stories where style trumps all. Where the story becomes a vehicle for "Look what I can do with language" and there's no actual story. I know there are markets for stories like this. I know there are readers who love it. I just know I'm not one of them. And my guess (totally unsupported by any research) is that most readers would rather get a good story with simple language than nifty word tricks with no stories.
As a reader, I'm all about the plot, the characters, and the world, generally in that order (though sometimes the first two swap). If I can't easily get to those, I don't care how beautifully crafted the story is. (For calibration, I generally do not read poetry -- as opposed to stories in poetic form, like Shakespeare and Homer -- at all. Too much work for too little gain.)

I can appreciate a beautifully-crafted text, but it generally has to be either in a genre or from an author that I'm already very familiar with (and like). It's like any other area of creative endeavor: once everyone's on board with the foundation you can mess around some with the details of presentation, but you don't do it right out of the gate. You wouldn't take someone who's never heard music to an Italian opera; you'd start with accessible music. So, too, with reading. And note that this is about the consumer, not the producer; if you don't care about being accessible you can go straight for the fancy stuff, but you should do it knowing that you're cutting yourself off from a potential audience. That might be fine, depending on who you are and what you're doing, but most publishers care about the mass market, so it probably won't be ok with them.
There are some writers who fill their works with clear images that add a lot to the reader's appreciation. Then there are writers who seem to do that; but when you look more closely, you realize they've just thrown ornate text around without conveying any clear perception. Among SF writers, Poul Anderson does a wonderful job of conveying imagery without wasting words. I won't try to give an example of an author who does the opposite, since I don't usually give such authors repeated readings.
I find myself adding more description to my writing, mostly in response to critiques that complain of my bare-bones styling. "I couldn't picture the characters." But it doesn't make any difference to the *story* if one of the girls is taller than the other, or if one has blue skin (well, that might), or blonde hair, or is bald. The story is what they do, and how they change, not how they look.
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