Monday, 14 May 2012

Storytelling: Is Knowing Craft Really Necessary?

There are plenty of successful authors of gripping, bestselling novels whose writing, if you look at it in technical terms, is crappy. But having an excellent grasp of grammar does not guarantee a good story, either.

So, does that mean learning the ins and outs of show versus tell and passive versus active writing is a monumental waste of time?

In many cases yes, it is.

By far the biggest problem with the work of aspiring writers isn’t an issue with good writing skills, it’s that the story isn’t very interesting. At heart, there has to be something about the story that captures the reader’s attention, and too often all they have is a pale imitation of something you’ve seen a million times before.

No amount of learning about the correct use of semi-colons is going to help with that.

That’s not to say you can’t have a fresh spin on an old idea, but if there’s no indication of what’s so different about your version until chapter sixteen, you may find nobody is going to wait that long to make a judgement.

Here’s where craft becomes useful.

We tend to focus on the minutiae of the writing process, but there is also whole set of principles concerning the overall story. Theme, premise, genre, intention — these things tend to be left vague and unchallenged. Especially in early drafts, where perhaps you don’t expect a complete story. 

Forcing yourself to consider these things early on can save a lot of time in the long run.

So, while learning the nuts and bolts of craft does have its place and is a useful tool in making a story as effective as possible, it is not the first thing to sort out.

First you need to make sure there’s  a story worth telling about characters worth spending times with.

One of the easiest ways to work that out is to write a book blurb, of the type you find on the back of a book jacket, but only for the start of your story. Forget what happens later, how can you sum up those early chapters in a way that sounds attention grabbing?

Your story doesn’t have to open in the middle of some hugely dramatic moment, but the first act needs to have a point. It has to be going somewhere and the readers has to have a sense of that, even if they don’t know where that is.

Even if you pants the first draft, you can write the blurb based on what you have once you complete that initial draft.

The more vague, generic and bland that blurb is, the more it hints at great things without specifically stating what’s those great things are, the less likely the story is going to hold anyone’s attention.

A girl starts at a new school where things aren’t as they appear...
This is too vague.

A girl starts at a new school where students keep disappearing...
This is better but still too vague.

A girl starts at a new school where students keep disappearing and everyone acts like they never exited...
At this point you have enough information to decide if there’s something worth pursuing here. Just because you have a solid idea of what the story’s about doesn’t mean it’ll be any good. 

Often the reason it’s hard to pin down what the story is about is because the writer doesn’t want to have to make the difficult call that it isn’t good enough. 

But rejecting ideas for not being good enough is just as important as coming up with ideas that are, and making those tough calls is something every writer has to face, even if it means going back to square one.
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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That synopsis can really help. It's also a pain to write!

Ted Cross said...

Readers these days seem to take a specific glee in trying to tie anything you write to some other story and calling you derivative. That other story may not have entered your mind as you wrote, or you may not have even read it, but it doesn't matter to them. It's getting truly hard to come up with something really original without going off the deep end. I think voice is perhaps more important than anything else now.

Kaye Draper said...

Very timely post for me. I am a newbie, and trying to come to grips with the "craft" aspects (ie: show versus tell, etc.) is often overwhelming. I sometimes give myself a reality check by picking up a book by a favorite author and studying it. Non-said dialogue tags: this person did that, tons of telling: also there, typos: check. If the story is compelling and well written, it seems the rest can be overlooked. Especially when you think about the average reader. They aren't going to be looking at all these technical points.
But, when looking for approval from an agent, this is a huge deal. Although even then, there is a lot of subjectivity regarding what "rules" to follow.

*pulls hair out*

Its a learning process. Thanks for the pointers :)

I also agree with Alex: one great piece of advice I got early on was to write out the whole synopsis. Even if it changes later, as your story develops, you have a skeleton to build from. For me it helps to have a snapshot where I can track ups and downs, action and pauses, etc.

LD Masterson said...

I remember having a book rejected by an agent because it was too much like _____. Unfortunately, I had never read or even heard of _____. This didn't seem to make a lot of difference to the agent. I'm sure this is not uncommon.

I like the idea of using a blurb to find the story focus. Before and after writing it.

Anne Gallagher said...

I've recently started doing this as well. If I can get the blurb, I can get the rest. Great post.

E.J. Wesley said...

Moody, why is it every time you speak of aspiring or young writers I feel like you're addressing me individually? lol Seriously, one of the things I'm just now learning to grapple with is " isn’t an issue with good writing skills, it’s that the story isn’t very interesting."

It sounds very simple. My story has giant robots, vampires, etc. Of course it's exciting! Maybe, but that doesn't make it MEANINGFUL. I like to call it the teeth of the story. There's a lot to like, but it simply has no bite to it. Nothing there to get and keep the reader's attention.

I'm finding the key to be in layers. So many times you draft a story and think, "That's a deep and compelling story!" Then your readers begin pointing out the shallow spots. Then you realize the entire thing is a shallow spot. Thing is, there's almost always something shiny in that first run. You find it and polish the heck out of it. Then you find something else, adding layer after layer. Eventually the story will thicken.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

Oh you clever just insulted all the debut authors out there but in a very British way. "STOP WRITING BORING STORIES".

The old man and the sea is an example of this. What a boring story. The writing is worth a pulitzer...but the story...some old man catching a big fish...pass.

This is why movie adaptations of books that have no plot but great writing always suck. Ever try to watch Old Man and the Sea?'s like watching paint dry.

Anonymous said...

I'm still deleting lines when I'm doing the final proofreading. Why? Because they bore me. They didn't bore me the first time, but only by my fifth read-through do I have the level of apathy consistent with an arms-length reader. :-)

mooderino said...

@Alex-incredibly difficult and painful. The one you do for the agent etc isn't what I'm talking about though. You need to have one for yourself that gives you confidence in your story.

@Ted-I think in many cases the complaint is justified. A weaker, wetter version of something is no good to anyone. But look at Hunger Games, hugely derivative, but solid and engaging. The problem comes when the writer relies too much on the source material and fails to add the energy that made it a great read.

@kaye-it's also very easy to blame nitpicking for lack of positive response. If people are focusing on typos and adverbs that means the story must be lacking something. Engrossed readers don't point out said bookisms.

mooderino said...

@LD-agents are of course in a world of their own. There's no way you can second guess what they're looking for from week to week.

@Anne-I think it's a hard thing for most writers, but well worth a go.

@EJ-they key, I think, is to genuinely find the story interesting yourself. Often it's easy to let things slip through in the belief someone else might find it interesting. If you don't, they won't.

@Michael-I hope I'm not insulting anyone (especially Hemingwayesque writers who own shotguns), but it's the hardest thing to tell a writer. That and character driven stories with uninteresting characters. The thing is not to see it as a put down, just an indication of which parts need more work.

@Dalya-trusting your own judgement (even when it means more work) is key to becoming a better writer.

Kylie Frost said...

Great post. Doing the blurb first to see if the story has merit is a great idea. I know what you mean about story telling, Ann Rice has an amazing imagination, but her grammar is horrible. But you're right, readers aren't that picky.

EvalinaMaria said...

I'm learning something new every day... One day I will write that novel. Thank you for the tip.

mooderino said...

@kylie-i'm all for knowing how to write properly, my favourite writers can spin a yarn AND spell, but you have to get your priorities right. First come up with a good idea.

@Evalina-One day soon I hope.

McKenzie McCann said...

I think writing involves a whole lot of luck. Skill plays a part, sure. But if you don't have luck on your side, you'll never make it.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Yes, the first point is the story needs to be interesting, but second, you do need a modicum of craft. Using too many adjectives might be able to be ignored, but if the entire book is written in passive language or telling instead of showing it will be boring, no matter how interesting the story.

It also depends on your audience - YA are more likely to overlook craft issues because of the audience (by which I mean the readers not publishers).

If the storty is good enough I can overlook bad writing, but if it's bad enough I'm less likely to buy the next book by the same author. Readers may not be able to identify in craft terms why one book was more engaging than another, but if they then have to choose between two authors with great stories and one has excellent writing and the other is poor, they'll choose the excellent one, even though they can't articulate why.

Sure, you don't necessarily need to have perfect craft to tell a good story, but when you are competeing against others, it sure does help to have the edge. And there is a LOT of competition these days.

mooderino said...

@McKenzie-I think you need luck to be chosen out of all those who have talent, but you still need the talent.

@Ciara-I'm not suggesting craft isn't important, I'm pointing out that craft is stage two. Stage one is a good story. If you don't have that craft is pointless. And far too many WIPs fail to take care of stage one.

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

Great writing tips. Thanks for sharing them. It makes me want to work harder to put out the best novel I possibly can.

Carmen Esposito said...

Thanks for the advice. I'm a pantser who is trying to outline. I keep leap-frogging from one lily pad to another and I feel like I missed one and now I'm blowing bubbles. I wrote the blurb, it helped for a while but now I'm drifting. I get the ideas but experience difficulties tying them seamlessly together.

Rena J. Traxel said...

An editor said at a recent conference I went to that punctuation is easy to fix, but voice on the hand is not. A story is likely to get rejected if the voice isn't right or if the editor has to work too hard to make it good. She also said that sometimes an editor will take something on just because it's a good idea.

mooderino said...

@Kathi-you're very welcome.

@Carmen-I find it helps to run the outline in my head like a movie. I usually throw out a lot of scenes before I find the ones that work.

@Rena-a really great story is always going to be the best way to get published.

Heather Murphy said...

Good advice! I just nominated you for the Kreativ Award. Stop by my blog to collect. Congratulations

Scribbles From Jenn said...

Great post. I once heard an agent say the average reader gives a book nano seconds before they reject it. Those seconds are usually spent on the book flap. :/

mooderino said...

@Heather-thanks, nice of you to think of me.

@Jenn - and those reader-rejected books were all specially selected by agents as books readers wouldn't reject. Go figure.

Christine Danek said...

I've been trying to do this with my new stuff. It was very helpful. Thanks.

Charmaine Clancy said...

Good advise, a writing course I'm doing now is having us do our blurb first. It does make you work out what's important to make the story work.

I'm ok at playing around with ideas and drama, but am still working on those writing skills like showing etc - if only we could find our other Plato-half out there and work on books in teams of two, one to plot and one to craft. Or I could just work harder :)

Jay Noel said...

The 7-Point story structure is the basis for all great stories, so I think following that will help anyone write a compelling story.

I've read a bunch of books that had incredible and imaginative stories, but they lacked the fundamentals and it made it difficult to read their books. So I think there needs to be balance.

Beverly Diehl said...

Can you have a hit with a crappy book? Sure. However, that's like lightning striking, something totally out of your control. Hoping for a lightning strike or a lottery win is not a strategy.

You are MORE likely to have a hit with an interesting, well-crafted book, and that IS something you can control. I imagine it's more fulfilling, too, to have a breakthrough book after years of hard work, rather than being stuck doing interviews and admitting, yes, you know the writing is weak, as I've heard the author of 50 Shades is doing.

mooderino said...


@Charmaine-I'd like a ghost writer who's actually a ghost. Plato himself maybe.

@jay-it certainly helps to be a good writer and know the basics, but that isn't the most important thing (it's the second most important thing).

@Beverly-I'm not saying you don't need craft, I'm saying if you don't have a good story idea, craft won't help you.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Once again a great post, Mooderino. It is very timely for me for various reasons and has alerted me to many mistakes I tend to make; passive voice is just one of them.

mooderino said...

@Rachna-thanks very much.

cleemckenzie said...

Starting with a really strong statement is essential--IMHO. I always do that first and put it in my header. So often I refer to it. Sometimes it needs tweaking, but mostly it guides me through the book.

I enjoyed reading your post on craft. Very well written/crafted. :-)

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