Monday, 26 November 2012

Knowledge Is Power But Story Is King

Knowledge is power. Or is money power? Maybe power is power. Certainly a gun is power. But if there are two guns and only one has bullets, and you know which, then we’re back to knowledge is power. Unless what you know is that the empty gun is the one in your hand.

The point I’m making is that no rule is universal. Just because something is true in one situation, doesn’t make it true in another. You need to understand the context.


Eight months into the pregnancy she was literally as big as a whale.

The word ‘literally’ has a meaning which in the above case doesn’t make sense. You can’t be literally as big as a whale unless some sort of weird genetic experiment has gone horribly wrong. The above line is therefore incorrect. Only it isn’t. It’s a form of expression called hyperbole.

Unrealistic exaggeration for effect is a completely acceptable way of communicating. And we know this because if you use hyperbole to another person, that person won’t take it literally (even if you use that word).

Our understanding of language goes beyond simple one-size-fits-all rules. We always look for what the person means, rather than what they have technically said. Unless, of course, we’re in an argument and losing.

As writers, it’s comforting to have basic guidelines to help us shape the mess of ideas in our heads, but you can’t cling to them through thick and thin. You can’t rely on what’s been decided as true in general will also be true in your specific case. But neither can you ignore all standards and practices and rely on the reader guessing at your intentions.

The important things is to communicate what you mean. To do that you must know what you mean. And what you mean has to be worth communicating.

That’s why it’s possible for a popular book to contain what’s considered bad writing. It’s not that readers like the stilted, juvenile prose, it’s that they don’t particularly care if they like what the tale they’re being told.  In the context of being engrossed by a character’s adventures, individual word choices don’t register very highly.

Great, so we can all write with no thought to spelling or grammar! Not quite. It depends on your context. Do you have a rip roaring tale that just won’t quit? Perhaps a love story that consumes with a passion never before seen? If you have, hurray! But chances are you’re not really sure.

Those rules about good writing, clear writing, professional writing, they definitely help make things clearer, but they can also keep your focus on the tiny details and away from the actual point of storytelling (the story). Similarly, when other people read your work and offer advice about adverbs and info-dumps and whatnot, it’s easier for them to point out grammatical errors than it is to say the story’s a bit dull. Awkward!

Even if you write beautiful, technically flawless sentences, if the story isn’t up to snuff, nobody will care how good the writing is.

How you choose to write, what standard you aspire to, that’s a choice. Most writers would be embarrassed to be thought of as having the competence of a distracted high school student and making the words on the page flow and engage is a matter of pride. Other writers do the bare minimum stylistically, and focus on one outrageous event after another. While awards tend to go to the former, readers tend to go to the latter.

In case it feels like I’m sending mixed signals, let me clarify what I’m trying to say. Improving your writing is a good thing. When people point out grammatical mistakes, they’re probably right. But if they don’t mention the story, how it works or doesn’t, if it excites or bores them, if it makes sense, then that’s the real problem. You can get to the technical tweaking later, first sort out the story.

The far more important aspect of writing a book is what happens. And taking time to go over the events a character experiences without thinking about language, just focusing on whether it’s interesting, whether it could be more interesting, literally the most important thing you, as a writer, will ever do.
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~*~

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16 comments:

Alexandra Lanc said...

Thanks for sharing, and some interesting insights in this post. I definitely would have to say that I agree, especially concerning the fact that readers will flock to the story with an amazing story, rather than the story that is well written (sadly). But I do think it's important to focus on how your writing flows, as well, because the better it flows with a good plot, the more literary credit it will have -- not just fans and readers, but contribution to the art of reading.

Definitely as far as first drafts and editing, I'd work on the story. :)

Alexandra~

mooderino said...

@ Alexandra - I think good writing is definitely important, but getting the story to work first is too often overlooked, imo.

Julie Luek said...

I have read so many award-winning books lately that broke all the rules. To me, the writing became so self-consciously rule breaking, I could no longer focus on the story. And,to make it worse, the stories were sorely lacking. Not using quotation marks, or breaking paragraphs for quotes, or utilizing every point of view known to writerkind may be trendy, but unless the author makes a point to center on a good story, the balance --for me-- is lost.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

In other words, a really great book is good at both, or at least balances them.
I can think of popular books that are poorly written and well-written books that would bore anyone to tears. Think I'd rather have a good story with good writing that flows fast and easy.

mooderino said...

@Julie-I think that's true of most art forms. There's always a group who consider style before substance.

@Alex-I think both are important, but just from what's popular, story clearly matters more to people in general.

Lydia Kang said...

A tricky subject. I think a balance is key but I agree that most importantly I need a good story driving things along, or else I get frustrated.

mooderino said...

@Lydia-I love reading good prose but personally it needs a point to it for me to stay with it.

Diane Carlisle said...

In Stephen King's book On Writing he mentions you cannot make a bad writer into a competent writer, but a competent writer can make the leap into being a good writer.

I'm all about sticking with a story. As soon as I feel there is hogwash ahead, I'll put the book down. I usually will feel it as soon as I realize the writer is grammatically incompetent. I'm not talking of the deliberate fragmentations and stylistic nuances. I'm talking about pure, unadulterated mangling of the English language.

Gail said...

I did enjoy this. I like that it's okay to just write, get it out and then worry about the tweaks.

Michael Offutt, Speculative Fiction Author said...

Knowledge is definitely king in the Walking Dead. Because there are no satellites or communications with other parts of the world experiencing the apocalypse, you can parcel what you know out to the survivors, and it's more valuable than gold.

mooderino said...

Diane - I think you need to have basic knowledge of all aspects, but first have a something to tell.


@Gail - once it's on paper I think it's worth looking at just as a story and tweaking that side of things before focusing on the writing.

@Michael - a crossbow also comes in useful.

Gina Gao said...

Thanks for sharing these insights. I enjoyed reading this.

www.modernworld4.blogspot.com

Tammy Theriault said...

i "literally" would enjoy a good flowing book... :)*

mooderino said...

@Gina - Cheers.

@Tammy - literally and literarily.

CS Severe said...

I found this entry quite insightful and enjoyed reading it. I came away with the message that good writing is important, but don't get lost in the nitpicky details and forget the important thing, the story. And if you have both, great writing and a good story, then it's golden. That's what I strive for with my works. Thank you!

mooderino said...

@CS - finally, somebody gets me :)

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