Thursday, May 24, 2012

Story or Writing: What's Your Flavor?



I posed a question on Twitter last week that got quite a few responses. I would love to share some of those, but of course, Twitter chose now to die. Arrgh! It was prompted by my own thoughts on what constitutes "immersion" reading. That is, books that make me feel as if I've been plucked up out of my life and plunked down in the middle of the story. These books also tend to be my long-time favorites.

The question:

What do you privilege or appreciate more, a good story or good writing?

I realize this is a hard question. I also realize this is a dramatically oversimplified question, but it did make me ponder for a good long while. I'm willing to concede that these two are often so inextricably linked that it's hard to pick them apart.

A story is made less of a good story by bad writing. Good writing can elevate a flimsy plot to the point of breathless admiration. But on the other hand, I know I've tossed more than a few books because the writing sucked. I've tossed more than a few because the story was abhorrent. It might be easier to answer this question: what makes you ditch a book faster: a flimsy story or crappy writing?

To approach my own question, I certainly appreciate both. Sometimes one stands out above the other. But what I was really thinking when I posed this question on Twitter was about the books I love. Love with a visceral, devoted, think-about-the-characters forever-and-feel-like-I-know-them love. Examples: of course, Outlander, but other loves of my reading life would be The Hours, Wicked, Pope Joan, The Lord of the Rings, Cider House Rules, The Great Gatsby.

What makes me love them so darn much??? Is it the story or is it the writing? Does it have to be both? Can it just be one or the other?

As I'm looking at them, I do begin to wonder if I secretly privilege a strong story line, strong characters, long  stories that allow me to wallow and stretch my legs a little. Of this sample, I would say that only about half are known for their especially stellar writing (Gatsby, Cider House, The Hours). While the rest are more plot-driven (Pope Joan, Outlander, The Lord of the Rings, Wicked). It's debatable, of course. I think Maguire does a great job with his writing. Tolkien, too, obviously. But in the wider world of books and critics and stuff (for what it's worth), the first three authors are probably better received for their writing chops and the rest admired more for plot, character, and other elements of the story.

Off the top of my head, I uber-love the following general bookish characteristics:

  • Characters I love and want to revisit
  • Smooth, believable dialogue
  • A strong sense of place and atmosphere
  • A plot that makes me a little breathless wanting to know what comes next
  • A feeling of swept-awayness that leaves me a little unwilling to come back to real life
While I don't think any of these can be accomplished by a writer with no skills--clever and believable characters require a deft hand--I'm looking a little story-heavy here. For a long time I wouldn't have been ok with this. Formal higher education in English pushes form and technique above all else much of the time which seems to fall into the "writing" camp. That was my experience, anyway. While I appreciate stellar writing any day of the week, it also takes a little more forward movement to engage me in a meaningful, powerful way. 

That is my final answer. Today. For now.

Now that I've begun to figure myself out, how about you? What leaves you wanting more and clutching a book to your heart?









25 comments:

  1. I want both but if I had to pick, I'd go with the good story. But, the writing can't be but so bad. I love great dialogue so it's a plus for me when a book has that.

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  2. I am totally in the good story camp and am unshamed to admit it, even if it is not very literary of me to say so. The best writing in the world is no good if the story is boring.

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    1. I am with you 100%, and i say that both as a writer and as a lover of literary classics!!

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    2. LOL, Sam! I had never thought of it enough to narrow it down or analyze my own choice until this question popped into my head. Yay for story!

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  3. Despite being a writer myself, I have to say that the story is more important to me than the writing. To me, beautiful writing can't make up for a mediocre story. The story doesn't have to be super plotty or anything - I love, for instance, books like Never Let Me Go - but if there's no substance to a story at all, no amount of good writing will make up for it. On the other hand, a great story will make up for mediocre writing. Like in, for instance, Harry Potter. The writing isn't great, but the story is brilliant, and completely makes up for it.

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    1. I think you hit it on the head, Amanda. Harry Potter kept popping into my head for an example of not-stellar writing but a stellar story.

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  4. Like most people, what I really want is both. I'm unlikely ever to enjoy a book that's incredibly weak in both, but my mood strongly affects which area of weakness I'd be more willing to put up with. There are days when I'll put up with not-so-great writing if the story draws me in, but other days when I'd toss the same book aside. Same thing with writing.

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    1. Teresa, I agree. A book weak in both would be a waste of time. For me it also often hinges on mood. But overall I'm pretty sure story holds more sway.

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  5. I need both but if I have to choose, I'll take a good story any day. I love great writing - worship it really - since it's so hard to do. But I don't need a book filled with great writing and no story. Just give me a paragraph instead.

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    1. Right on, Natasha! To highlight writing when the story is weak(er), it might be to an author's advantage to write short stories.

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  6. My experience in formal higher education in English was the same as yours...so without hesitation I pick story. However, I will only put up with so much bad writing. Honestly, I wondered if this was kindof a chicken or the egg kindof question since I think it takes a pretty good writer to develop a story that most of us would deem "good." Thought provoking question for sure :)

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    1. Agreed, Patti. Too much (or too little, I guess) of either can kill a book. But overall, I neeeeeed to be swept away and the story is often the way this happens for me the fastest or in the most explosive way.

      Thanks for weighing in!

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  7. If the story is so good, I tend to not even notice the writing. And will enjoy the book just fine without it. Now, if the story is good and the writing ALSO blows me away? I will clutch it to my heart!

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    1. Same here! I've done this with lots of super awesome stories: Harry Potter, LOTR, Outlander. Others, for sure.

      Both is optimal.

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  8. I'm not sure how to answer this either-or question. I know that when I think about books I think about two things: what it feels like to read the book and how the book is structured. By structured, I don't just mean plot or story, I include how the writing supports that plot and the feeling I have reading. This may be a little more wholistic approach, but it's how I find myself responding when I read or write about books.

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    1. Barbara, it's a challenging question, aye? And I typically take this wholistic approach as well, but I'd never really taken any time to see what I might subconsciously be privileging. If that makes sense. :D

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  9. Having just finished "State of Wonder," I'm thinking that I would say writing. The story was certainly interesting but I was so impressed with her characters and and the way she makes her settings come alive. On the other hand, "Bel Canto" is one of my all-time favorite books and the story in that was just amazing. Damn, now I don't even know if I like Patchett's writing or stories more let alone any book's story or writing. Tough question!

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  10. Ugh...I would choose the good story without a moment's hesitation which makes me feel a tiny little bit like a Philistine. And if I say good story I mostly mean intriguing, fascinating and loveable characters, because for me characters are really the most important thing about books: if I love them I love the book too and if I don't care about them I won't care about the book either.
    Anyway, I've got an excuse for not sophisticatedly choosing good writing above something as profane as the story. Since English is not my mother tongue, I usually don't notice a bad writing style as much as you probably do. At least I think so.

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  11. Story trumps all. You might be James Joyce but I'll never know because if you can't suck me in to the narrative I'm going to question why I'm reading it... then stop reading it.

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  12. I privilege plot, definitely. By far the best is when a book has a wonderful plot and great writing -- like The Book Thief or The Secret History -- but if I have to choose one or the other, I'd rather have the plot. An awesome plot can make up for not awesome writing, but amazing writing and very little plot doesn't turn my cranks at all.

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  13. Story wins. But, you know I get all excited when story and phenomenal writing come together, like . . . Simon's writing. LOL Had to throw Simon in there, didn't I?

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  14. I love a compelling story that ensnares me, but that also has characters that I can relate to in some way. Sometimes I just love plain weirdness, and at other times, I need books that make me laugh or cry. I don't think there is one answer to this question for me, as my tastes and reading varies so much. It's interesting to think about though!

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  15. I think the two are intertwined. If I had to choose, I do tend to be more of a writing person than story person. Some of my favorite books are those that are just so wonderfully written I feel compelled to read them aloud to people. I think I'm pretty generous in my definition of good writing, though (allow me to pat myself on the back for a minute . . .). I mean, I love "lighter" stuff, too, as long as it's decently written. (Limited grammar errors, great dialogue, interesting characters, etc.)

    Interesting post, Andi! You've definitely got me thinking :)

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  16. I lean towards good writing, but not because I think it's more literary. It's just that weak writing distracts me so even if a story is good I won't enjoy it. I think well-developed characters and realistic dialogue are the two things that make or break a book for me, and then comes story. Interesting question!

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