Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Good Writing vs. A Good Story

Ian Fleming was a storyteller - but he wasn't a great writer.

I'm about 3/4 done with Casino Royale. From page one, I could see that Fleming was not a great writer. But - he can tell a story. And that particular story—and that particular character— have morphed into a multi-million dollar business.

How is this possible? Today we're taught to write the best book we can - and there's a lot that goes into that. Good grammar, plot structure, description, character development, action verbs...the list can go on and on. So how can Fleming get away with breaking some of those rules?

Because he can tell a good story.

Honestly, this frustrates me a bit. I've read my share of books where the writing wasn't that great, but the story was wonderful. And I've also read books where the writing is amazing and the story is only so-so.

My biggest problem right now is reading those books where the writing isn't very good. I have a horrible time trying to plow through prose that is not very readable. And then it makes me wonder how the book got published in the first place. But then again, I'm a writer. I notice these things. I notice if the passive voice is used, or if too much backstory is dumped into the first chapter, or if the POV switches mid-scene. Do ordinary readers notice this?

What has been your experience? Have you read a lot of great books where the writing and story is great, or where the writing is good and the story isn't? Or vice versa? If you're a writer, how does it make you feel to read a great story with lackluster writing? Or vice versa?


  1. well, I'd rather read a great story with so so writing, than great writing with a so so story. Though I've noticed if the story is good enough, the mechanics of the writing seem to fade away and not bother me as much.

    I do think there are a lot of blockbuster novels where the story is so great, the characters so dynamic, that even if the writing itself isn't that great, the creativity of the story and the characters still makes it a best seller.

  2. I know, this issue can be frustrating. I remember reading Timeline by Michael Crichton and thinking the writing was the worst possible. Yet it got made into a movie, and Crichton is enormously successful and wealthy as a writer. His books all have "high concept." I really believe that every poorly-written book that "makes it" does so because there's something special there, and it's not necessarily the writing. Maybe there's a great character or a "high concept" -- something that excites readers. Sometimes it makes me think we strugglers worry too much about craft; but, to me, craft will always be tremendously important. Because when a writer latches onto something exciting, and then carries it off artistically, it's the best of all possible worlds.

  3. I've read them all, and yes, the great story/lousy writing; great writing/lousy story gets to me. But there are readers for just about anything. There's a famous writer in another genre that I literally do not understand - in my humble opinion neither the story or writing is very good, but this person is FAMOUS! I don't understand it.

  4. I admit to liking both, good story and good writing. And, of course, what constitutes good writing is very subjective. Sean LOVES the fact that Fleming goes into minute detail of seemingly small objects. The fact it keeps him interested is a sign of good writing - at least, in his opinion.

    Dan Brown is another example of this - many people (me included) deplore his writing but read the book for the story. Others rave about how good his writing is.

    And I totally agree with Elizabeth P about Timeline. I thought the writing was AWFUL - and the plotting reached the kitchen sink point about half-way through. Yet, I HAD to finish that story. And didn't mind the movie too, too much. Ok, Gerry Butler probably had a lot to do with that *g*.

  5. I just read "THe Historian" by Elizabeth Kostova which I thought was excellent writing but the story was pretty weak. I used to read Laurell K. Hamilton because I thought her stories were so good but her writing was weak(now, they both suck). I agree with Teresa about Dan Brown. Interesting story but terrible writing.

    I can read both, I'm not sure that I prefer one of the the other. Right now I'm in a good writing mood. I'm reading a romance anthology which is just weak so I've put it aside and gone back to a biography. Writing is excellent.

  6. Two years ago, I wasn't very picky. That was back before I started writing, and I didn't notice POV and purple prose and all the current hot-button issues. Ah, those were the days! Now I find it much harder to enjoy a book that's got a great story but is poorly executed. Whoever said ignorance is bliss knew what they were talking about. :D

  7. I don't know, but I'll read a book with good writing but so-so story over the opposite: for me, writing and storytelling go hand-in-hand despite so-so writing/good story-telling breaking certain authors into the best-seller lists. IMO, for every writer whose strength lies in storytelling, or whose strength lies in pretty prose, there are multiple writers who are able to balance both skills deftly--and I'd rather have that talent than to lack in one or the other.

  8. I find part of being a good writer is being a good storyteller, but I'm probably not going to notice if you are a good storyteller if you're not a good writer. I get too frustrated rewriting the book in my head to enjoy the story and I don't have the time to waste on a book that frustrates me.

  9. I don't mind people breaking the rules but I notice head hopping and info dumps. It usually depends on the story as to whether or not it bothers me. But also he/Fleming wrote in a different era and reading preferences change. I think many bestsellers are not well written but the story is dynamite.

  10. There are also books where, technically, I know the writing is good, but I don't enjoy the story, the characters, or the writing.

    It's hard enough to make it in this business, so good for anyone who does.

    There are many different needs for types and styles of storytelling, and, fortunately, many different types of storytellers to fill those needs.

  11. The bottom line for me is whether a book keeps me turning the pages. If it holds my attention, I'm there even if the writing isn't the best, even if the storytelling isn't the highest caliber. No matter what it is that holds my attention -- a quirky character, an unusual way of turning a phrase, or just good moving action -- my nose is in that book for the duration.

  12. Wow, I could go on about this subject...

    A good story is king for me. There have been storytellers for all of man's time on earth, and looong before there were books. The key to a good story was connecting with your audience. The human heart loves stories. It seems we were built for stories. When my daughters crave a story, they don't care about grammar, et al.

    I think the intellectual elitists have carved it into our brain that a story isn't a story if it doesn't meet their criteria. This is nonsense. Storytelling can be magical - look at L. Frank Baum. He entranced a century, but isn't a great writer. he is often laughed at for his poor writing skills. But he could tell a story.

    Give me a storyteller anyday! For if his heart is in the tale, and not in the mechanics, it is sure to entrance.


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