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Monday, November 15, 2010

Style vs Story

I recently posted a question on Twitter and realized that it was quite a paradox. I struggle with it in my own writing and I’m sure agents and editors deliberate over this – if only subconsciously— while sorting through the slush pile.

If you had to choose one writing quality, which would dominate: the gift of style or storytelling? I hear you guys snickering in the background. “Well, I would prefer both.” And I say, “Reread the first part of that question then get back to me.” If you HAD to choose, like say, a hostage situation forced you to pick ONE, which skill would you take with you and which one would you leave behind?

Some say they would pick writing style, and that’s completely understandable. There’s nothing better than reading well thought-out prose that roll off the tongue in a rhythmic verse. It’s words in motion, imagery in strategically placed text. Unfortunately, that’s where it ends. I know writers who are bona fide wordsmiths, can spit lyrical devastation that would make angels weep, but can’t write a three-dimensional character or plot to save their lives. If overdone, the work will leave readers confused, and you as the writer will come off a pretentious hack.

Then there’s the storyline option. This is what keeps readers up at 3AM trying to get to the end, yet afraid to reach the last page. The plot twists, the pacing, the surprise ending, the detailed characterization that engages the reader on a personal level. The only problem is that the sentence structure is too simple, childlike, and without real finesse. This is a major turn-off to most readers to the point where they will stop reading altogether, never reaching that pentacle part of the tale.

So we are stuck in a conundrum. You have a bunch of pretty words that say nothing, or a good joke with a bad delivery. The true difference between the two is that one is a talent and the other is a craft. You can’t learn an idea, but master the functions of language over time. One can only hope inspiration for a good premise will strike, where research and study can improve one’s vocabulary. Creativity needed to construct innovative story lines is unpredictable and operate on its own accord.

Rhetorical and over-analytical as it seems, I thought it was an interesting question that I still don’t have the answer to. But I would love to hear your take on the situation. Which category do you fall under? Which do you feel is the most important to have as a writer?

7 comments:

  1. I'd pick storytelling. As a French and Spanish major, I had to study Spanish Golden age literature. I now despise literature which has beautiful language as it's SOLE focus. Who cares how beautifully you talk, if you're not saying anything?

    ReplyDelete
  2. I would definitely go with storytelling. If I'm reading something that's trying to hard to be stylish and hip, I'm turned off. Just tell me the story! How you tell it should come secondary.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Interesting! The way you explained both, if I had to choose, as a writer, I would want to be blessed with the first, style, in hopes of developing the second. My biggest fear as a writer is not having that inate quality that can't be learned. Anything that can be developed with hard work, I know I can accomplish, but what about that mysterious "it" factor? I can only hope it's there!

    ReplyDelete
  4. For me there is no contest, it has to be storytelling.
    As you said, style is craft, and can be learned.
    And while I can forgive someone for badly crafted sentences, there is no saving a book where the story doesn't make sense.

    ReplyDelete
  5. My first response would be to say I'd pick storytelling, because I know I HATE to read aimless stuff as a reader. And yet...the style is what brings me the most joy in my writing, cuz it's fun and creative. So I'd choose style, because I'd rather walk an aimless path of lovely roses and wildflowers than a straight highway of concrete and steel. ;o)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Style comes to me intuitively and it requires much much thought to craft a story I'd feel is interesting and worth telling or reading.

    I would choose style. I already know how to work to manually create a story that does not just "come to me" but style I would struggle to develop if I did not already have it.

    Also I mostly consider "style" to be voice, and I think that comes from what you read and what's made you. So I feel I'd be erasing my past if I lost my voice. If you only read books like The Hunger Games and Twilight your writing will be informed by those essentially voiceless books.

    They really have nothing to say but the story. Where as something like Enders Game or The Golden Compass has much much more depth of character and their for voice. Because you can not create depth of character without giving that character the voice to express their opinions.

    As for "style" in the literary sense like Claire explained it, this kind of writing is all lateral movement. No progression and it just upsets me when I'm dumb enough to see if it's going to take me anywhere.

    Cheers!

    ReplyDelete
  7. I'd pick storytelling because vision can't be learned. Style evolves according to what we read/learn.

    ReplyDelete

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