Way back in the dark ages of February 2010, Laura Miller from Salon wrote an article offering a reader’s advice to writers. This was subtitled: "A word to the novelist on how to write better books." Among the other bits of solid advice, this is the one I've remembered all these years:
"The components of a novel that readers care about most are, in order: story, characters, theme, atmosphere/setting."
Is there a divide between readers and writers?
Generally, this isn't the order in which we writers write. At least, it's not where I begin. Nor is it what the "gurus" of writing teach us. There is no reference in there to concept or plot or even quality of writing, for example. Laura has a reason for that last one; she says, "Remember, that nobody agrees on what a beautiful prose style is and most readers either can’t recognize “good writing” or don’t value it that much." I don't know that I agree that readers don't value it, but I definitely agree that a majority of readers will not read a book for the quality of the writing alone.
Laura acknowledges that all the elements she listed are "interlinked, and in the best fiction they all contribute to and enhance each other." And then, following the same train of thought I had about the quality of writing, she explains her reasoning for determining their order of importance like so:
Process of elimination.
"If you were to eliminate these elements, starting at the end of the list and moving toward the beginning, you could still end up with a novel that lots of people wanted to read; the average mass-market thriller is nothing but story. If you sacrifice these elements starting from the beginning of the list, you will instead wind up with a sliver of arty experimentation that, if you’re very, very good, a handful of other people might someday read and admire. There’s honor in that, but it’s daft to write something with the deliberate intention of denying readers what they love and want and then to be heartbroken when they aren’t interested. If you want to engage with more than a tiny coterie, take storytelling seriously; if you think that’s incompatible with art, you are in the wrong line of work."
What do you think? Is she right? Do we spend so much time thinking about writing from a writer's perspective that we may be forgetting, at least in part, what it is we are striving to create?
I have spent hours, weeks, years, trying to wrap my head around words like "high concept" or "plot" or "idea" or "premise." What finally resonated with me is the revelation that story is simpler than that, because the core of story is the universal meaning learned by the reader from living through the eyes of the characters in the story as they follow the events in the plot.
"We might compare a story to a wonderful meal. The success lies most of all in ideas of flavors, spices and herbs, searings and simmerings, the presentation of wondrous things. It also involves the pure enjoyment of those present sharing each others’ company for a time, with the meal as the uniting factor. It really matters far less the exact order of the dishes.
"Stories connect events and create meaning; they also connect people to each other."
What do YOU think?
What is the most important aspect of a book or story as you read or listen? Do you see the web of elements differently as a reader than as a writer? Should we approach it differently?