Monday, July 1, 2013

TOTW: Do we value story elements differently as writers than as readers?

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?


  1. I really focus on what I love as a reader--a fast paced plot, conflict, and great characters. I think you're right that this is what readers focus on in deciding whether they love a book or not. Thanks for sharing. I always love how you analyze everything related to writing.

    1. Thanks, Natalie! Good for you. I wonder if a lot us, myself included, may be focusing too much on words and not enough on what readers take away.

  2. Usually a book resonates with me on some emotional level by the way the author relates their characters. But, a beautiful setting that wraps you into it, always does the trick too.

  3. Well, this is complicated, because I don't necessarily think the author and the reader need to have the same goals. An author absolutely CAN put high priority on her/his own creative experimentation, for example. Yes, I think it's important to understand that such an approach is not likely to result in massive readership, or possibly any significant readership. It's a risk, and it should be taken knowingly.

    However, there's a corresponding, inverse risk in going whole-hog with a deliberately commercial approach, which is the loss of that same creative experimentation. A book that's all page-turny story with little or no testing of the boundaries of creative expression might not be the kind of creative experience an author wants to devote X number of years to producing.

    As authors we have a multiplicity of goals and desires, and the mix is unique for every one of us. The same is true for readers. Focusing hard on the lyrical qualities of the words might be what a given author needs to do, despite the probable limits on readership/audience/commercial success that accompany that approach.

    For the record, my voice and style are much more commercial than not. It's unlikely that I'll write a book that's steeped in formal experimentation with and exploration of the possibilities of language at the expense of story, humor, action, and clearly defined characterization. But that's because I want to write that way. It suits me, and satisfies me.

    I do think we need to be acutely aware of our potential readership, and of how our writing might fare when it's unleashed upon the commercial landscape, because pursuing a career in an industry means contending with the cold, hard realities that exist in that industry. But I think we have to write for ourselves, first and foremost. To write a story that will ring true in the hearts and minds of readers, we have to make them ring true in our own hearts and minds first.

  4. Yes, great article, Martina. The trick is telling it well with everything your MG loves in a story ... which equates to being immersed in an MG aged kids' psyche. Spooky stuff but so much fun!

  5. To put it in a nutshell, under my name on my business card, it says 'writer of stories'.

  6. This is such a great article, Martina!! I think we do get distracted and forget what really makes a good book for readers. :D

  7. I agree...and disagree. By this logic, no one should write poetry because it doesn't sell commercially. I wouldn't want to throw out Mary Oliver just because she will never sell as many books as Rick Riordan. That said, we do have to be aware of what most readers are looking for, what our hopes are as far as readership, and what we want to achieve with experimentation. She's right about stories being successful with little characterization, but this isn't always true. Sometimes readers get sick of action that doesn't seem to have any emotional purpose - we've all read books or sat through movies that were full of meaningless explosions...and simply stopped caring enough to finish the story. I think great characters help make great action, which can lead to a perfect blend.


Have your say...