What Makes a Story – #3 Storytelling vs Writing

Welcome to part three of my story posts and this time I’m asking a question rather than making a statement. Do you think story telling or writing is more important?

I’m a firm believer that storytelling or plotting and writing are two different kettles of fish.

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Fantastic writing is when the words melt like butter off the page. They paint vivid pictures with words rather than brushstrokes, so you can visualise the entire world perfectly.

Fantastic plotting is when you’re hooked by the story itself regardless of the words (you know what I mean). You engage with the story and the characters, it’s all about the people and the action.

An author can be fantastic at both. But the more common situation seems to be that they gravitate towards writing or plotting. I’ll get my bias out of the way now, I prefer plotting, I would prefer to read a book where a lot happens to one with a lot of description. But I don’t think one is empirically better than the other.

Some examples …

Writers

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Oscar Wilde – This guy could write! He was magic with a pen, full of wit and lovely descriptions that weren’t overpowering. But ask Oscar to write an extended piece of prose and the plot completely fell to pieces. The words were just as lovely but you can’t help but notice that nothing happens in Dorian Gray. Oscar Wilde was a beautiful writer but could only tell a short story, he didn’t have the plotting ability for a novel.

Cecilia Ahern – I think she’s a lovely writer. She really has a way with words. Her plotting is much better than Oscar Wilde but she is still a much stronger writer than she is a plotter. I’ve read two Ahern books and have a third one I’ve never started, and although I enjoy her, I’ve always felt her plots were lacking .

Plotters

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Dan Brown – I know I’m repeating myself but he’s a great example. His books are packed with action but he’s far from the world’s best writer. He’s not bad at all but not a genius with a pen (or keyboard).

Sophie Kinsella – Kinsella is a good writer but she tells a better story. Kinsella focusses on the story rather than the writing, she isn’t worried about describing the exact shade of a person’s eyes and she has never described her main character in the Shopaholic Books.

It’s safe to say writing and plotting is a balancing act and whether one is better than the other is solely down to preference. I will say this though, if I read a writer’s story, although I may enjoy it, I’ll always note the lack of action but if I read a plotter’s story, I’ll only note the writing if it’s really bad…. And if I read a story with brill writing AND a brill plot, I know I’ve found one of those lucky all-rounders.

Writing and plot are both important elements to a book. I prefer plot but I can’t abide by bad writing … and we’re back to finding the balance.

But what about you? Do you prefer reading a writer’s book or a plotter’s book? And writers, which camp do you fall into? I’d love to hear from you!

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What Makes a Story #2 – Plot

Hello fellow bloggers and tweeters. I had this great series of blogs planned and then life got so busy I didn’t have any time to write it down. So sorry for my radio silence but I’m back online now.

I’m always musing about what makes stories great. Last time I talked about characters being the most important bit, and while I stand by that, a decent plot will help you too. For instance as much as I love Chris Hemsworth (because, come on) the latest Thor movie didn’t have much of a story. But at least there was Chris.

Anyway, a great plot is a balancing act between being twisty enough to keep you entertained and so convoluted that by the end you’re stuck on the last page going “what?”. Authors have to be olympic gymnastics (figuratively, not literally) to pull it off seamlessly. And not all do.

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I’m going to go into this one more next week but I think there’s a big difference between great writers and great storytellers. Some fall into both categories (lucky devils), but most of us, I’m including myself tentatively in that, fall into one or the other. I’m a plotter, my bestie’s a writer. But more on that next time.

Back to the plot. Obviously plots vary depending on genre, and the strength of the plot varies genre to genre too. For instance chick lit needs to be funny with a few gentle complications, nothing dramatic, but detective fiction needs twists and turns and red herrings. I’m always so impressed when I can’t guess the ending.

Have you ever read any Dan Brown? (If you haven’t, have you been hiding under a rock?) Well he’s a great example of a bloody entertaining storyteller. I enjoyed the Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons so much, the plot twisted and turned, I could barely flick over my pages fast enough. The man can tell a riveting story.

Anthony Horowitz – if you haven’t read any Horowitz stop what you’re doing and pick him up now. Oh the man can write! He published a Sherlock Holmes book The House of Silk in 2011 and what a triumph. Brilliant plot, brilliant characterisation and such a sensitivity to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original work. When Sherlock Holmes was originally published in the nineteenth century, they were supposed to be light-hearted fun stories and Horowitz really captured that spirit. Not that I’m plugging him or anything but he’s got a follow up book Moriarty too …

Ever read Dorian Gray? Let me spoil it for you, there’s a pretty boy, there’s a painting and absolutely nothing else happens.

Now in a series, overarching story lines can be dangerous. Harry Potter pulled it out the bag but His Dark Materials was such a let down, the big reveal actually ruined the whole thing for me.  It’s great to be ambitious as a writer but you really have to temper it by looking back and thinking about your readers. Of course it makes sense to you, you wrote it, but I don’t live inside your head. It’s why outspoken beta readers are invaluable. I love clever plots but they can be too clever sometimes.

Is there a secret formula for writing a brill plot? Probably not, but I’ll list my favourite bits.

– Being surprised by an outcome … BUT that outcome still fits in perfectly with the story

– More than one major plot twist (I’ve committed to 300 pages here, thrill me)

– If you’re revealing a secret, make it a juicy one. Most things aren’t that shocking anymore, so if it’s a big deal, go for it and shock me!

Hey, this is all just my opinion but I’d love to hear from you. What have your favourite stories been? What stories have you picked up that had literally lost their plot? Let me know !