July 10th, 2009

Egyptian hieroglyphics

Writing vs. story telling

Surprise! A post that's not about technology!

I talk a fair amount about the difference between writing as opposed to story telling. Plenty of story tellers don't write fiction at all. They might dance, or write music or poetry, or tell stories out loud. Or they might work in visual arts like painting. But all fiction writers have to also be story tellers, and some are better at one thing than the other.

This is how I explain the success of some books that I consider not all that well written, like THE DA VINCI CODE or TWILIGHT. Those folks told a good story, even if they didn't write Pulitzer Prize-winning prose (how that's for alliteration?).

I think a fair number of people are born story tellers, but I think people who are born writers (in that they can write well from the get-go) are rare. I also consider that choosing to tell stories as written fiction means you will probably need to learn some things; I know I have. For me, one of the most important things (and most difficult) to learn was "What needs to be on the page?" That's very different from what needs to be in the writer's head.

In my head, I need to know everything about a character— what his/her childhood was like, whether he/she has siblings, got along well with Mom and Dad, was disappointed in life, the works. Once I get that clear, and I'm into telling the story, I have to decide what does the reader need to know and what's the best way for him/her to learn it? It's true I have to be sure all the logistics are correct, that the character could do what I say he's doing, but that doesn't mean the reader needs endless detail explaining all that.

Over time, I have become fond of the "write long and cut like hell" technique. That way I can ensure the logical flow of events, and be sure I've accounted for how and when things happen. The trick is, I don't get so attached to my own prose that I refuse to cut a word because it's all so wonderful. Every sentence should either advance the plot or tell the reader something about the character. Telling the story in as few words as possible while maintaining voice and a rich characterization is the hard part. It took me a while to figure out that just because people routinely repeat themselves when they talk doesn't mean my dialog should do that.

It's the story that matters. Figure out what it needs, and make sure that stays, and cut the rest.

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