Thursday, June 15, 2017

Writing and Storytelling

Kameron Hurley's column in the current LOCUS discusses the difference between stringing together a succession of events and actually telling a story:

Story Isn't Just "Stuff Happens"

The principles she highlights apply not only to books but to films, comics, games, all sorts of media. She asks, "Why do we teach people how to write instead of how to tell stories?" Do we think storytelling comes naturally? On the contrary, doing it well is a skill that must be learned. In mundane conversation, we've all suffered through rambling anecdotes riddled with backtracking, digressions, and gaps. Hurley reminds us "there are always two stories that make up a good piece of fiction. There is the external story, the thing we would call ‘plot.’ These are the explosions and sex scenes and betrayals. Then there is the internal emotional story, the ‘so what?’" Like Tolkien, she maintains that stories are far from merely devices for escape (although Tolkien also argued in favor of the right kind of escape). "We seek out stories because they help us make sense of the world and societies we live in today, which is the real reason we grasp for them most during dark times. We seek out stories to learn how to be better humans."

Hurley urges us to remember that "readers are far more interested in exploring what it means to be human than how gram­matically correct our sentences are. Pretty writing does not equal explosive story." Her argument reminds me of Marion Zimmer Bradley's famous caveat, "Editors do not buy stories because they are well written." They publish stories that offer the kind of Satisfying Reading Experience their particular audience wants. Here's the classic essay in which Bradley explains why editors DO buy stories (or reject them):

Why Did My Story Get Rejected?

Bradley, of course, is quick to add that nobody OBJECTS to good writing. Good storytelling, however, has priority. I do have reservations about taking this advice too much to heart, though. Aspiring authors shouldn't skim over the part about "good writing" and assume style, grammar, syntax, word choice, etc., don't matter.

To draw an analogy, I'm not at all musical. While I enjoy lots of music, I listen to songs mainly for the lyrics. Where the tune is concerned, I react to it on the basis of whether it seems to me to fit the words. On any more technical points, I'm at the "I don't understand it, but I know what I like" level. I might have a vague perception that a certain tune sounds "folky." A real musician could point out exactly what features of its mode, tempo, chords, or whatever make that tune sound like a folk song. Similarly, most non-writers probably couldn't explain in technical terms why a piece of writing doesn't "work." They might say vaguely, "it's boring" or "it's confusing." A professional writer or editor can analyze the story with remarks such as, "There's too much exposition" or "We aren't given a reason to care about the protagonist" or "The point of view jumps around too much" or "Many sentences contain dangling participles." Likewise, a reader not familiar with all the rules of grammar, usage, and spelling may not be able to pick out the specific errors in a work, but if there are too many of them, it will probably still feel "wrong" to that reader.

Fortunately, it's possible to learn at least the basics of "good writing," what Bradley summarizes as how to write "a literate English sentence." Techniques of pacing, plotting, point of view, etc., can also be taught. Storytelling, however, is to some extent a gift, which may or may not appear in tandem with a talent for "good writing." For instance, nobody would describe Edgar Rice Burroughs as a master of literary style. Yet Tarzan of the Apes and John Carter of Barsoom are immortal.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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