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Richardb
September 4th, 2003, 04:49 PM
I have had a long time fascination with the difference between great writers, and great storytellers. Sometimes, in the writing forums I see a certain sense of bravado around perfect writing skills, and yet I believe most best sellers are written by mediocre writers who spin a great tale. Personally, I can forgive a number of technical writing issues as long as the story is compelling.
So, two questions:
1. What do you think tips the balance in a great book, the writing, or the storytelling (no 'both' answers, that is too easy)
2. Who do you think are great writers, and who are great story tellers?

Erebus
September 4th, 2003, 07:44 PM
I agree that telling a good story is more important than technical greatness with the actual writing. I have always tried to tell stories the way I would like to read them. Like Richard, I also believe a few technical flaws can be forgiven if the book has direction and a captivating story is woven.

My favourite story tellers, as opposed to writers, would have to be Stephen King firstly, and then Orson Scott Card. Both these authors know the art of good story telling, and they're not too bad with their technical skills either!

KatG
September 4th, 2003, 08:59 PM
Originally posted by Richardb
I have had a long time fascination with the difference between great writers, and great storytellers. Sometimes, in the writing forums I see a certain sense of bravado around perfect writing skills, and yet I believe most best sellers are written by mediocre writers who spin a great tale. Personally, I can forgive a number of technical writing issues as long as the story is compelling.
So, two questions:
1. What do you think tips the balance in a great book, the writing, or the storytelling (no 'both' answers, that is too easy)
2. Who do you think are great writers, and who are great story tellers?
It's called the literary-commercial debate. The theory is that there is great literature, art, which is the wonderful writing skills, literary use of language and metaphor and deep character development, which earns you awards and respect but little money; and then there is commercial fiction which is mediocre writing but fast action plots for the masses which are commercially successful. To be considered "great" then, a writer must display strong, literary writing skills, whereas the commercial writers sell but have little long-lasting worth. Genre writing: mysteries, romance, science fiction, fantasy and horror, are all considered commercial writing and therefore, generally of less merit than mainstream fiction.

Reality is a bit more complicated. The bestseller lists are pretty evenly divided at this point between "literary" fiction and commercial fiction and the literary writers see quite a few of their books made into films. Some "commercial" writers who do well over a long period of time, such as Stephen King for instance, may be essentially graduated from commercial to "literary" status in some quarters and eventually may be studied in universities as part of one literary movement or another. (It helps to remember that Charles Dickens was considered a commercial writer in his day and his writing skills often decried.) If a genre writer does display strong use of language, that writer may be labelled literary, such as a "literary mystery" writer or pulled out of the genre altogether -- a "literary" science fiction writer may instead become a literary futuristic satirist such as Kurt Vonnegurt Jr. for example. Commercial and literary mainstream writers may borrow genre elements for their novels but not have those novels be considered genre works, since they are not marketed through the usual channels for genre fiction.

The books we term "great" over time generally tend to be those with strong writing skills, but these are not always the most loved books. If a book is highly commercially successful, the author may find that his or her literary merit is deridded by others, as is happening with J.K. Rowling, for instance.

So is a writer worth reading because they have great writing skill or because they spin a good tale? It's rather hard to determine, since they may be accused of having both abilities or of having neither on any given day, and since getting people to agree on which they have isn't always easy. Performance on the bestseller lists is not a reliable indicator since literary books are often bestsellers. Winning literary awards may be dismissed by some as undeserved and quite often are given out to books considered to be very commercial in their story.

All I can say to the debate is that I hope that an author has both, a wish that, since my view of what constitutes a good tale is pretty broad, is often fulfilled, but if I find one side lacking in a story, it doesn't necessarily mean the story is without merit either. Quite often, I wish the debate did not exist because it keeps many people away from "literary" works on the belief that they'll be too hard and boring to read, and many people away from "commercial" and genre books from the belief that they are trashy and horrendously written. But I guess it's a debate that's here to stay because the human brain seeks to make distinctions.

choppy
September 4th, 2003, 11:00 PM
My gut reaction to the first question is that storytelling is more important. This seems pretty obvious to me. I mean, you can write the most beautiful prose in the world about basketweaving, but, it's still basketweaving. (No offence to any basketweaver's in the crowd.)

But then I read a lot of stuff by amateur writers, and as I'm reading through some stories I have this nagging feeling that there's a great story trying to come out, but it's burried under a pile of cliches, bad grammer and writing that just doesn't connect.

The question though isnt a choice between two exclusive entities, just a ranking of imporance. In the end, I see the story like raw materials and writing like the work that builds the boat. I can appreciate fine craftsmanship, but even the best craftsmen can't make something from nothing.

As for the second question, I've just started reading a little of Ray Bradbury's stuff, and I feel like I should be reading it with a red pen, but at the same time I find myself reacting to the work pretty strong, so he's getting the job done.

Richardb
September 4th, 2003, 11:28 PM
It is great story telling that always wins with me. I think that there are an awful lot of folks with advanced degrees in writing who can write perfectly (I know a number of technical writers who make a living from this background) but they could not spin a tale to save their lives. Other, like Robert Jordan (no, let's not start an argument on this) spin a great tale, despite some weakness in writing skills.
And yes, there are those that hit on all cylenders... Stephen R Donaldson being a great example of one in charge of his craft, and telling great stories.
To answer my own question, I think there are far fewer great story tellers in the world than there are great writers, and that is unfortunate in my opinion.

milamber_reborn
September 5th, 2003, 12:03 AM
1. Storytelling - the easiest way to please the masses.

2. Martin and Tolkien are great technical writers and storytellers. Jordan would be both if he learned to tighten his writing.

Personally all I want is a great story, but a good balance makes for an extra special read.

Lifino
September 5th, 2003, 12:49 AM
And if authors were writers there would be no editors...

Cephus
September 5th, 2003, 07:13 PM
I think it's a combination of the two. The best story in the world won't be enjoyed if the book it's in is unreadable. The best writing in the world won't be enjoyed if there is no story to tell. You really can't have one without the other in the world of published fiction.

Most authors fall into one camp or the other though, where they have a certain strength on one side. Some can craft a wonderful tale but their descriptions, grammar and word use are a bit off. Others have incredible descriptive abilities, but you're left with an empty feeling at the end.

Trying to have one but not the other will only end up in disaster.

drw
September 5th, 2003, 09:04 PM
I think a great story is more important. Perfectly written prose about a dead story is almost as enjoyable as reading a technical mathematics instruction manual.

The problem that makes #1 difficult to answer is even a great story has to be told by a writer with at least a decent grasp of the language. Some of the amateur writers published these days make me wonder if English was their first language, and if not, did the editor speak English as the primary language? However, it is also possible for the writer to kill a good story with overblown prose.


To question 2 I offer Orson Scott Card (as someone above did). Ender's Game, and the Seventh Son series are great stories. When I read them, I am enthralled by each and every page. Robert Jordan - I LOVE the story, but as pointed out in the thread within his forum, his writing skills are somewhat lacking. Both of which I love to read, but cannot write nearly as well as my next example..

J.R.R Tolkein. AMAZING story. AMAZING prose. I hated them with a passion. Why? Well, he took a perfectly good story, and over-did the writing for it. His prose is amazing (his use of the language is astounding), but completely killed the story imho. I Love to study his writing, his choice of words, phrases etc is incredible. At the same time, those choices destroy the pace of the story (I realize it's probably ME and the way I interpret his works that is at fault - but these questions are about our opinions right?) Some chapters pull me into the story (I swear I was sitting in on the council meeting), while others put me to sleep every time I read at them.

In short, Story before writing (but both are important). I can read poor writing, but I can't read an uninteresting story.

DRW

Expendable
September 9th, 2003, 09:34 AM
I can't help but to think about Arthur Conan Doyle and his creation, Sherlock Holmes. And how his stories appeared in Strand magazine. And how when Doyle killed off Sherlock, public outcry forced him to bring Sherlock back to life.

Storyteller, yes. Writing? Definitely. And years after the death of the author, we're still reading the stories.

Shakespeare. Storyteller definitely. Writer most definitely. Centuries pass and we're still seeing his stuff and repeating his poems and sonnets, sighing over Romeo and Juliet.

Anyone can write. Some can write well. But to write a book of fiction, you have to be able to tell a story too.