Craft vs. Story (in fiction)
Yesterday we had some discussion in the blog comments about craft, or writing technique, vs. having a great story. Obviously, the formula for a good book includes both.
Craft refers to all the mechanics of fiction: plot, characterization, dialogue, pacing, flow, scene-crafting, dramatic structure, point-of-view, etc.
Story refers to the page-turning factor: how compelling is your story, how unique or original, does it connect with the reader, is there that certain spark that makes it jump off the page? Is it sufficiently suspenseful or romantic? Is the author’s voice strong and distinct? It’s much harder to quantify than craft, and harder to teach.
Of course, the two elements are intertwined, but it’s helpful to artificially separate them, in order to understand why a book is either working—or not.
Lately I’ve noticed amongst my stacks of rejected queries an increasing number of projects that show strong technique, but no originality or heart. In a way, this is good because it shows that writers are paying attention to their craft. They’re taking the time and making the effort to learn to write, which is fantastic.
But it’s heartbreaking to me at the same time. I hate that lifeless feeling of a boring (or derivative or unoriginal) story, perfectly executed. I’ve written about this before… but I get the feeling many people are so saturated with media (books, TV, movies) that they are writing, not from life but from their perception of life as shown in media, including other books. They’re writing stories I’ve seen and heard a hundred times before.
In fact, just this week I read some sample chapters from a newbie writer, and I was impressed with the technical excellence. Nice dialogue, perfect POVs, showing not telling… the craft elements were all there. But the story itself involved a hackneyed plot, a totally uninteresting protagonist, and major predictability all the way through. It felt like it was written by a computer program, and it made me sad. I am not sure how to teach someone to not only learn the craft, but to also write from their heart. Write with authenticity, write from the depths of personal experience.
As aspiring authors, we need to pay attention to both aspects: craft and story. I think some writers find craft easier, and others find story comes more naturally. It’s up to you to understand where you stand as a writer, where your strengths and weaknesses are, and make the effort to keep working on both sides of the equation.
And when you read published books that don’t seem to “follow the rules” of craft that you’ve worked so hard to learn, try to determine if maybe that book got published because of the story, rather than technical perfection. (Or it might just be that the author has established a loyal following that enjoys their particular style of storytelling.)
Here’s a truth: If your storytelling is powerful enough, readers will forgive an awful lot of flaws in technique… and so will agents and editors. On the other hand, all the perfect “craft” in the world can’t make an unimaginative book shine.
If editors and agents are looking at your samples and immediately criticizing your craft, be aware this means they aren’t able to see a fabulous story in there. Either it doesn’t exist to begin with, or it’s camouflaged by your lack of expertise in fiction technique.
So writers, speak up. Where do you stand? Which is harder for you? How do you approach both sides of this craft/story equation?