Story vs. Craft

I’m taking a blogging break this week. Hope you enjoy this post from my archives.

As I go through queries and partials, I’m often thinking about the two elements of a good novel: craft and story.

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 distinct and compelling? 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 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. 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. It felt like it was written by a computer program, and it made me sad. I want to teach writers to not only learn the craft, but to also write from their heart. Write with authenticity, write from the depths of personal experience.

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 who enjoys their particular style of storytelling.)

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?

If you haven’t yet, drop by my Facebook page and click “Like.”

© 2011 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. EARNESTINELancaster on November 19, 2011 at 2:29 PM

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  2. LONGOR on November 2, 2011 at 1:42 AM

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  3. LONGOR on November 1, 2011 at 11:49 PM

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  4. Suneetha Balakrishnan on August 5, 2011 at 2:14 PM

    I know I have pace and story, but just today someone told me I focus on the story and leave the craft out…At the moment, I cant distinguish between the twio… I just want to get this down and maybe get help with the craft afterwards

  5. Jenni Wiltz on June 19, 2011 at 3:07 PM

    I actually think I’ve done a 180 on this one since I started writing (in middle school). I used to have the story part down pat…and now, in my 30s, I’m all about craft. I actually feel a little nostalgic for the days when plot and story were everything for me. My grad school professors tell me I can write like a house on fire, but at the same time, I feel a little lost in terms of my storytelling.

    As an example, I’ve gotten completely opposite reactions to the novel I’m shopping around. One major agent said he didn’t connect with the characters or the plot or the setting (ouch). But several others (and my favorite beta reader) have been impressed with all of the above. So I guess I’m still muddling through!

  6. J M Cornwell on June 19, 2011 at 11:56 AM

    Story has always been easy, but some elements of craft were harder for me than others, like dialogue. Realistic dialogue and emotional availability took me a long time to get right. Story was always easy because I’ve always told interesting stories that made people stop and listen, and tell me I should be a writer. I already was, but my strengths were in nonfiction and not fiction. It wasn’t until I lost my father and began writing stories for Chicken Soup that I was able to see the forest and the trees. My stories had depth and sensory details and finally the dialogue was right and the characters had a life of their own. It took writing about my life to be able to write about fictional people’s lives.

  7. Diane Solis on June 19, 2011 at 11:30 AM

    I just attended a Writer’s Conference. Heavyweights from all over: an agent from a top N.Y. group, several editors, and publishers. All commented on craft and substance in panels and workshops–all in sync with what you’ve posted here. I’ll share some of what happened with a question for you.

    I met with the agent to get his thoughts on my story: My life-partner died in 2005. We were not out until her illness and passing. She was twenty years my senior and had been abused or otherwise taken advantage of all her life. She died just as it seemed even to her doctors she was getting better. She died knowing she was loved and how deeply. I’ve been writing and doing the heavy grief work since then and am finally ready, from a place of healing, to tackle the story. I’ve been publishing poems and verses from those days, about value and meaning in relationships or the lack thereof, collecting the journal entries from that time, going deep into the void and coming back out again–from the diagnosis (pulmonary fibrosis and cancer) to her illness and passing, all she went through, all we both did. I was suddenly alone in “gay L.A.” where I didn’t even know how to be gay. It’s a story of love and devotion, TWO WOMEN AND A TERRIER.

    The agent asked me back for a second meeting. He asked many questions. I answered him with more stories about our relationship and our histories, including the story of the terrier who was devoted to us both and who helped me through the whole ordeal after. The agent wanted to see my writing. I have five chapters and the complete outline at home but wasn’t expecting to get more than a discussion and a thumbs up or down on the idea–you know, advice about whether or not I should write it as fact-based fiction or a memoir. He did advise me. He said I definitely have a story, that I’m not just writing about what I’ve done, I’m writing about many things I know, very deeply, and that I’m a good story-teller. That was great to hear. He urged me strongly to write it as a memoir. But his question was, can I write? I gave him one of my finished short stories–to speak to the issues you mentioned above about craft and story. He said he would read it after the conference. The next day, I felt I had a better story, and I offered a second one instead. He took it and he said he’d read them both. I guess we’ll see if he asks for the memoir.

    All of this is to confirm what you’ve written here. And there’s a lesson in it for me and other writers–and a question for you. I’m heading to another conference in a month or so. This time I’ll take the story I’m discussing–even if I’m not “pitching it” yet. I guess it’s a no-brainer: If an agent wants to see our work, we should have it ready to go. Yes?

    Thanks for all you do here. Peace and continued good things for you in writing and in life.

    Diane Solis

    • Rachelle Gardner on June 19, 2011 at 8:10 PM

      Diane, great story! At conferences, the best scenario is to have the work ready…but it rarely works out that way, and agents and editors know this. There is no pressure to get them your work quickly after the conference. Most likely, if you made an impression on them, they’ll remember you even if you submit months later, with a reminder of where you met and the conversation you had.

      Sounds like you were perfectly prepared with the short stories to show whether you can write.

  8. Michael on June 19, 2011 at 9:45 AM

    If I focus on the craft, I will lose the story. If I just write, I can find the story and edit the craft later.

  9. Annerb on June 3, 2011 at 2:17 PM

    >I have to admit I thought myself completely a story person who needs to edit carefully on craft until I read this blog post.

    Now I'm quite afraid that my story sucks.

  10. Flower Patch Farmgirl on June 2, 2011 at 11:49 PM

    >I am so new to all of this, that it's difficult for me to answer the question. Honestly, it depends on the day! I vacillate between worrying that I'm doing everything wrong and worrying that that no one but me will appreciate the story.

    I think what that means is that I need to start gathering some objective feedback!

    Long live your archives. I'm loving them!

  11. ellengregory on June 2, 2011 at 8:12 PM

    >I had this epiphany about two weeks ago when receiving feedback on my ms from another writer. Craft all fine. Story not so much. I don't think I perceived the difference until that point. So this post is a very timely reinforcement – thankyou!

    I think some writers have a much better instinct for story than others. I wish that was me.

  12. Claudsy on June 2, 2011 at 7:22 PM

    >I did a story the other day that was based on culture and its demands that told of a point in time of instruction for an emerging adult. The readers felt it hard to grasp because it spoke formally, without slang, without modern nuances. They failed to realize that this culture didn't use those affectations. They did realize that it failed to reflect today's "normal" YA crowd. It was determined by them, as a result, that the story was cast on a different world. Not ours.

    Granted, the piece was part of a slightly bigger one, but even when both craft and story are there, sometimes the readers can't relate to it for it falls outside their "norm" or realm of experience.

    My curiosity falls to those publishers that want culture pieces, whether books or collections of short stories. Do they also want the stories to reflect "normal" caucasian storylines,attitudes, and cultrue? It would be nice to know before submitting anything along those lines.

    Btw, this really isn't a grouse, but rather a concern that accepted stories are the ones which conform to today's cultural norm.

    Thank you for this insightful evaluation of today's writing. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  13. Stacy on June 2, 2011 at 9:25 AM

    >Story comes very easy to me. I can sit down and the plot will flow out of me. I have to work on craft, and I
    ve been doing so diligently. But then a funny thing happened: the story began to suffer. My critique partner noticed it right away. The voice was gone, the seamless flow was gone. She could tell I was writing with an agenda, as she put it.

    I chalk my issue up to reading TOO many books on craft. Yes, there are techniques we need to master and elements every story must have. But getting too caught up in them stagnates creativity. The key is to finding a balance.

    Great post and very interesting comments.

  14. patti.mallett_pp on June 2, 2011 at 6:06 AM

    >I wish one of those soon, FOR YOU!!!

  15. patti.mallett_pp on June 2, 2011 at 6:05 AM

    >Just started a new book, yesterday, and have been smiling since the beginning. The first sentence grabbed me! In my eyes (the only ones that matter to me) it was Perfectly Perfect! I "felt" it, understood, and knew exactly what the protagonist was saying within that one line. I CARED IMMEDIATELY! We were placed into the seriousness of things right away. I'm at about page 90 now and still loving it. The side of the book is bright w/ sticky tabs! Every aspect seems in place! (Hoping it does not disappoint as I read on.) It's rare to feel this way about a book, and when we do, we want to run in circles and kick up our heels. (That's what I posted on my FB Page last night.) It's SHEER JOY!! I think this would have been a manuscript you would have read through the night, and I wish one of those SOON!!!!!

  16. Taz on June 1, 2011 at 11:54 PM

    >Baby, this one might be archived but it is so relevant it deserves its own book 🙂

    I've read lots of perfectly executed works and couldn't wait to finish if only to say I had conquered the mere 200 pages of words (yikes). I've read other books so perfectly original that craft went out the window in favour of a rivetting read to die for.

    For me, a book must have both to enough degree that I don't feel like I'm stumbling over the punctuation, grammar, or a thousand liberties taken with the basic English Language. Anyone can be TAUGHT to perfect craft. Not everyone can weave the intrigues required to carry off a totally great novel.

    Language as we know it is in metamorphosis like never before in history, especially with all the abbv going on, with, like, txt msgs et al, & like, media egs, etc. LOL, you get the picture. What constitutes a 'literary' work may never change, but what is considered 'craft' is already changing.

  17. Beth K. Vogt on June 1, 2011 at 10:38 PM

    >I'm going to straddle the fence here and say I'm working on both.
    As a newbie to the Dark Side, i.e. writing fiction, I've had to learn lots about craft while trying to write a compelling story. Sometimes I've wanted to run screaming back to nonfiction–the writing arena I am most comfortable with.
    But, thanks to the encouragement of others, I've shut the door and decided to stay.

  18. Jenny Schwartz on June 1, 2011 at 6:45 PM

    >Blog posts that cause lightbulb moments are so rare. Splitting out craft and story gave me one of those.

    Craft has never worried me so much. It's learnable (then again, so are things like cooking, and I still have disasters there!). I guess I mean there are books and classes, forums, all soughts of teaching aids.

    But story — how do you learn story? For me, I've found I have stronger story ideas now, as opposed to a few years ago, and I can only put it down to practice. Writing and writing and writing has taught my brain to take an idea and ask "what if?" and make the answer interesting.

    So I think both craft and story come with practice, but the first can be taught, but the second has to come from experience.

    I guess my post makes it obvious I find craft a lot easier than story.

  19. Neil on June 1, 2011 at 6:05 PM

    >It's interesting how many of the contributors above feel they are better on story than craft. IMHO the craft is the easy bit, you just put the time in, practice and learn. Coming up with an original voice, and a story that has something new to offer the world, now that is the real challenge.

  20. The Pen and Ink Blog on June 1, 2011 at 5:52 PM

    >The craft is harder. We all have wonderful stories inside. Learning to transfer them to a form which will enchant the reader – Well there's a lot to learn.

  21. Anonymous on June 1, 2011 at 1:09 PM

    >Know what? I've read some books that have those criteria you mentioned. They are so boring and it made me feel so sleepy and I wonder how the hell those books were published and got good reviews. Why oh Why? That only mean not all books have the right touch yet they are published because the writers have the money to make it available in the bookstores and for the reading public.

  22. Larry Carney on June 1, 2011 at 11:38 AM

    >@Kathleen so much to say:

    Literary fiction might be the route to go then; think of writers like Updike (or more recent ones such as Jonathan Franzen) who write about our shortcomings as imperfect creatures in an imperfect world.

    For me the craft part is the hardest, in trying to find characters with new voices and simply not recycle the same ones.

    As to how to approach it, I find there isn't one particular method. For example, sometimes it will be a character that demands to be written and I write the story around the character, and sometimes I start with a fun story idea and then go back and try to figure out how to present it through the perspective of interesting characters.

  23. Jacqueline Windh on June 1, 2011 at 11:32 AM

    >Rachelle, this is a great analysis of two of the main essential elements of fiction. To those two, I would add the "writing" itself (or perhaps include it under your "craft" category). By the writing I mean the word-scale and sentence-scale writing: word choice, adverbs or no adverbs, sentence length, rhythm, sounds, alliteration…

    As I started to move more from journalism and non-fiction to the writing of fiction, I realized that I wanted to work on all of these: craft, story, and the guts of the actual writing. I decided to do that through an MFA in Creative Writing (I'm in the online program at University of British Columbia, nearly finished now).

    It's been an interesting journey… with quite a range in what we do or do not learn through the program. Some profs focus very much on the writing and the craft, whereas others only analyse the story, and seem to let the dullest writing pass by without a comment.

    One of my most interesting revelations about story has come through my Screenwriting courses though (at UBC, unlike most other MFAs, we are required to work in a minimum of three genres). Story-writing for screenwriting comes down practically to a recipe: when the major turning points for a character must be, and what they must do to a character. At first I found this very restrictive; it seemed unimaginative, and the opposite of being creative and original.

    But I realize now that this plotting technique, or outlining, is going to help me hugely in my fiction (both short stories and novels) as far as story-telling: making sure that every scene serves a purpose, and pushes the character in one way or another.

    Thanks for this great discussion!

  24. Christine Rains on June 1, 2011 at 10:44 AM

    >Story comes easy for me. I'm full of ideas and they vie for attention. It makes it hard to work on my craft at times. I get so little time a day to write and I want to get the story out. Then another story wants out. I have to put my foot down. I know my craft needs to be worked upon, too.

  25. Chas Hathaway on June 1, 2011 at 10:42 AM

    >I really have no idea which I'm stronger at. After I read the post, I thought reading the comments would help me understand the difference, but now I'm even more confused.

    What exactly is the difference between story and craft? Is it that story is the enjoyable-ness of the reading, and craft is the technical correctness of the writing?

  26. Eric on June 1, 2011 at 10:18 AM

    >This is a great question. For me, storytelling is probably easier. Part of that is because of my lack of formal education about craft. I'm learning as I go, but I am able to tell easier when the story is flat (I think) than when I'm not exactly following appropriate craft rules.

  27. Eliza Faith on June 1, 2011 at 9:31 AM

    >Story is easier for me. I've been focusing more on my craft and getting better each day.

  28. Shannon Dittemore on June 1, 2011 at 9:31 AM

    >Just as it's hard to untangle to two while reading, I'm sitting here staring at my screen trying to decide which is my strength.

    I'm going to go with story, because, as you indicated, it comes more naturally. But, there are days when the discipline of writing daily demands I lean heavily on craft. It's the perfect marriage of the two, isn't it, that makes a timeless tale?

    I think of wonderful authors, like Cornelia Funke, who do both so well.

    It's a dream. It's a goal.

    Fabulous post, Rachelle.

  29. Jodi Janz on June 1, 2011 at 9:28 AM

    >Thanks for the post Rachelle. I have gone through some of your archives but there is not enough time to scour each article. Thanks for pulling out this one.

    I have to admit when I started writing a year and a half ago I was naive. I assumed all you needed was a great story. As a reader I never paid attention to the writing of a book – if the story was great I would read it. If the story did not grab me I would not read even the most celebrated and prolific authors.

    Rolling around in my head was a powerful story line so I wrote it down. After months of typing it out, I figured the hard part was over.

    My thought was that anyone could learn grammar and writing techniques, but only a few gifted people could write compelling stories (NOT referring to myself).

    In fact I assumed that was the job of the editor – to take a great story and help the author transform it into a great book.

    I know now that I was wrong. So here I am neck deep in learning the craft of writing.

    I am learning so much now and am thankful to blogs such as yours to guide and direct my way. Thanks!

  30. Joanne on June 1, 2011 at 9:17 AM

    >Just when you think you have one thing down pat, something else comes up! Perfecting writing is like perfecting your golf game or the study of violin…too many things to concentrate on – but I'll still keep trying!

  31. Susie M Finkbeiner on June 1, 2011 at 9:16 AM

    >I'm better with story. That's why I'm in an editing/critique group! We all have different strengths and weaknesses. I highly recommend that!

    And if there isn't a writer's group in your area…well, start one!

  32. Deanna on June 1, 2011 at 8:43 AM

    >Newbies are easily discouraged, so I'm excited to feel encouraged!

    Learning the craft is taking me awhile, but I've been told my voice and stories are strong.

  33. Sue Harrison on June 1, 2011 at 6:39 AM

    >I get caught up by my characters so have to really force myself to check and recheck the viability of my storyline.

    I appreciate this post, Rachelle. It's a very good reminder as I work on my 2nd draft. My story needs to catch and hold!

  34. Kathleen@so much to say on June 1, 2011 at 6:26 AM

    >I like to write about ordinary people and ordinary problems. I get sick and tired of reading about Beautiful People with Completely Unrealistic Problems. Does that mean I'm doomed to the rejections pile? 🙂 I'm trying to work on the "story" element, to make it stand out more, but I just believe so strongly in the power of the ordinary. I want to write what people identify with, stories in which they can recognize themselves and their problems, stories that shed light on their own real lives. That's what I strive for. I can only pray that I find a way, eventually, to make that a saleable goal.

  35. Saronai on June 1, 2011 at 6:12 AM

    >I have a similar problem to Nancy. Plot comes way easier to me, ditto characterization, fleshing out the characters and making them real…to me. I just have a small problem sometimes getting out what's in my head onto the page in a story. And the more I work on craft, the more it gets in the way of story. Though I recently finished my first novel draft by writing fanfiction, telling myself it was unpublishable so who cares about craft? It made a good practice novel 😀 I also post little practices on my website. I'm hoping to learn to get that story out first, now I'm editing in the craft (and editing out the fanfiction elements). Wish me luck!

  36. Sharon A. Lavy on June 1, 2011 at 5:39 AM

    >My goal is to write a compelling story. To stir up those voices in my head, let them simmer until they become a delicious soup that someone else can enjoy as much as I do.

  37. Nancy Thompson on June 1, 2011 at 1:47 AM

    >When I wrote my novel, I knew nothing about craft. I had only an inherent knowledge. It was intuitive to some extent. Nothing I was truly cognizant of. It was the story that screamed at me everyday, telling me to put it down, get it out. Once that was done, I learned about the craft & fixed all the problems. Now that I'm ready to start working on my next project, I'm finding that my knowledge of the craft is getting in the way of the story.

  38. Amber Skye on June 1, 2011 at 1:35 AM

    >The story and the voice come naturally to me. In fact, that's why I write, because they are already there in my head, and I feel compelled to let them out. The challenge for me is to improve my craft enough to do the stories justice. I'm working on it.

  39. ~ Tabitha ~ on May 31, 2011 at 11:27 PM

    >The story is the recipe.
    The writing is the instruction.
    And the craft is the end result.
    (Or,the cake as it were.)

    That's just my simple theory 😉

  40. Julie R. Mann on May 31, 2011 at 11:11 PM

    >I'm definitely a writer that finds the story part easier. I'm the type of writer that tries to take an idea and twist it in the most original, non-stereotypical and predictable way possible. I don't always suceed, but I don't think I've ever had someone tell me that my story was boring because they could predict what happened next.

    The craft is where the problems start. Though I AM getting better at that grammer nonsense. (;

    Great blog post, as usual – even if it's from the archives it has a unique, useful, and altogether refreshing perspective.

  41. sally apokedak on May 31, 2011 at 11:11 PM

    >Another great post. I have found that if I write a 50-word synopsis, a 250-word synopsis, and a 750-word synopsis, before I start writing the book, I can see if I have a story that will work.

    It's been very helpful to me, because craft has always been easier for me than coming up with a compelling plot.