Saturday, November 14, 2009

Story, story, story

I have lots and lots to say about the writers' conference I just attended. Let me start with a question I came away with. The impression I left with was this: story is to publishing what location is to real estate. Everybody was talking about how words are secondary to the story. I get that you can't write a novel without a good story. But to me, a great story is not always what draws me in.

I don't like much of the plot-driven stuff that's out there. It's not all badly written, either. But if it's short on character development or has awkward transitions or clunky phrases or even if the words are bland, I get bored. I admit I still sometimes can't put the book down if the plot is exciting, but that's not what makes me love a book.

It's the art. It's the words.

I love classics like Middlemarch that make me think about human relationships. I love the great Russian authors who make me think about philosophical questions. I love books like Atonement just for their beautiful prose.

Make me think, make me cry, make me dream. Then the book will stay with me for longer than it takes me to read it. I like books that change me. And the story, well, to me that's almost background information. The plot is more like a supporting character. Story has to be there, of course, and it has to be well developed, but I don't care about the story if you can't make me care about the characters, if you can't help me learn something or force me to get out my everyday world and relate to it differently.

Today, an agent looked at some of my descriptive phrases and said to me, "Why should I care?" Good question. I've been thinking about it ever since. The answer is, "Because it's pretty! Because it paints a picture!" I'm not saying she was wrong. I've got to rip the entire manuscript to shreds anyway. But this train of thought led me to another question. Are pretty words enough? Does sheer beauty make a work of art matter?

I'm not saying I'm Tolstoy, and you certainly would know I'm not if you read my first draft. I'm just asking the question because I like imagery. I like my prose almost poetic. The fast-paced stuff doesn't interest me unless there's some other compelling draw.

Like so many things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. But what do you think? Is story king or is there more to the story for you?


Melanie J said...

I'm not a plot driven writer or reader either, but story matters to me more in some genres. Still, I can forgive a lot in a meandering plot if the characters keep me anchored.

mustangsabby said...

I was always told that everything in a story must move plot, even in infantissimal steps. I too fall into the need to describe something as evocatively as possible, and then look back on it and go "that's great, but what does it mean?"

This might be the reason why everyone always skips the pages and pages about trees in Tolkien's LOTR. :)

Thankfully, description can be edited a lot easier than conversation or action, since that is a very easy way to move plot, and hard to cut out when you already have this concrete idea on how the story arc flows.