Style Over Story

This seems to happen a lot nowadays: I’ll say something that I think is true, and then get turned on my head by something I see a day or two later.

A few days ago, I commented on Charley R.’s blog and said that “I think… it’s better to be born with the ability to craft a great story than the ability to tell one. You can learn to make your prose ring– it’s harder to learn to make original stories.”  That comment got me thinking about Christopher Paolini and how, though he had a good writing style, his stories needed work on the originality front.  I started to wonder why people liked him at all.

According to Rick Riordan in his Advice for Writers, “Most manuscripts are rejected because the writing is not technically competent.  …If you write well, you have already set yourself apart from 99% of what agents and editors see every day.”  Upon reading this, I almost slapped myself.  Of course.  It’s easy to imagine a manuscript with a horrible writing style but an interesting story being rejected, but this also turns that around: it implies that some manuscripts are accepted, not because of the story quality, but because of the quality of the writing.

Now it makes sense why Paolini succeeded.  He had an understanding of correctness of speech, as you can easily see from the writing tips of his that say “Know the craft intimately.”  “Avoid passive voice.”  “Avoid excess of words.”  (Ironically, after saying this he goes on to describe what he means, even though it’s obvious.)  “Be conscious of your point of view.”  “Avoid cliches.”  “Take a book you know is well-written and study how the author constructs the sentences and paragraphs.”  In all of these, he’s talking about how to tell a story.  In the other two tips, perhaps three, he talks about making a story.  It’s obvious what his priorities are when he writes.  He’s trying– and often succeeding– at making his style the best it can be.

Here I was, thinking that the story was the most important aspect of a story, but now that I think about it, the telling of the story is even more important.  It doesn’t matter how boring a story is if you tell it excitingly.

Yesterday I learned the difference between active and passive voice.  I’m currently working my way through a college Latin textbook, half of the time understanding and half of the time wondering what the author is saying.  Daily I’m learning more about grammar and sentence construction.  I am determined to make my writing style better than anything else in my writing.  If storytelling is supposed to be equal parts story and telling, I’m severely lacking in the telling aspect.

What to expect?  The remaining half of the Phil Phorce that I have to write will be written style-consciously.  I will write another draft of The Music Went On, and I will post that here for critiquing.  Nothing short of a bulldozer from heaven will stop me from finding the secret to great storytelling.

Leave a comment


  1. Charley R

     /  September 25, 2012

    May your quest bring you to fulfilment . . . without too many misadventures along the way. I may join you, once I persuade my noble steed out of its coma and get my trusty companions to come out of the tree they have sequestered themselves into. I think our last encounter with a large horde of savage Plot Bunnies took a bit out of them. That, or they can’t face another thicket of Purple Prose.

  2. Robyn Hoode

     /  September 25, 2012

    I and my dear cat Tempest wish you luck in finding the secret. You will tell us what it is, right?
    And on another note… Tempest wants me to add that it probably isn’t wise to even mention bulldozers from heaven. Heaven knows what might happen.

  3. So the reason half of (I mean most of) my stories aren’t very good is ’cause I don’t tell them very well?

    Hmm. Big surprise… *sarcastic*


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