In a recent contest I entered, the submission guidelines included this line: “Some writers can weave a beautiful thread, but tell a really bad story at the same time.”
That caught my attention. So often a writer believes that spinning beautiful prose is all it takes to write a best-seller. I don’t believe that’s true in fiction or non-fiction.
In the latter, we can replace “story” with “content” and the statement above is just as true — a beautiful thread can be a part of really bad content. I’ve seen it before in blog posts. One beautiful sentence after another, and suddenly my eyes are glazed over because I have no idea where the writer is going and I’ve forgotten where she came from. Either that or she’s made her point over and over using one inspiring metaphor, followed by a clever simile, illustrated by a picturesque analogy, the redundancy leaving at least this one bored reader skimming the rest of the post.
How can a writer avoid wasting beautiful prose on a bad story? To answer this question, I think we must first look at what constitutes a bad story.
A host of story elements gone wrong can result in bad stories, but my Big Three are lack of originality, little or no direction, and an ending that does not deliver what the beginning promised.
Originality. Stories aren’t new, but they can be told from a perspective that hasn’t been done and re-done. For example, the story of King Arthur has been told in story, film, movies, TV programs over and over again, to the point that I tend to recoil when I hear a story uses elements of that myth.
And yet, when the TV program Merlin came on, it quickly became one of my favorites. Why? Because I’d never seen this slice of the Arthur story before — his life as a young prince as told through the eyes of the young wizard who would one day be the key figure in Arthur’s kingdom.
Direction. In fiction the main character sets the direction of the story. Problems occur when a writer has so many point of view characters that a reader has a hard time identifying the main direction. He doesn’t connect with one particular character and therefore does not follow the story in the hopes that the hero will find success.
“Finding success” also is dependent upon direction. The main character must want something and must take action to accomplish whatever it is he or she wishes to achieve. This achievement, however, may be something subtle, such as character change. Nevertheless, readers should know without question when the character achieves or fails, whether he’s been successful in his quest or not.
Rocky Balboa, for example, lost his first title bout against Apollo Creed, but he forced the fight to go the distance — one of his goals. What’s more, through the events leading up to the fight, Rocky changed. Even though the boxing judges’ decision went against him, we all knew Rocky was a winner.
The Ending. Recently I read a story that promised much. The character was interesting and the premise original. Tension mounted. Suspense showed up. But in the end, what we thought was true turned out not to be so, and the story ended like a balloon with a slow leak.
Endings need to be strong and satisfying. They need to cap off a steady build up. In fact, all that has come before should be leading to the climactic ending.
With that kind of appropriate build-up, an ending will be satisfying if it answers the story question — can the character overcome? However, that “overcome” issue isn’t so much about overcoming an adversary as it is overcoming his own weakness.
Endings need to be strong for their own sake but also for the sake of the next book. Unless a reader finishes with a sense of satisfaction, it’s unlikely she will care to read the next novel the author puts out.
In summary, authors certainly should write beautiful prose. However, all that beauty should be poured into making the story great. Attention to style without attention to substance may earn praise from those looking for art in story. But the truth is, most readers are looking for story in story. Authors would be wise to give the best story they can — without neglecting beautiful prose that can serve as the wrapping.