Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Keeping Them Until the End

(Photo by Chris J. Fries - 2012: Sunset Swing)

Driving home from work the other day, I was flipping through channels on the radio and caught a snippet from NPR's "All Things Considered".  They were just finishing up a segment and asking for listener input for future entries, and something that the announcer casually said really grabbed a hold of me:

"...and it doesn't matter if it's funny or sad; all that matters is that it's a great story."

Although I'm but a still-developing writer, I have learned first-hand how much hard work goes into turning a concept into a finished piece of fiction.  I've agonized over word choices, phrasing, descriptive details, character traits, dialogue, setting, back-story, pacing, and every other nuance of painstakingly-polished prose. In my quest to make everything I write be the best it can be, I've often zoomed so deep into the details of my writing that I've felt like I was tweaking the pixels on each individual letter on my computer screen.

And, yes --  it's absolutely neccessary.

But that cast-off statement from my evening commute also reminded me of the real goal -- why I do it.  It's the whole freakin' reason why anyone would want to read something I write; why they might get wrapped up in it; and why they'd hopefully want to stay with it to the very last word, like beach visitors hanging on until the last few rays of a setting sun.

Not the wording, not the tidbits of description, not the nuances of character, not the subtleties of setting. 

It's the STORY!

I want my writing to tell a compelling story -- something that pulls my readers in and entertains, amuses, and immerses them.  A story that keeps them involved and invested, from word one right through to the very end.  

Of course, I want it finely crafted, too.  I'll still need to polish my prose right down to the pixel-tweaking level.

But only because that's something that the reader really notices if its wrong.  When everything works, the writing serves mainly to let the story come shining through, right up until the very last glimmer before "The End".

The story -- that's all that matters.

So what do you think?


L.G. Keltner said...

I agree. While the way we word something might help strengthen a piece of writing, if it doesn't have a compelling story to go along with it, people will pass on it. People want to get wrapped up in the story. That's why I come up with my story first and worry about the rest later.

Holly Vance said...

I think it depends on your audience and your purpose. For some of us, mastery of language can carry us over some mediocre story, but that's not the populous. Write what you want to write--and telling a good story is always a good reason.

Elise Fallson said...

For me it's primarily about the story. I can forgive imperfections in writing style especially if the story is a GREAT story. But a half interesting story with fantastic writing will carry me only so far and most of the time I never make it to the last page. Too many great stories out there and so little time to read them all.

KarenG said...

Totally agree! It's all about the story. And how the story is told, and who the players are, and what is the outcome.

Christine Rains said...

I completely agree. Readers will be drawn into the book if it's a great story, and they aren't likely to notice any errors. Yet if the story is poorly written, readers will notice every dang thing that is wrong!

Donna Hole said...

I think I need to keep this inspiration posted above my monitor to read and re-inspire me over and over as I write, and then edit.

So many times I've been pulled out of a good story by a lack of editing; but I also will continue to read if the story is great.

So first, get the story on paper (pixel) and when it sound so awesome you want to live in that character's skin, worry about the copy editing.


Nicole said...

Definitely! As a reader or writer, I fall in love with the story. The rest is simply how you choose to share it.

Chris Fries said...

@L.G.: In general, that's the way inspiration usually strikes me, too -- the concept for the story tends to come first, and then the writing fleshes it out.

@Holly: I definitely admire masterful writing, but if there's not a compelling story, then the writing seems wasted. Maybe it's because I tend to lean on the genre side of the old "genre-vs-literary" writing debate, but to me, when the story is the driving force behind the writing, it creates the best and most memorable fiction.

@Elise: I agree. I think that writing which focuses on style over content can be beautiful, but empty. To steal a quote from Macbeth, "it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." OK, maybe that's a little strong, lol! I do admire great writing and want to emulate it, but I also want my stories to be the primary thing -- content supported by form.

@Karen: Absolutely. And since my preference leans towards character-driven stories, character is vital. But again -- skillful writing is still totally necessary, but because it's the medium that reveals the story.

@Donna: Yep. Story first; story foremost. But writing is critical too. Thanks for the comment!

@Nicole: Well said! :^)

Guilie said...

Absolutely agreed, Chris. Story is boss. Without a good story the most polished writing won't count for much. And, when you look at reviews of some of the self-pubbed stuff out there, it seems obvious that readers are willing to forgive pretty awful writing if the story's riveting. Like you, though, I agonize over word choices and other craft issues. I do believe that "magic" is struck when a good story meets above-par writing, when the nuances of character and language come together with a tale that speaks to a deeper level of reader consciousness. Good for you!

Arlee Bird said...

I do like a good story. But a good story doesn't necessarily have to be about great or unique events. A great story told poorly ends up being forgotten. There are many stories written about mundane events that are great because of how well they are written. For me it's primarily style.

Tossing It Out

Tonja said...

I think it takes all these things - a great story and a great deal of cre at the pixel-level. :)

Milo James Fowler said...

I agree, Chris, but I'd add CHARACTERS. Most often, that's where my stories start. What will happen to (fill in the blank with one of my favorite characters) this time? Then after I have the STORY, I can focus on the pixels too. =]

L.G. Keltner said...

I have an award for you. Should you choose to accept it, you may pick it up here:

Heather Murphy said...

In writing it's a story, but that's sad that the media look at it that way. When we are writing, it's fiction. They are dealing with real people's lives. The media these days seem to forget that at times

Alison Miller said...

Well stated. Ultimately it is the story. That said, I've read good stories that were poorly written and learned to hate them so the craft is incredibly important, but the reverse has to be true as well.

Great post!

Simon Kewin said...

I agree - it's the story that matters. That doesn't mean all the polishing isn't vital, too. Best, in my view, to bash down the story and then spend time rewriting and honing it afterwards.

Chris Fries said...

@Guilie: Thank you very much -- I really appreciate your comment!

@Arlee: I agree with you: A good story does not have to be epic things. Some of the best stories can be about small events, particularly if those stories are built around compelling characters.

@Tonja: True. Even a good story needs support, but for me, story is the core which everything else enhances. But uh, "cre"? Is that an acronym, for like, Comprehensive Revision Effort? ;^)

@Milo: Absolutely! I think the best stories are character-driven, so for me character is an integral part of 'story'.

@LG: Thank you very much! I'll swing by presently...

@Heather: That is true, but I should probably mention that at least the NPR piece I heard was the end of a human-interest piece; a series they've been running about "your parent's music," so the listener stories they were seeking weren't quite at the level of intrusive cameras-in-the-face voyeur journalism we see so much of.

@Alison: True, bad writing can kill a good story, but good writing can't save a bad story either, I think. Both are important, but for me, story carries a little more weight than craft. Thank you very much for your comment!

Chris Fries said...

@Simon: I think so, too. thank you very much for your thoughts, Simon!

Julie Dao said...

You know, Chris, ever since I started writing, I keep hearing that quote about seeing the forest for the trees. I struggle with the same thing... wondering whether my dialogue is up to par, stressing out over certain words, agonizing over taboo stuff like too many adverbs and too much backstory. But I always try to remind myself to keep writing and to deliver the best possible story I can give. Critique partners and beta readers can help with the small technical stuff, but the heart of the story is our responsibility. Great post!

Misha Gericke said...

I agree 100%. That's why I never let edits distract me until drafting is done.

Good luck with your writing!

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

I have a tendency to get caught up in the words, to seek the perfect phrase expressed with the perfect cadence and balance. How can we not? How can we with our life-long addictions to the written word NOT want to create literature whose words light up the page? But you're right; that isn't what matters to most readers. For most readers, the STORY is what counts, and as writers, we have to keep reminding ourselves of that. Great post.

The Golden Eagle said...

I also agree. It's about what happens to the people in their world that makes the difference.

T said...

Very well stated and I whole-heartedly agree. Story is everything... and I also hope to one day engage and evoke emotions in others through my words. This was a great post. While I wanted to thank you for the inspiration, I also popped over to your blog to commend you on your thoughtful and constructive critiques in the current WRiTE CLUB challenge. No matter who ends up winning, my vote goes to you for best commentary!

Chris Fries said...

@Julie: Thank you! I appreciate your thoughts, and I agree!

@Misha: Thank you, and good luck with yours too. ;^)

@Susan: Thanks! To me, a great story is like a great song. I can enjoy a low-fidelity, bootleg, live recording of a good song, but a highly-polished recording froma state-of-the-art studio of an weak song doesn't move me. Qualityl writing can certainly add to a good story, but -- at least for me -- can't carry it on its own.

@Golden Eagle: True. Compelling characters that we care about is a key component of a good story

@T: Thank you! And I apprecaite the kind words about my WRiTE club commentary. I try to say things that I'd want to hear, and I try to give it all in the spirit of helping. Hopefully I never come off as rude or as a know-it-all, because that's never my intention.