Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Fuel for the "But They Broke the Rules" Fire

by Deren Hansen

Annette Lyons discussed, "The 2 Sides of a Good Writer" in a post at the Writing on the Wall blog, and identified the writing versions of the Hatfields and McCoys: the storytellers and the word smiths.

If we peel away the petty jealousy for those who collect royalties when we collect rejections, the complaint that someone broke the "rules" and still succeeded often comes down to storytellers and wordsmiths complaining about each other.

How often have you heard writers complain that a best-selling author tells a good story but is a terrible writer? How about critiques that someone writes beautiful prose but the story doesn't go anywhere?

You might say that storytelling vs.word smithing simply echos the distinction between commercial and literary fiction, where the former is all about the story and the latter is about how the story is told. But that observation only speaks to the stereotypes.

The deeper point is that storytelling and word smithing represent two fundamental approaches to the way we share narrative information. Storytelling is about selecting and presenting the best bits. Word smithing is about telling a bit well enough that it's interesting in its own right.

So, does this mean we have to choose sides?

Those of you who have been following for a while know that I don't like dichotomies unless they lead to a synthesis. The real answer is to make peace between the Hatfields and McCoys and strive for a good story, well told.


Scott said...

My favorite art breaks rules. That's true of books as much as other art forms. Now, sometimes the breaches are just something less than great writing. Sometimes the rules aren't really rules at all. Other times, the rule breaking is a writer going big.

Scott said...

Plus, there's plenty of room in the literary world, like there is in other art forms, for works that are purely meant to entertain. I read both literary classics and more plot-driven entertainment, and enjoy both. I prefer well-written books with great stories and aim for that middle when I write, but there's room in my life for books all along the (mostly imaginary) spectrum.

Virginia S Grenier said...

When I see this debate I quote my favorite movie Pirates of the Caribbean when Barbossa says, "First, your return to shore was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement so I must do nothing. And secondly, you must be a pirate for the pirate's code to apply and you're not. And thirdly, the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner."

And that sums up writing rules.