I love language. When I write, I try to create sentences and paragraphs that pull my readers in, that tickle and delight or thrill and give fright. I try to use lovely and effective description, designing word pictures and using syntax and structures that evoke emotion and fall gracefully on the reader’s ear.
All of these aims are important to me, but more vital than the words and constructions, is the story itself. I stress story over style every time.
Ever decorated a Christmas tree?
In working with my piano students, there comes a time when I ask if they’ve ever decorated a Christmas tree. I’ve been teaching for twenty years, had over two hundred students in three different countries, and I’ve never had a student say no. My next question is this: “What’s the first thing you have to do when decorating a Christmas tree?”
Most students say it’s lights, but there’s something you have to do even before that. You have to get the tree. Everything hangs on the tree—without it, you just have a shapeless pile of decorations.
I use this to illustrate the function and importance of rhythm in music, but something similar applies in the art of writing. The story is the Christmas tree. It provides the shape and substance on which everything else—all the beautiful imagery and stylish descriptions—depends.
Writers are storytellers
I’m a writer, but more than that, I’m a storyteller. When I listen to someone tell a story, I can forgive a certain lack of finesse in the delivery if the story is worth it. Stories speak to us, they resonate within the very heart of us, firing receptors in our DNA.
More than flair, more than elegant sentence construction and sparkling syntax, story matters. It is my goal and passion to create stories you’ll love reading and to do that, I stress story over style.
How about you? Which element do you value more in the books you read—story or style? Tell us about it in the comments.
Story. A rippin’ good story every time. BUT, style and tone are very important. One of my favorite writers is Ursula LeGuin, who excelled in both story and style. The tone of her writing is integral to the tales she spins, whether science fiction or fantasy.
Hi Mike! So happy you responded, and I agree wholeheartedly with your view. Both are very important, but Story trumps if it comes right down to it. It’s wonderful when both are incorporated to create something remarkable.
Right now, I’m reading a book that covers both elements and I’m enjoying it a lot. It’s called Aliens Crashed In My Back Yard, and I can’t wait to finish and leave a review!
The story. Style may matter later on, but if there is no story, who wants to read it?
Well put, Chuck. The two elements go hand-in-hand, but if the story doesn’t grab a reader, all the great style will go to waste when the book closes with a resounding snap! Thanks so much for your comment.
Having been raised in the “playwrights’ belt” of mid-south America, story is always going 24-7 around those parts. The mixes of the French, Irish, Scottish and English people who settled the upper Northwest Ozarks in Arkansas over to the flats of the Mississippi River Delta from Memphis down to New Orleans, well, there’s nothing quite like New World Celts sitting at dinner sharing tales of the day. Starched mannerisms, real respect of gender roles and free will to live as one wishes makes for electric living. As a southern kid who learned piano and played football while listening to my elders filled me with stories that stuck forever. Your question about story vs. style made me look inward to understand why I write the way I do.
Perhaps it was the lyrical flow of embellished speech of the university city of Fayetteville, Arkansas where I was raised, that helped me capture the constantly evolving tales I heard each day all around me. It become a dual ability that has pushed me along as a writer in television (now retired). Deep within the mix of cultures in this area of the nation, there developed a literary style that reflected their way of living, and a natural ability to express themselves. For my work now as a novelist, story is my leading edge while style dances with delight, popping up unexpectedly, or retracting to privacy, pulling my story every which way. As if to say, please tell me what’s next. Thanks for listening. I read your articles constantly. Charles David Crain
Hello! I really appreciate your thoughtful response to my question. You raise some interesting points and insights, and I can almost see and hear those dinnertime discussions. Wonderful!
Thank you so much for responding, and for your continuing support.
Story is the main thing. I have read books where I had to supply my own finishing as I laughed at the twists and turns of the story.
That is not to say all other things are not important. It’s like cooking a rotten meat and expect spices to make things right. The meat has to be right in the first place while all others will add to its taste.
Hi Kunda, very well put! I like what you said, and I thank you for sharing your ideas. Much appreciated.