Just Tell the Damn Story (In a Pretty Way)

In Business of Writing, Craft on May 3, 2010 at 2:45 pm

What did I learn by allowing my first sentences/paragraph to be openly critiqued?

1. Opinions ARE subjective, but when the opinions line up, you know that item has to go (which is why I always get feedback in minimums of three)

2. No matter how much we love language, readers care about story. They don’t want to have to work too hard, especially at the beginning.

3. Sometimes, despite all the voices, you have to stay true to your own vision.

But on a larger level, it also brought up a question for me about language and story. When I read a book that is all story and little attention has been paid to the language, I feel…empty. I love stopping over a line and admiring its form, its lyrical outfit, its shimmy and shine. It makes me feel as though the writer loves me just a little bit, enough to spend time lingering on their words, or planting a beautiful image.

What are your thoughts on the balance between language and story? What compels you as a reader?


  1. I do love language and story. But if it’s all language, especially on the very first pages, it seems to act as speedbumps that take me out of fictive dream.

    Of course, it’s not such a good read if it’s all story, too.

    Just like making sure that spices added to a dish don’t overpower but enhance the flavors to give a meal that mmmm taste, it’s all about the writer finding the proper balance that makes the story resonate.

    • Thanks for weighing in, Marisa!

      It is such a tricky balance, isn’t it? Agents and publishers all want “voice” to leap off the page, but also tell the story. It doesn’t matter how much I write or teach, I find this to be a constant struggle.

  2. I think that opening paragraph is a great opportunity to let the reader know what they’re in for. Is this going to be a heavily language-driven story or a purely plot-driven story or a mix of the two? I think that mix is the toughest thing, of course. As you say, it’s a constant struggle. Still, I expect the tone of that opening paragraph to exemplify the tone of the book at large. Your post made me pull some of my favorites off the book shelf to see how they did it. Consistent, every single one of them.

    • Tracy, exactly! It sets a tone–that’s another really good point. And if you’re going to have a mix of the two, that does have to be present right away. I did the same thing, pulled books off the shelf to take a look! This is SO hard to do well.

  3. I’ve read pieces by published professionals and friends that left me feeling like the author chose words just to sound… literary. If I have to read a sentence several times to figure out what the author is trying to say (several times throughout the novel), something is wrong and it leaves me frustrated.

    I guess it comes down to balance. You have to know your style, but you also have to know your audience. I get annoyed if I have to look up too many words when reading fiction. Not all stories require $10 words every other line.

    I think sometimes writers can be too descriptive. I like being left with just a little bit that requires my own imagination.

    • Yes, we’ve all read those books, Nina. The problem is, as writers, I know we all savor language and sometimes we’re NOT trying to show off, we’re just enjoying the process.

      Has anyone here read Marisha Pessl’s novel, “Special Topics in Calamity Physics”??? Here’s a book that completely gets away with verbal shenanigans, and yet, in the end, I ultimately liked it. Here’s an example of one of her sentences: “Naturally, for me, the idea of a Permanent Home (the definition of which I took to be any shelter Dad and I inhabited in excess of ninety days–the time an American cockroach could go without food) was nothing more than a Pipe Dream, Cloud-Cuckoo-Land, the hope to purchase a brand-new Cadillac Coupe DeVille with baby blue leather interior for any Soviet during the drab winter of 1985.”

      • I have to check my bookshelf, but I do believe KeMari gave me that book for my birthday last year. And I think it’s because I discovered it on the internet while doing some blog promotion and went completely ga-ga over the title and marketing for it.

      • Just FYI, Nina, some people HATED the book 🙂

  4. Really? It’s on my shelf in the pile of books to be read. I wish I had more time to read.

  5. Hallelujah this is my topic. Somebody grab the soap box. Jejjeej.

    I tend to like writing that flows. But then again, who doesn’t?

    But there’s mantra that appears work for me, not only in my life, but in writing as well: Perfection lies in Simplicity.

    Generally, a writer works on that opening line for several months, sometimes years (God bless ’em), has spent hundreds of hours scrutinizing every syllable and cadence, and knows how that first sentence is going to end before it starts. But if the reader has to re-read it, that’s not a good sign. Mayday, mayday, plane may be coming in for a crash landing! And that book may be headed back to where you just pulled it from on the bookstore shelf.

    Since the market is so competitive, I say don’t scare the reader right from the beginning. No one likes to be thrown in the deep end of the swimming pool with their clothes on. At least let me take off my clothes and dive in.

    So what do I suggest? Sure, you can start off with a bang, but keep the language simple and allow the reading to CLEARLY understand what’s going on, and then as you move into the novel, then allow the writing to become more intricate if you like.

    But I’d say Confusion is your enemy – it certainly is mine.

    Again, this is totally my preference – I don’t advocate that others follow my madness.

  6. I’ve started to read some stories that had great potential but lacked a certain poetry – I put the stories down. And when I say poetry, I don’t mean language that’s so thick it overwhelms me. Simple sentence can be poetic. I think it comes down to a contrast in images. If the author can help me to rediscover the world in some way, I am hooked. I’ll read any genre, any kind of story, if it is written in a way that I feel like I am on the verge of discovering something new. A sort of ‘God is in the details’ type of thing. For example, I am paraphrasing here, but there was a great line in Glimmer Train short story that made me pause, “SHe looked like she had wandered into the Pet Mart and unable to find her way back out, decided she might as well stay.” This was describing one of the employees. It summed up so much (about the employee, life in general, and the viewpoint of the protagonist) in a simple sentence.
    I want to write like that when I grow up.

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