Great Writing versus Great Story Telling: The Best Seller List will Forgive One, But Not the Other

There are writers who are really good at selecting the right words, crafting a sentence, turning a phrase and using language in a way that makes the rest of us think, Damn, I wish I wrote that. It’s this kind of writing that we often remember and that gets quoted as time passes.

Then there are the story tellers. These are the writers (fiction or non-fiction) who present us with a narrative that is so engaging and compelling that we cannot put it down because we need to find out what happens next.

Of course the ideal scenario is to be both: an elegant and clever writer, and an engaging and compelling story teller. This, however, is not always the case.

Especially if you are a yet to be published writer, you can craft the most beautiful sentences to ever hit the page, but if your story isn’t exciting the reader in a way that compels them to keep turning pages, your work will be rejected by publishers.

This is not necessarily true for good story tellers.

Allow me to illustrate as we take a look at the following passage:

The associate’s offices were smaller, fifteen by fifteen, but richly decorated and much more imposing than any associates offices he had seen in New York or Chicago. The Firm spent a small fortune on design consultants, Lamar said. Money, it seemed, grew on trees.

From the most basic Writing 101 course all the way through to graduating with an MFA in Creative Writing, “show-don’t-tell” is the one thing that students and emerging writers are told again and again, and for good reason. What the writer is doing above is “telling” us instead of “showing” us. The paragraph is flat and uninteresting. The writer is just giving us information rather than painting us a picture of what these “richly decorated” offices actually look like. And of course there is the worn out cliché at the end about “money” growing on “trees”. Forget the writer, I still cannot fathom how that sentence (let alone the entire passage) got by the editor?

But of course me stating the obvious here really means nothing in a world where success in the publishing business is measured by books sold and dollars counted. And by now you know exactly where I’m going with this. Not only did the passage above and a whole lot more “telling not showing” passages and clichés get past the editor, it got published.

The passage from the book I’m referring to is of course John Grisham’s bestselling novel The Firm which was published in 1991 and by 1993 had sold 1.3million copies and was turned into the successful blockbuster movie starring Tom Cruise.

Legal thrillers are not the kind of thing I usually read, however, I am (probably like most of you) a voracious reader and I read The Firm because I was curious about this sudden bestseller written by a lawyer. To be fair, it is now twenty years later and I have no idea how much Grisham’s writing has improved since The Firm, and I’m not saying he’s a bad writer. My point is this, The Firm is not a well written novel, but Grisham is an excellent story teller. And excellent story telling trumps mediocre writing every time. Of course we all aspire to be both great story tellers and elegant, clever writers. The reality is, however, that you can get published if you are a great story teller and a mediocre or even downright bad writer (Shades of Grey, anyone?), and you may even end up with your book on the best seller list and a lot of money in the bank to boot. If you’re still not convinced of what I’m saying, just pick up a book written by Danielle Steele, Jackie Collins, Dan Brown, and this list can go on forever.

It seems to me in this day and age that the book buying public is less discerning and they will forgive, or perhaps not even recognize bad writing, but they will not accept bad story telling. If you want to engage readers in this world of fast paced everything, you have to live by the adage: Thou shalt not bore!

I’m not going to compare the above authors to a few of my favorite contemporary literary writers who are both great story tellers and craft brilliant, clever sentences at every turn like Alice Munro, Douglas Coupland, Meg Wolitzer, Toni Morrison, Harper Lee and this list can go on and on.

Having said that, there are authors out there that also have huge commercial success, and while they’re not Tolstoy, they are exceptional writers and outstanding story tellers. These writers include people like Stephen King, Agatha Christie, Gillian Flynn, Donna Tartt, and for non-fiction: Malcolm Gladwell is one of the best story tellers I’ve ever read.

While I strive every day to become both a better writer and a better story teller, there are, as I have illustrated above, short cuts to the road to success when it comes to getting published. There are times, far more often than not, that I will sit in front of my computer for hours (and I’m not exaggerating here) trying to improve one paragraph. I simply cannot hand off something to an agent or editor when I know I can do better. And given how long it is taking me to finish the novel I am currently working on, I’m starting to wonder if my need for perfection isn’t more of a curse than a blessing.

I could go on about this topic for pages more, but my word count is running out. If you read any of the above authors and give some thought to what I have said thus far, I think all of what I’ve been postulating here will become clearly evident.

We should always strive to produce the best writing we possibly can, and I believe we owe it to our readership and ourselves to take pride in our craft and our profession. Having said that, the reality is that in a world were sales numbers decide the pecking order of an author’s popularity; the size of their paycheque and even the level of their celebrity; sensational story telling can overshadow mediocre writing and still earn its author millions.

The same, however, is not true when beautifully assembled words are crafted into quotable sentences and transformed into perfect paragraphs without the benefit of a compelling page-turning story. In fact, I wish I could give you an example of a popular novel to illustrate exactly what I am talking about here, but the reality is that I do not know of one because that kind of writing rarely, if ever, gets published.


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