ON STORYTELLING by Hugh Howey
I get emails now and then asking me for the secret to writing success. My sad and honest answer is always that I simply don’t know why some books take off and others don’t. I have a hard time believing it’s the quality of the writing, at least in my case, because I read much better prose than mine all the time. But something occurred to me this past week at WorldCon in Chicago: We might have it backwards, just what it is that authors do. Or more precisely, what it is that readers want from us.
We tend to think of ourselves as writers, which is why we study English, master grammar, and fret over the cleanliness and quality of our prose. It’s why writing workshops, classes, and critique groups spend time clucking over adverbs and too many –ing words. We are writers. Our job is to construct perfect sentences, first and foremost. Except . . . I’m starting to think this view of what we do is wrong.
I think writing is just a tool for something more primal, which is storytelling. Humans have been telling each other stories for a very long time, in caves and across fire pits, stories about gods and ghosts, gossiping amongst ourselves, recounting that hilarious time Borg got speared in the thigh by Grog. Authors have to be able to do both, of course, but which of the two should we stress? Which of the two do readers care more about? I wonder if the answers to these two questions are in conflict, which means writers have been concentrating on improving the wrong skills. It could explain why success in writing seems random at times, why it doesn’t correlate with our narrow view of talent. It’s not a talent in writing that readers are after.
This occurred to me recently as a group of authors at WorldCon were poking fun of the Twilights and the Shades of Grey (with a lot of dismay and more than a hint of envy). I pointed out that my wife enjoyed both of these series, and that she has great taste in books (if not in husbands). How to account for this? And not only her enjoyment of these books but of the vast millions that made these works the most popular since Harry hit puberty. My theory is that what many of us as authors value is not what readers value. Readers want stories. Plot is king and prose is pawn.
Now, before your head explodes, I understand that discerning readers dearly want both if they can have it. But with the vast emphasis authors place on prose, readers are getting shafted where it matters to them most. Look at how we as writers discuss our work for evidence: We talk about how great a writer someone is, how free a work is of error, how their sentences sing. It’s why critique groups spend so much time agonizing over the rules. Breaking a rule is easy to spot. It’s like getting a math problem wrong. Describing why a story moves or startles us is much more difficult. Sure, a popular complaint in a writing group might be that a story didn’t “grab them.” Or that they “lost interest.” But it’s hard to say why. And think about how happy readers rave about their favorite books:
“I couldn’t put it down.” “Page-turner.” “Thrilling.” “Awesome.” “I felt like I was there.” “Loved the characters.” “Didn’t see the ending coming.” And so on. Ephemeral praise, if you’ll notice. It’s hard to put our finger on what makes a book great, but I argue that it’s the plot more than anything else. And how often do we discuss plot, as professional writers? When someone asks me about Wool, why don’t I have the shorthand language to encapsulate the hero’s journey described within? How about:
“It’s an underdog story with a plucky heroine. There are metaphors of class warfare designed to align readers with one group, but I fuzzified the player motivations so readers were left consumed with thought-time when they weren’t reading. Went heavy on the dinger endings on my chapters, killed off a few characters, got all cliffhangery at the end. Published serialized and then Omni. Love interest was a male naïve and a female wounded. Tossed in a breath-holding scene, a self-sacrifice finale, and a twister.”
Yeah. We don’t do this. Because it’s so much harder. We don’t even have the necessary language (though Joseph Campbell and others have tried). The most we do is talk about the “hero’s journey” and certain character tropes like “the reluctant warrior.” Is it possible to pay more attention to plot? To find some way to analyze what we feel emotionally?
Maybe we need to learn more about the elements of plot if we want to understand why some books do well and others languish. I posit this: there are storytellers and there are writers. You can be both, of course, but if you have to spend more time anguishing over one, I’d try and figure out how to lead three dingers into a zinger and get that plucky protagonist out of a villain jam without resorting to deus ex machina at the last second. I would switcheroo and best-friend-betrayal, boy meets girl and gets angry at him after falling in love, only to get back together right at the end. But maybe that’s just me. It could be that you have an even better story to tell.