A novel has to tell a story. It has to be intriguing and produce enough emotion to propel the reader forward, to keep us turning the page even when a chapter has ended. We want to break out the flashlight and huddle in our beds so we can continue reading far into the night. A reader wants to feel so connected to a character that they worry for them, care for them, must know what’s going to happen next, and if that character will receive their happy ending when all is said and done.
It will not matter how fantastic the words are if a reader feels a disconnect or, quite frankly, the story is rather dull. Without naming titles of books, I have read a few of these types of novels—the writing is beautiful, but the story not so much. It becomes a chore instead of a joy. I find myself losing interest half way through the book and I end up setting it aside with no plans to ever pick it up again.
And then, of course, there are the books on the market in which the writing is so poor it’s laughable. Again, I will not name names. Yet, the story is interesting—interesting enough to make teenage girls and their mothers swoon, pick a team, and stand in line at midnight for the movie premier. Laughable writing aside, this author is rolling in the dough. Her success? She wrote a good story—she did. She made it different and interesting. She made the reader want more—three books more. That’s an accomplishment and something all writers strive for. (I want that. Not the bad writing part, but the three books more part).
Because, here’s the thing, no matter how wonderfully written a book is, no matter how pretty the words are, it won’t matter if the reader doesn’t care enough to know what’s going to happen next. If the reader doesn’t feel a oneness with at least one of the main characters, then the author has failed. It’s as simple as that. The story has to be good. Fancy writing, natural dialogue, and beautiful narrative will mean nothing, if the story is boring, if the plot is dull, if the reader doesn’t care about the characters.
The best books are the ones that can accomplish both things—beautiful writing with a beautiful, passionate story. There are many of these out there and I count myself lucky when I happen to stumble upon one. A good book I will devour in only a couple of sittings. A bad book I will donate to the local thrift store.
As writers, it is beneficial to read bad books. Sounds silly, but it’s not. It’s an opportunity to see where the author went wrong and for us to avoid making that same mistake in our own work.
In fact, we will probably learn more from the bad books than we ever will from the good.
In an article called “The Love of a Good Story” by Robin Garland, she interviews a long-time story consultant and agent, Lisa Cron. Lisa has this to say (which I found so well put, that I quote her directly): “Make no mistake, great writing is secondary. Because if a reader doesn’t care what happens next, who cares how well it’s written. In the trade, such exquisitely rendered, story-less novels are referred to as a beautifully written ‘so what?’ “
For myself, I strive to become a writer that can mesh both—good writing with a fantastic story. I’m still working on that. But if nothing else, I want my readers to keep turning the page. I want them to feel as though they can’t set the book down for even a moment.
If I can accomplish that, I will be utterly thrilled.
If I can make it beautiful at the same time, that’s a bonus. But I do know that I never want to be a beautifully written “so what?”