How important is story?

How important is story?

Because I am a staggeringly good procrastinator, I read a lot about writing and post a lot on writing forums. This helps me to feel like I’m making progress without actually doing any work.

But you see, I’m coming unstuck. People keep saying that the core ingredients you need to write a great book are great writing and not being an asshole, but that the fundamental non-negotiable is a great story.

Some of them even say that the writing needn’t be amazing, as long as you have a great story.

The problem is, I am not a storyteller. When I think about what I’m planning to write, it doesn’t occur to me that things might happen to people. Instead, I consider how nicely the words might slip together and how I can use them as a metaphor for life. This is a source of endless frustration for the lovely people who are silly enough to offer their help with my writing. When someone says, “What is your plot?” I say things like, “The reader realises the main character’s reality is broken because she is haunted by a past that she doesn’t quite remember, and really, what do any of us know about truth?” And they say something like, “Um, that’s not a story. What if she finds another woman’s knickers in her marital bed?”

So I decided to find out whether it’s possible to write great book, if the best story you can think of involves the time you got a smack because you ate all the Iced Vovos.

Firstly, I found out that this seems quite closely linked to the war around literary fiction, what even is? which has evidently been waging since the dawn of categorisation by genre. My contribution to this is that yesterday I read Mateship with Birds, by Carrie Tiffany, in part due to my raging jealous literary boner and in part due to the excellent things people I know have been saying it. I read that book and I got to the end and I put it down and went, “HUH?” Because it is the kind of book that maybe has a story, kind of, loosely, but ultimately is an exploration of a theme broken up into chapters. What it says is not this happened, and as a result this happened, but actually, what does it mean to be human, and how can I become one, or do I really want to? To be honest, the more confused I am after reading, the better. Other books like this that I’ve read lately include Bereft, Steeplechase and The Age.

Secondly, I found out that the books people buy more than other books are written to be an escape from the real world. Unfortunately my idea of escape from the real world is much more Hunter S. Thompson than J.K. Rowling, leaving aside the fact that they are both also stellar storytellers. People want to turn the page to find out which exciting adventure came next, or whether she managed to score with the hot pool guy, or whether they escaped from the Nazis, or whether he was really the one who murdered the old man at the bus stop. Hell, I want to know what happens next and might not even finish writing this blog post before I do. Do people want to turn a page to find out whether a main character still hates herself or whether she’s managed to project that hatred on to her alienated sister-in-law? If I want to think about those things, I can just put the book down and call my nanna.

Thirdly, I asked some of my lovely writer friends (ones who are good storytellers) to explain to me the importance of story in a book. I told them to go easy on me, please, because maybe I was just born to write conceptual books, because I am a philosopher and possibly even a reincarnation of John Lennon. They told me to please stop calling them, and how did I get their new number?

Then I wondered what a story is, and how I could even know if it was a story until I had written it, which made me want to cut everything, so I stopped. It seems, then, that the answer to my question is another question: what do you want to write? Which is probably why I keep going back to the forums, where the answer is: whatever I want, as long as I don’t have to look at my damn manuscript.

But seriously, is it just a matter of taste? Have you ever read a book that you loved, but that had a shitty story? Am I confusing ‘story’ and ‘plot’? Is this blog post just another clever procrastination tactic?

* brought to you by several days with a cold, during which I wrote and wrote and wrote until my will to live was sufficiently diminished and I could sleep

  • Kelly Exeter

    April 28, 2013 at 2:18 pm Reply

    My great shame as a writer is that I don’t like reading literary fiction. I really want to but I just don’t. So I agree with you – for most people the story beats out a beautifully crafted literary tome.

    Because i don’t love READING literary fiction this frees me up to WRITE very simply and thus I never find myself dying a thousand deaths having to kill my darlings. But you dear Anna would have a thousand darlings to kill in every chapter and maybe that is what you are wrestling with when it comes to your manuscript?!

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      April 28, 2013 at 2:44 pm Reply

      Yes, I agree with you (and me) about story. I’m hoping that secretly I am good at it and it will magically come out at the end.

      I think what I’m wrestling with is whether a novel is the right device for what I’m trying to say, or whether I would be better off just listening to sad songs for a while. Like I said on Twitter, killing my darlings comes easily to me, it’s keeping them alive and tangible that I find so hard!


  • Jodi Gibson

    April 28, 2013 at 5:12 pm Reply

    Me, I hate ‘genre classification’. I’m a character person. If the characters are bland and unexplored, no matter how good the story or plot, I really can’t connect.

    In my intellectually limited opinion, I believe that good characters that are deep and layered create an underlying story. It just simply unfolds. (or maybe not so simply for the writer!)

    Don’t classify your writing Anna. Just write. Then put it out there. As scary as that is. I have no doubt you will find your audience.

    My book is so complex in my mind, so emotionally dark that my trouble is relating that through the right words whilst still trying walk the fine line of plot and story. Writing is so fucking hard and unless you sit down and seriously work at it you don’t realise. Or maybe it is just that I’m not good at it! lol

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      April 28, 2013 at 8:25 pm Reply

      It sounds like we’re having the same kind of issue Jodi. I’m trying to say more things than I really understand how to say and as a result am probably not saying much at all.

      Good luck with your writing!

  • Caroline

    April 28, 2013 at 7:40 pm Reply

    Some of the most gripping reads have been the most poorly written and like Kel, ‘literature’ can sometimes leave me cold.
    They say write from the heart. And if you are lucky enough, some people will get you x

  • Daniel Young

    April 28, 2013 at 8:44 pm Reply

    This is a tough one. It’s difficult to come up with an engaging plot that’s also original, and I agree that if the plot is really gripping, then the writing doesn’t need to be great to keep people reading.

    I also agree with Jodi’s idea that character is one of the most important elements. Although I often enjoy books when I hate the characters, there are so many people out there who will complain about a book because they “didn’t like the characters and so didn’t care what happened to them”. (Many (silly) people said this about The Slap). I view that as a lack of empathy on their part.

    For me, I’m a literary fiction guy. Deep psychologisation, really knowing what a character is feeling and entering their head .. this is what I tend to enjoy the most, and I think this is best done by so-called “literary” authors.

    One of the best books I read last year, Eleanor Dark’s “Prelude to Christopher” (written in the 1930s), has ostensibly very little plot, but it was gripping, emotional and extraordinarily well-written. The use of modernist techniques, experimenting with the use of time, free indirect discourse, etc. can all contribute to a brilliant book without an overtly engaging plot. It can be done.

    Having said that… her books are mostly out of print, so there you go.

    You can either choose to write what the broader “market” wants and aim for popularity and commercial success, or you can write what you want and try to make that the very best and engaging writing that it can be. Sometimes these things will overlap, but not always. Yes, it might make sense to work a little on your ability to develop “story”, but it doesn’t have to be the crux of your writing.

    Go with your heart, see how authors with a similar ethos to yours HAVE succeeded, and good luck!

  • Am Squiggly

    April 28, 2013 at 9:09 pm Reply

    Yeah, but, then what happened?

  • amber

    April 28, 2013 at 9:18 pm Reply

    I struggle with the EXACT SAME THING when I try to write fiction. I get a ‘concept’, not a story. Then I don’t know what to write. Blergh.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      April 29, 2013 at 11:28 am Reply

      Yes, precisely! It does make it harder to write when you don’t have a logical next plot point to aim for :\

  • Happylan

    April 28, 2013 at 10:27 pm Reply

    If I was faced with two books and someone told me the first was ‘a great story’ and the second was ‘amazing writing’ I would choose the second. I want words, words beautiful words, ‘slipping together’ in interesting ways.

  • ali

    April 29, 2013 at 10:24 am Reply

    I think for the popular market: story.

    For me: characters. I don’t care if I like them or not, but I want to get into their heads, know them, be able to predict what they may do in different circumstances. I don’t care if it’s ‘literary’, I just need to know who they are and how they tick (think of some of the wonderful characters Stephen King has created).

    I want that to be done in beautiful sentences. In fact that’s what I do, search out the perfect sentence in my books. Think the gorgeous prose of Nikki Gemmell.

    Not much to ask for surely? (Ha)

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      April 29, 2013 at 11:27 am Reply

      Agreed Ali, I think that’s where I’m at, and I’m getting hung up on what is publishable instead of what I would like to write. At the end of the day my preference would be to write something that is marketable, but I need to shove that aside if I’m ever, ever, ever going to finish writing!

      Besides, this is the kind of book I prefer as a reader, too. Obviously I’ve just got all of my insecure writer woes on show ;)

      Thanks for your input!

  • ali

    April 29, 2013 at 1:12 pm Reply

    Well you already write beautifully, so: tick.
    And in your blog you write from the heart- that’s the reason I tear myself away from books to read you (I only read a few blogs- not my usual scene)
    So, in my humble opinion, truth and beauty will make for a great read.
    Who knows what will be ‘marketable’?
    That will depend on the vision of the publisher you choose.

  • Steve

    April 29, 2013 at 9:28 pm Reply

    You write well. It takes a very little perusal of your blog to see that. Will be sampling more. I like the way you put words together.

  • Sophie

    April 30, 2013 at 5:56 pm Reply

    I’m 100% in the ‘great story’ camp. There are a few ‘great/important’ books I’ve abandoned because they seem to wank on with no real plot. (Murray Bail’s ‘Homesickness’, I’m looking at you.) Then again, Fifty Shades of Grey had a shitty story with shitty writing and has spawned a movie, sequels and a spin-off range of sex toys (no, really), so don’t get hung up on other people’s rules, maaaaaaaan.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      May 1, 2013 at 12:31 pm Reply

      I promise I am trying not to do that. I like books that wank on with no real plot, but maybe that is just because I feel like I should be punished in life generally.

  • Maxabella

    April 30, 2013 at 11:40 pm Reply

    Great writing + fab plot = storyteller

    Great writing + shit plot = literary fiction writer

    Great writing + no plot = poet

    That’s all I got.

  • Krissy

    April 30, 2013 at 11:48 pm Reply

    Gotta have a great story. If the story isn’t there then my interest wanes. If I have reactions to characters (bad/good) then I know the writing is good too. I, personally, don’t tend to read much literary fiction. I like escapism. I like being in another world for a while. Literary fiction is way too intellectual for me.

    Anna, you are a fantastic writer. You have got the whole writing thing down and I think that is half the battle won. It takes a lot of time and effort to plot out a book. You will do it if it’s what you want to do. (I’m currently revising the YA I wrote last year. It started with a basic plot and has grown from there. It is hard work but when things come together there is immense satisfaction).

    I believe in you. *fist bump*

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      May 1, 2013 at 12:30 pm Reply

      Thanks Krissy! *fist bump* Thank you for your lovely words.

      I’m revisiting some YA at the moment, and it is SUCH a joy! I had honestly forgotten that writing could be fun. The adult fiction I’m working on is such an emotional slog that I’m always exhausted afterward (even though I look back on what I’ve written and like a lot of it). Writing YA has the opposite effect–I feel energised by it. It’s like a holiday.

      (I’m still not exactly sure what the story is though. Maybe that part of my brain didn’t form properly.)

  • Michelle Holland

    May 1, 2013 at 10:05 am Reply

    I remember Stephen King on his book ‘On Writing’ saying that to be a good writer, it is vital to read, and that someones you should read for great story and sometimes great writing (language). He said if you find a book with great story AND great writing, to treasure that book.

    I think some books have fantastic writing but aren’t as strong on plot, which sounds like your forte Anna. Literary Fiction here you come?

    I am a popularist. I prefer to read commercial fiction and this is what I write. My characters and plot are both important, but my writing may not be poetic. It is better than 50 Shades of Grey. I don’t think popular means you can get away with crap writing (in most cases).

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      May 1, 2013 at 12:27 pm Reply

      Yes, his voice is bouncing around in my head too. I loved that book. He is a MASTER of story.

      I do love writing literary fiction, and that’s definitely where my passion is, but when you don’t really have a plot to work to, those hard slog moments are a bit like drowning. I’m happy to sit in this box, as long as I’m contributing even a teeny, tiny amount of story–enough to carry my themes, anyway.

      I don’t think being popular means you can get away with crap writing either, but having a great story is maybe a bit like wearing spanx? I hope writing some nice words has a similar effect!

      • Michelle Holland

        May 1, 2013 at 2:28 pm Reply

        Ha ha, spanx for a book. Love it. I think you are a great writer and I would love to read your book (and I don’t love literary fiction as a rule).

        I mentioned your blog post in my post on writing today, hope you don’t mind. I linked it back to here. x

  • rachael @ mogantosh

    May 4, 2013 at 8:51 am Reply

    I struggle with both the story and the actual words. Alas, perhaps I’m irrevocable screwed. . But I did come across this and thought you might like it Anna :


    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      May 4, 2013 at 10:07 am Reply

      Thanks Rachael! Always good to know that other vastly more successful people than I have the same ugly habits. Although it totally enables me to procrastinate, too ;)

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