Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Take Away the Words

Back in 2005, a beginning writer asked for my technical criticism of two stories.

Over the course of several weeks, I took his two stories apart, not only sentence by sentence, but clause by clause, word by word. I taught him basic principles of grammar and sentence construction; I revised many passages for the sake of clarity and dramatic emphasis, to show him the importance of language in the craft of storytelling. In terms of content, I added nothing: the ideas, the plots, the imagery, were all his, and his alone. I worked only on technique.

The process went on and on and on, and became gruelling for both of us; but he was patient, dedicated, willing to work hard and to put up with my stern lecturing.

Afterwards, we fell out of touch for eight years, but I've recently noticed that he has built quite a reputation for his work, and I was happy for him. I sent an email, and we exchanged a few messages.

As you might expect, we ended up discussing craftsmanship. He wrote:

"It's not a writer's job to write perfectly.... Your job is a story-teller's job, not a technician's job. One must focus ultimately on the tale told, make that the primary concern. Against that, all else is secondary."

I replied:

"For me, writing a story is both jobs, because reading a story in both ways can be a great pleasure. And the beauty of fiction is that it can be read both ways.... I see it as a balance: the story, and the telling of the story, are equally important."

That was three days ago. Since then, I've come to suspect that I was wrong.

The telling is more important -- vastly more important -- because without the telling, there is no story. To add more emphasis: the telling and the story are one. The telling is the story.

I should be clear about this: by story, I mean a crafted fictional narrative that cannot be paraphrased without a major loss of significance, beauty, or power.

Narratives that come out of an oral tradition are designed to be paraphrased. Legends, folk tales, bedtime stories for children: they not only survive paraphrase, but thrive on it.

Fiction, on the other hand, is often more complex. Could you paraphrase King Lear, or The Flower Beneath The Foot, or Titus Groan? Could you paraphrase "The Secret Sharer," or "The Terminal Beach," or "The Fifth Head of Cerberus"?

Tone, imagery, metaphor, sensory texture: these are essential to fiction, and the only way to convey them is through language. It stands to reason, then, that poorly described action, imprecisely described physical detail, vaguely described emotional weather, kill the illusion of reality, the conviction by which a story lives or dies.

The goal of writing is not "perfection" (whatever that might mean); the goal is clarity. The goal is to make the story as vivid and as real as possible in the reader's mind. And this is why technique matters, because words are the only tools we have to bring our stories to life.

Take away the words, and you take away the story.

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