There are two parts to any written story—the story itself (plot, characters, and so on) and the writing (word choice, sentence construction, and so on). In an ideal book, both would work equally well. Exquisite (but not distractingly ‘showy’) writing would bring to life a well-constructed story, with realistic characters and vivid settings.
But there’s no such thing as a perfect book. It’s one of the reasons writers keep on writing—each book presents an opportunity to close the gap on perfection, to elevate the writing and storytelling from mediocre to good, from good to great.
I was thinking on this recently, after a couple of interesting reads.
[Note: there might be spoilers ahead!]
The first of these books was The Wall by John Lanchester. I’ve enjoyed other books by Lanchester (such as Mr Phillips and Fragrant Harbour), although I can’t recall much about them now. He’s definitely a writer in the ‘literary’ camp. But this new book of his was also billed as a Dystopian story, and I was intrigued to read his take on that genre.
The Wall follows a new Defender on the Wall, a defensive structure that encases the country. His job is to watch out for Others who might attempt to gain access. Any Other breaking into the country means a Defender being sent out to sea—one in, one out.
The style of writing is fairly simple, perfectly suiting the protagonist’s character as he enters this strange new world. It also suits the monotony of his job—standing in the cold, staring into the darkness, with nothing happening. But there are interludes—a trip home, where he realises how he’s changed, and a holiday with his new friends from the Wall. And, of course, there’s an attack. Despite fighting hard (and even shooting a traitor), the main character is sent to sea, with a couple of others from the Wall (three in, three out).
He has some adventures out at sea. And…that’s it.
The story is little more than things that happen, one after the other. For most of these events, the main character is little more than an observer, or a passive participant. The story ends in what seems to be an arbitrary place. There’s no real resolution, no clear story arc.
And yet, I still enjoyed the book. I enjoyed seeing these scenes through the eyes of this character.
In short, I liked the writing in The Wall, but the story left me cold.
The second book was The Trusted by Michelle Medhat. I heard her talk about this book (and the whole series) on a podcast, and it sounded intriguing enough for me to buy straight away. A fast-paced thriller, political intrigue, near-future tech, and a smattering of aliens—sounded perfect.
It started well, but I found myself becoming distracted by the writing itself. Nothing major, just little things—clunky exposition in dialogue, apparent shifts in point of view within scenes, too much tell. It felt more like a description of a movie than a book.
But I still finished the book. Despite my disappointment in the writing, I wanted to find out what happened next—to the point that I’m considering buying the next book in the series.
Two books I enjoyed, despite both leaving me in part underwhelmed. One engaged me through the writing, the other through the story.
But which do I prefer—writing or story?
I think it depends on a few factors.
Average writing won’t bother me if the story’s good, but if the writing is too amateur I can be turned off even if the plot is ingenious. Well crafted prose can be a joy in itself, but without a resemblance of a story to hang the language on I can soon become fatigued.
It also depends on my mood. If I’m tired, or if there is too much else going on, I want escapism in my reading. This could be why The Trusted worked for me at the moment. But at other times I want stimulation, and I’ll better appreciate those books that require more effort in the reading, books where the pleasure is derived from sinking into the language itself.
This does mean that when I don’t particularly enjoy a book, it isn’t necessarily down to the book itself. It could simply be the wrong book for me at that time. There are books I loved in my late-teens that I now find tedious, and other books I struggled with when I was younger but that I now consider worthy classics.
Is writing more important than story? Is story more important than writing? I don’t think it matters. Everyone has their own preferences, and these can change at any time. The aim is to enjoy reading, in whatever form that enjoyment takes—carried along by the story, emotionally attached to the characters, awed by the dexterity of language, pleasingly immersed in each scene.
And if one book doesn’t quite hit everything we want, there’s only one thing to do—keep reading more books.
So there’s only one thing to do—keep reading.