Great Writing Vs. Great Storytelling

Scott William Carter   June 13, 2006  

One of the great things about the annual Hugo Awards is that many of the science fiction magazines place the nominated stories free on their websites. If you have a few spare moments, take a look at “Inside Job,” by Connie Wills, and “Down Memory Lane,” by Mike Resnick, both available on Asimov’s website. Even if you’re not a fan of science fiction, you’ll probably enjoy these stories. I read a lot of short fiction across all genres, and I find a lot I like, but it’s rare that I read one that not only blows me away but also makes me want to be a better writer. Both of these stories did that for me. Resnick always impresses me with his economy; he does so much with so few words. And when Willis is at the top of her form, she’s one of the best writers alive–science fiction or otherwise.I also recently read Eragon and Eldest by Christopher Paolini. The novels tell the story of a boy and his dragon, as well as the usual fantasy fare of good versus evil and all that jazz. Hard to believe he was still a teenager when the first book was published. Definitely worth reading. Given a choice between great writing and a great storytelling, I’ll take the great story every time. I think most readers agree. Of course, I’d like to have both, but it’s not the nice turn of phrase that sticks with me, it’s the story. Think about it. When you breathlessly tell your friends about some novel you just adored, what do they ask? Isn’t it, “What’s it about?” How many people ask about the writing? In fact, I’d go so far as to say that usually– not always, but usually– great writing and great storytelling go hand in hand. Great writing is usually invisible, because it’s completely subservient to the story. If you notice the writing, it’s almost always a bad thing–at least in modern fiction. (We’ll leave Shakespeare out of this.) Take the Willis story. I came away thinking it was brilliantly written, but if you take any page out of context, nothing remarkable really jumps out at you. But as a whole, every word choice she made, from the dialog to the setting, was spot on for the story she was telling.

And of course, great writing always seems as if it’s remarkably easy to do, though it seldom is.

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