What makes a good story? Is it the writing? The way that it is told? Is it a grasp of basic grammar? Better yet, how do you quantify a good story? By how many books it has sold? How many good reviews it gets?
If you ask a thousand professors, editors, and authors these questions, you’ll get a thousand different answers. I for one try to keep it pretty simple. A good story is something that the reader can’t put down. It draws them into that world and becomes a part of them. They couldn’t get rid of the book any more than they could chew off their own arm.
I say this because I came across a notorious quote from a review of Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Ultimatum by Newgate Callender in “The New York Times Book Review”. I remember it making me so angry I wanted to throw my computer against the wall.
Mr. Ludlum has other peculiarities. For example, he hates the “he said” locution and avoids it as much as
possible. Characters in “The Bourne Ultimatum” seldom “say” anything. Instead, they cry, interject, interrupt, muse, state, counter, conclude, mumble, whisper (Mr. Ludlum is great on whispers), intone, roar, exclaim, fume, explode, mutter. There is one especially unforgettable tautology “‘I repeat,’ repeated Alex.’
The book may sell in the billions, but it’s still junk.
Yeah, I’m a huge Ludlum fan, I’ll cop to it. Apparently, I like junk. I find junk enthralling. I cry over junk. I interject about it often. I roar, exclaim, and fume about junk to the grand Heavens. Junk makes me so happy, I want to explode!
Mankind has always needed a certain amount of order. If we discover something, say for example, how fun it is to throw around a ball, we’ll find a way to put it in order. Thus, football was discovered. Four downs, ten yards, touchdowns, and last but certainly most, cheerleaders. Have we not done the same thing to telling a story? But what makes throwing a ball around fun? The ball? Or the rules?
Sometimes I think we get a bit enamored with rules. To the point that they can be detrimental to what we’re trying to accomplish. It seems like the current trend that I’m seeing is that extra verbage should be cut out, and that all words and lines in a book should in some way push the plot forward. Scenes should convey action and the reader should never be “told” anything, they should be “shown”. Points should be made one time, to do so more than once insults the reader.
In many circumstances I agree with this. I see it all the time in books and blogs on how to write. As a writer I understand it, as a reader I disagree with it in most cases. Several of the books I’ve reviewed on this website throw most literary convention to the wind. Thankfully so. Jitterbug Perfume is a great example. Tom Robbins pitches many current writing conventions to the wind. An editor would say, “Well, he’s Tom Robbins, he can do that!”, a reader would say, “I wish more authors could get away with that!”.
Take this passage for example, lifted for Rennie Browne’s brilliant Self Editing for Fiction Writers. This excerpt comes from a writer at one of their workshops. It’s a gem. Here is the “uncorrected” version. Here, “Rita” is a ghost only seen by her friend, who narrates.
There are times I’m glad no one but me sees Rita, like when we hit the bars.In spite of her size, Rita still thinks of herself as a sexy broad. She wears long dangling gold earrings, rhinestone baubles that twinkle too much to pass for the real thing. And she shows too much bust. Now when you weigh almost two hundred pounds, any bust is too much in my opinion, but Rita doesn’t see it that way. I guess it goes with her tiger-striped dresses and red hair. Now I know what you are thinking, why should a spook have dyed hair? But who am I to deny the black roots in Rita’s coiffure?
How I love this. What a character! The problem is, the narrator pounds us with three different descriptions that Rita dresses trashy, and somehow this weakens the narrative. Here’s the corrected version:
There are time I’m glad no one but me sees Rita, like when we hit the bars. She wears long dangling gold earrings, and she shows too much bust. Now, when you weigh two hundred pounds, any bust showing is too much in my opinion, but Rita doesn’t see it that way. I guess it goes with her tiger-striped dress and dyed hair.
I don’t expend any energy wondering why a ghost should have dyed hair-who am I to deny Rita’s roots.
As a writer I appreciate the economy of the second passage. It is neat and compact. To the point. It conveys the message. Yet when I put my reader hat on, this first passage draws me in. The extra descriptions make me smile. The shear gaudiness of the ghost brings a fine wine to the table. It drives home the author’s point. Why does a ghost need dyed hair? The “corrected” version strikes me as the rules sucking the fun out of throwing a ball back and forth. It sucked all the character out. Just ask any Cowboys fan, or Dez Bryant for that matter. They know what I mean. How many rules can there be to what constitutes a catch in football? How many times can you describe how a person dresses gaudy?
Somewhere there is a happy medium. Renni Browne readily admits that they printed a second edition to their book in part because they started receiving manuscripts that had very sterile dialogue. To be fair her book is nothing less than an editing god-send to help people create cleaner manuscripts. Still, it’s up to the author to create the story, however they wish to drive their point home.
So where is the fine line? In the end, it’s not up to the author or the editor. It’s up to the reader. The reader is God. So in the end, if you’re reading and you don’t like it, then the rules don’t matter. If you’re reading it and you like it, then it’s great prose.
How can you be brilliant? Tell a great story. In the end, that’s the only rule.