My belief is that in order to be published, a fiction author has to be good in at least one of two categories. They either have to be a good writer, meaning that they can engage their readers through a mastery of the language, or they have to be a good storyteller, meaning that they have an ability to connect to their readers through their world, plot, or characters. Good authors are either excellent in one of those categories, or are solid in both. The best authors manage to combine outstanding writing with engaging stories.
I first started thinking about authors in these terms during my last semester of college as I was taking a course on James Joyce. I hate Joyce. I hate Joyce with a passion. At the beginning of the course, I didn’t know why I hated Joyce so much, but I soon realized that it was because he fell on one extreme of this spectrum. I think that most people prefer authors who balance writing and storytelling, but are a little more forgiving in one direction. I, for instance, am willing to tolerate bad writing for a compelling story. I know some other people who would rather read a mediocre story if it’s by a good writer.
I don’t know how qualified I am to judge writing. I’ve read a lot, and I have a degree in literature, but I’ve never really taken the time to learn the nuances of writing.
I know exactly how qualified I am to judge a story. Stories are more personal and subjective than writing, so I know that my opinion on the quality of a story is just as valid as anyone else’s.
For me, authors that fall too far on the writer side of the spectrum aren’t very interesting. I tend to get bored because I can’t connect with the characters or the story isn’t engaging. Likewise, the most interesting story in the world can be made incomprehensible by bad writing. Bad writing leads to confusion just as bad storytelling leads to boredom.
Quality writers win awards, gain recognition from their peers, and, if they’re good enough, have works that last generations. Good writers become examples for future writers because they know how to use language to their advantage. It is a lot harder to be a great writer than a good storyteller, but writers are remembered.
Here are some examples of authors that I’ve found to be solidly in the writer category:
The man that started me thing about this spectrum is the easily the most extreme example I’ve come across. Joyce is often considered one of the best writers of all time, and it’s because his mastery of the English language is unparalleled. Joyce uses words like most of us use air. He manages to effortlessly phrase things in a beautiful and natural way. The stream of consciousness writing he uses mimics the free flowing nature of thought in a way that no one has been able to replicate, and it is awesome, in the truest sense of the word. However, just as there’s a reason he’s considered one of the best writer’s of all-time, there’s also a reason why almost no one outside of academia has read his books. He’s a terrible storyteller. Absolutely awful. Joyce just plain couldn’t imagine a story, and didn’t seem interested in telling stories, even if he had one. The Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are probably his two best story driven works, and they’re both so heavily influenced by the events of his life, that they are barely even fiction. His most famous work, Ulysses, isn’t an original story either. It’s a retelling of the Odyssey in the most mundane way possible.
I haven’t read a lot of Gibson so he may not be the best example, but I’ve read Neuromancer and I would classify that book as a great example of writing over storytelling. I really enjoyed Neuromancer, but I often found myself getting so caught up in the language and style of the book that I couldn’t follow the story. Unlike Joyce, though, Gibson is very original. Even today, I’ve never read anything quite like Neuromancer, not just in terms of style, but story as well.
I’m putting Brunner here solely because of Stand on Zanzibar. I really struggled to finish that book, and it was mostly because it seemed like it was so focused on doing something new and different that the story and characters got lost. To me, this is the essence of a writer who isn’t a storyteller, story is excluded so that style can be the focus.
Quality storytellers win movie contracts, gain recognition from the masses, and, if they’re good enough, have their stories told time and again for generations. Good storytellers inspire new stories, or can adapt old stories to new eras. Good storytellers relate to people, and use that relationship to their advantage. The storyteller may be forgotten over time, but their stories can endure forever.
Here are some examples of authors that I’ve found to be mostly in the storytelling category:
It took me a little while to identify the author that best exemplifies the storytelling extreme. My first thought was that young adult authors probably dominate this part of the spectrum, but then I remembered reading The Da Vinci Code. Brown got a lot of attention for this book, and rightfully so. The controversy surrounding the premise of the novel caught the world’s attention because that’s what great stories do, they captivate audiences. Brown pulled the basics of his story from many other sources, but that’s what great storytellers do, they combine bits and pieces of other stories in new ways that draw in a new, wider audience. The Da Vinci Code, along with all the other books involving the character Robert Langdon, are terribly written. The dialog is awful and contrived, the characters make really stupid decisions, and dei ex machina are far too common. Despite all that, the stories make the books interesting.
Like I said above, I had to include a young adult author on here because they dominate this area. My first thought was Stephenie Meyer for Twilight, but I haven’t actually read Twilight. I have, however, read a few books from Clare’s Mortal Instrument series. Clare is not a good writer. Her books have gaping plot holes, her characters are identical in terms of thought processes and speech patterns, and her method of building romantic tension is just wrong (possible incest, really?). That said, her world is compelling and the plots are engaging. Even though I was regularly rolling my eyes at the terrible writing of the books, I was interested in what was going to happen next.
I have a friend that refers to Ringworld as “MacGyver in space,” and that’s a pretty accurate description. MacGyver was a fun show that just couldn’t be taken too seriously because of all the writing problems, and Niven is the same way. That’s why I’ve put him here. When Niven writes by himself his stories are fantastic, but his writing is weak. His characters are entertaining, unique, and highly memorable. That makes them captivating. His ideas are not always thought out very well, but they grab your attention.
Right in the middle
If you want the name of the author that best represents excellence in both writing and storytelling, then the answer is easy. It’s Shakespeare. He’s the best of all time. That’s why he’s been studied by post-graduates for centuries, while still having his stories told time and again in popular media (I recently saw that there have been over 1300 movies based on Romeo and Juliet). Everyone knows Shakespeare, and his legacy will never die. What I really want to talk about are the current authors I’ve found that I think strike a nice balance between writing and storytelling. Also, because I’m biased, these just happen some of my favorite authors and they mostly write speculative fiction)
Sanderson is probably the best writer of the three I have mentioned here. He was slowly gaining popularity for a few years, but became very well known, very quickly when he was selected to finish Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. My biggest knock on Sanderson is his pacing. The issues are consistent enough that his fans have started embracing them, referring to the action dump that tends to happen near the end of his novels as “the avalanche.” Other than pacing, I haven’t seen many issues in Sanderson’s writing. His dialogue is natural and distinctive for each character and his worlds are well thought out and consistent.
Lois McMaster Bujold
Bujold is one of my favorite authors. I’ve always found her books to be very entertaining and well written. Bujold’s main strength, in my opinion, is her ability to create believable, likeable characters. She doesn’t really push many boundaries, or try to stretch the characters beyond reason (which may be an issue for some), but her characters learn, grow, and change in a way that feels natural. Her writing is solid, but is mostly without error rather than being exceptional, which is good enough for me.
Peter V. Brett
Brett is fairly new, having first published in 2008. He also has only one series of novels and a few novellas, so his sample size is small. That said, his books are great. The world he has created in his Demon Cycle is vast and compelling. I’ve really enjoyed the different perspectives he offers from book to book. Brett gives each character the chance to have their story heard, so the antagonist in one book may be the protagonist in another. The skill in which Brett has been able to do this, all while having the characters be internally consistent, is outstanding. I really hope that he continues to create such engrossing stories while maintaining (if not improving) the level of writing he’s shown so far.
As always, this is just my opinion, and I’d love to hear yours. If you have any examples of authors you feel fall in one extreme, let me know. If you completely disagree with my assessments, I’d love to hear why. Thanks for reading.