The Two Skills of Writing

An email exchange with a friend about my work-in-progress reminded me that writing is made up of two interrelated skills. There’s facility for language, and then there’s facility for storytelling itself.

Ideally, both of these skills get marshaled into one’s work. But if only one can be marshaled, then I think you’re better off with a good story poorly told than a bad story told well.

The language surface can be improved by rewriting. It’s much harder, by contrast, to improve the story itself by rewriting. If the story itself doesn’t hold up, then reworking it is like rebuilding a house once it’s already built.

How do I know when I have a good story?

That’s damnably hard to answer, but more and more I find it’s about whether I’m moved just thinking about it. If my throat catches just telling someone else about the broad strokes my idea, then I’ve probably got a good idea. If I get angry, or laugh, or have any spontaneous strong emotion when I’m just thinking through the idea, then it’s probably a good idea. Contrariwise, an idea can seem good if it stimulates me or other people intellectually, but… If an idea’s main appeal is intellectual, then it’s a thought experiment, not a story. A good story drags us through the mud of deep, unmet, human needs and desires.

To center yourself on good story material, you have to ask questions like, What Very Bad Thing will happen if the character doesn’t get what she needs or wants?

To go from poor facility with language to good (and great) facility with language is mostly a matter of educating yourself. It’s a matter of practice and feedback. Study grammar. Study rhetoric. Read poetry. Read terrific novels. Write down sentences you love and try to emulate them.

To go from poor facility for story to good (and great) facility for story is mostly a matter of being simple, being bold, being human. Sticks to wants and needs. Show us how the people in your story are flawed, contradictory, wounded, and show us how they try to scramble over those weaknesses (successfully or not). Burn bridges behind the characters. Give them painful choices that, once taken, cannot be undone.

In his Master Class, Neil Gaiman said there are essentially three stories: Boy Meets Girl, The Little Tailor, and Man Learns a Lesson. It’s an oversimplification, perhaps, but it’s also helpful to ask yourself what simple form your story follows. Is it a relationship story? Is it a story of overcoming adversity with cunning? Is it a story of self-discovery? Once you know, then you’ll have a better idea of how to arrange the forces of antagonism against your main character. What gets in the way of love? What happens to us when we’re too clever by half? What stops us from introspection?

In a lot of ways, facility for story is just about asking questions. Testing. Clarifying for yourself. Finding the stations in the story for little curlicues (depth). Before you write, ask questions.

Photo by Afif Ramdhasuma on Unsplash