Saturday, December 11, 2010


In Austin, Texas, it gets hot in the summer. You can fry an egg on the pavement. You can cook a whole five-course meal. If you stand in one place too long, you start smoking. Hot.

How do you get that heat in writing? Everything has to be working in your writing and that includes the oft maligned element, story.

Story isn’t easy. People realize it’s hard to write well, to use language well. It’s hard to develop character, create an interesting setting, etc.. But story doesn’t really get its due. It lives in the worst fictional neighborhood and isn’t invited to the fictional elements’ parties. Its job is undesirable. It’s the garbage collector of fiction.

Story is, in fact, seriously undervalued, particularly in MFA programs (at least that was my experience and seems to be the experience of many others). A lot of writers who write beautifully fail miserably because they have no story to tell or what faint story they do have to tell isn’t told well. They expect us to read their work because they write pretty sentences.

I’m here to tell you—pretty sentences aren’t enough( even though I love beautiful writing). You need all the elements of fiction, including story, to be working. I need them anyway—I need all the help I can get.


Catherine Stine said...

Story, yeah--an active, twisty, invigorating plot with unique characters who you'll be thinking about years hence. Very hard to pull off, and essential if you want to write!

Anne M Leone said...

So true. Story is definitely one of my writing weaknesses. But perhaps it's not taught because many don't know how to teach it? To a certain extent, pretty sentences can be taught. How would you teach story?

Brian Yansky said...

It is hard to pull off, Catherine. And I agree with you Anne that it's hard to teach. But I guess I'm complaining (whining) more about how teachers don't try to teach it. They think it's unworthy because it's something they associate with popular fiction. But I think most of the best fiction, literary or more mainstream, has a good story to tell. Thanks for the comments.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Waving my hand--Cyn, here. I teach writing, and I'm huge on story. I do think, though, that some of it is a response to the critics, that quest for the gold star. It's pretty language that's so often quoted in reviews.

Anonymous said...

Story isn't my weak point, grammar is. Does that mean I'm not a good writer?


Brian Yansky said...

Thanks, Cyn. I'm sure you are good at teaching story.

C. Ann Golden--ah grammar--I think you just need to know grammar well enough that it doesn't get in the way of your writing. There are a lot of grammar websites that can help.