Written after too many list discussions with people claiming that all a story needs is a good idea to be a good story.
written May 25, 1999
On various lists, the discussion turns to stories -- what makes them good, what makes them worth reading. At some point, usually starting early on in the discussion, there's a chorus of voices arguing that "grammar and spelling and usage and structure and syntax and attention to plot details don't matter; it's the author's *idea* that makes a good story, the author's *imagination*."
That's an interesting concept, but... no. Sorry, but no. Not so. Yes, the idea is key to the story -- but the idea alone does not make the story a good one. Without a carefully crafted support structure, the idea is nothing.
People who think that don't believe me when I say "not so", of course -- so I decided to prove it. I've taken one of my own Sentinel stories, and reworked it, twice. All three versions are linked here; read them in order, and you'll see what I mean. Each version faithfully follows the same plot line -- the *idea* is precisely the same in each. To keep the playing field completely level, I even put each story on an identical page -- no different graphics to distract the reader. If you read these and honestly -- honestly -- believe that each of these stories is deserving of the same amount and kind of praise, criticism, or indifference, please tell me. Because I read these three versions very differently, and I'd really like someone to explain to me how they can be considered equivalent.
Still not convinced? Still think that someone who has a story idea and manages to type it up ought to be able to call herself a writer, and be praised for her wonderfulness?
Okay. I'll try a different tack. (And yes, it's supposed to be "tack", not "tact" -- it's a term that entered the vocabulary from sailing, where people "tack before the wind", changing the way the sails face to try to get to their destination faster depending on which way the wind is blowing. It has nothing to do with finding a polite way of telling someone she looks dreadful in that shade of blue.)
I have this amazing idea for a (first season) dueSouth picture. It's incredible. Fraser's in the foreground, in uniform. He's surrounded by a glacial plain, with tall snow-capped mountains in the far distance. The sky is that blue that hurts your eyes, and the glacier is reflecting it back, and Fraser is sort of gleaming as he stands there all alone. RayV is off to one side, where Fraser can't see him yet. He's doing that little quiet laugh thing he does, and he's dressed the way he was in first season -- all bright, patterned, flowing silks. The sun's making him glow, and he's just the embodiment of warmth and laughter and life, coming up on Fraser. You have no idea how fantastic this picture in my head is.
So, if I launch a freehand drawing program, and draw my stick-figure Fraser (with a Mountie hat, of course), and a few triangles for mountains in the background, and another stick figure off to the side for Ray -- can I call myself an artist? The idea is there, the imagination is there, and that's what counts, right? I don't need to have the ability to draw, or understand the tools of drawing, as long as I've got the imagination and am willing to put forth a stick figure as art, right? Are all those people who think that imagination is all that really counts going to write to me and tell me how great I am, what terrific vision I have; going to urge me to keep on doing just what I'm doing, because they think it's wonderful stuff?
So how come people who write the equivalent of stick figures with Mountie hats get to call themselves writers? How come people praise them to the skies, and tell them to keep writing, and tell them not to listen to anyone who suggests that they learn the tools of writing?
The idea is the easy part; anyone can come up with a story idea. Anyone who has ever thought about a character and said, "I wonder..." or "What if...?" has had a story idea.
Having a story idea does not make you a writer. I cringe every time I see a story drop with an opening like "I thought of this on the bus a=dn I came home and I typed and tpyed and typed as fast as I could into email and I don't have a spellchecker but htis is really really coola dn I know evehr one is gonna luv it so i wanted to post it right awy and apleae please tell me how mcuh oyou luvd it and no flames."
There are bad writers. They write bad stories. They believe them to be good stories. They're wrong.
There are people who post story ideas or brief vignettes, and expect the same sort of praise as someone who actually writes a story gets. There are those who have no grasp of grammar or sentence structure (and I'm not talking about people whose native language isn't English -- that's an entirely different thing. I'm talking about people who are writing in what is supposed to be their mother tongue.). There are those who can't maintain a point of view, or even a tense, for more than five words (I have honest to God seen fiction with lines like, "He raises his hand and waved goodbye." -- and it wasn't a fluke, because the same sort of thing happened throughout the story). There are those who think nothing of making a tough middle-aged male character who's been trained in some of the worst hellholes in the world into what amounts to a weepy 13-year-old girl who falls apart when someone gives him a *look*.
A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end -- of some sort. Writing something that consists of a paragraph of Blair thinking, "Geez, I can't believe this is happening, three weeks ago I could've sworn that Jim was totally straight and now he's fucking me through the mattress, this is so wonderful I could cry, no, no, can't cry now, he'll think he's hurting me, and this feels so good," and then describes the sex scene for about five pages in excruciating detail, then ends with "Blair fell asleep in his lover's arms" -- that's a story idea with a sex scene thrown in, folks. A story would bring us back to that time three weeks ago. It would and show us how, when Blair and Jim were walking down a corridor at the University and came across a pair of male students snatching a kiss in a corner, Jim tensed up and turned a little green. Then it would bring us forward, showing (not telling) how Blair started noticing all sorts of little things about Jim now that his eyes had been opened, and how his hopes kept sinking further and further. It would go into detail on how they went from that to fucking -- what happened? Why? When?
And even if you do all that -- if you have a plot of some sort, if you have a beginning, a middle, and an end -- it still isn't enough. Whoever told you that writing is easy lied, okay? It's not.
I once heard someone make a wonderful analogy about writing: A writer's primary tool is the English language; you need to have an excellent command of that tool to be an effective writer and create your work of art, just as a carpenter needs to know how to use power and hand tools to make beautiful furniture. (Nice, huh?)
I took it one step further, to counter the argument that there's no such thing as objectively bad writing: Someone who uses bad spelling, bad grammar, bad punctuation, bad plot flow, and bad characterization has written a bad story, in my book -- just as a carpenter who didn't bother to level the beams or use long enough nails or square off a corner or lay an even floor has built a bad house, even if some people like the basic shape of its layout or the color of the paint on the trim.
No matter how wonderful your idea is, no matter how wonderful your plot is, if the reader can't figure out what you're saying you've lost her. If a reader has to spend time deciphering your bad spelling and convoluted grammar, she's not going to bother finishing the story (there is one hell of a lot of fanfic out there, and most of us don't have the time to waste on stuff that takes three times as long to read as it ought because of poor mechanical skills on the author's part).
To be a writer, you have to know how to use a writer's tools -- spelling (much though it appalls me to have to add this to a list of tools that people should consider before writing, I've seen far too many stories where not even the character's name -- the media-based character's name -- was spelled right to feel comfortable leaving this reminder out), grammar, punctuation (yes, it matters!), syntax, phrasing, semantics, rhythm, flow, show-don't-tell, POV... all things that make people want to read your wonderful idea.
If you're looking for help with the technical stuff, there are lots of places you can look. I've got a writing chrestomathy page set up that could get you started -- check it out, if you want.