Is the story everything?

Published by: John Alty on 19th Mar 2018 | View all blogs by John Alty

Stephen King tells us, in his book On Writing, the story is everything. I’m not going to argue with a master storyteller, but does the story transcend the manner in which a book is written? If the story is really, really good can it be told badly? Does the story forgive bad grammar, misused punctuation, too much narrative, too many adverbs, an abundance of cliché?

King doesn’t imply this, of course, he’d be horrified at the thought, I’m sure. But it came to mind recently when I was browsing for a book on Amazon and found, distressingly quickly, an offering that prompted this thought. It seemed to me it might be a very interesting story so I dived in and read the sample few pages. Well, by the third page I realised I was so enthralled by the bizarre punctuation I had no idea what the story was about. I went back and started again. This time it was the undisciplined nature of the writing that distracted me. I abandoned the book then, grateful I’d been able to sample it before wasting time and money.

I’ve decided no matter how engaging the story might be I couldn’t read a badly written book.



  • Kate
    by Kate 4 months ago
    What a coincidence. I'm reading On Writing at the moment and just read the bit about story. SK said something like Story is honourable and trustworthy, while plot should be kept under house arrest. Plotting leads to wooden writing.
    Completely digressing here, but I also recently read Elizabeth George's Write Away. She thinks plot is everything. But they both say you should start with a character in a situation. SK then launches straight into writing the story, while EG writes reams about the character that then leads her to the plot which she carefully lays out before writing. So they both start in the same place, even if they then go in different directions. I thought that was interesting.
    As for story being everything. I guess however interesting a story you have, if you haven't got the craft to write it, no one will want to read it.
  • L.
    by L. 4 months ago
    It is true that no matter how engaging a story might be, if it's badly written it will hard to get into. The way I see it, based on SK is that you can have the most beautiful prose, and perfect grammar in the world but if you don't have a good story at the heart of it, then it's all wasted, just an empty pretty gift-wrapped box.
    Regarding the plotting vs non-plotting, I believe in the George R.R Martin school of thoughts that writers are either architect or gardener. One is not better than the other, it alls depends on what works best for you.
  • Dolly
    by Dolly 4 months ago
    I come down on the side of something being well written. I know that this example might sound daft, but you should be able to read the manual of a newly purchased washing machine and enjoy it! Not much of a plot, I grant you, and you couldn't make a film of it, but if its well written...........
  • RichardB
    by RichardB 4 months ago
    Yes. I struggle with anything that's badly written, no matter what the subject, but the late Ursula K Le Guin once had me hooked (on her on-line blog) on the ins and outs of eating a boiled egg. For me, really good writing is a pleasure in itself, and bad writing is torture.
  • Squidge
    by Squidge 4 months ago
    I have to say that many times, I have enjoyed a story, but not the way it was written. In fact, I spoke to someone today who was so annoyed with a book she was given to read on a train journey, she tore it up. The book - on the train! It always makes me sad to see folk who have really good ideas and lovely stories, but then let themselves and their stories down with poor technique.

    For me, story is everything.
  • John Alty
    by John Alty 4 months ago
    @Dolly Great! Hotpoint 7160 Super Spin - You've read the book, now here's the Movie!
    Coincidentally, just the other day someone suggested to sell a book on Amazon you need only have a killer cover, synopsis and first paragraph; then just copy out all your appliance manuals.
  • mike
    by mike 4 months ago
    The waiting room at my local railway station has a book collection. These are donations from the public which you can buy. The money goes to the station staff to buy plants for the station flower beds. I get one of these novels to read on the train and the choice is quite random. Most are enjoyable reads and the best was by an Italian - Elena Ferrante.
    The novelist whose books I have enjoyed the most in the past few months is Celia Imrie. If you watch English TV, she often features in comedy shows and her books are like the characters she portrays. The novels are light farce and if you are bored with them, you can try the recipes for Italian street food which she has incorporated in the plot. As far as I am concerned she is a Ist class act. What she does, she does well and were it done quickly. I even wonder if Wodehouse might have been her model? Critics might say she does not write well but her intention is to entertain. I wish I could write as well as she does.
  • mike
    by mike 4 months ago
    The bible is not well written. God is not always clear and his words lead to misunderstandings which have caused problems.
  • John Alty
    by John Alty 4 months ago
    Mike, There probably wasn't a Writer's Workshop self-editing course back then.
  • Aonghus Fallon
    by Aonghus Fallon 4 months ago
    I think certain stories sell themselves on their literary style - 'how' the story is told. Other stories are plot-driven. But generally I'd expect even a good work of 'literary' fiction to have the kernel of a plot and a plot-driven book to be competently and unfussily written.

    I read King's book and enjoyed it, but basically felt he was trying to rationalise his own working methods - he's a pantser, making it up as he goes along, then revising repeatedly after he's finished. I think this shows. I read 'It' for the first time a few years back. It is genuinely terrifying and, because of its length, utterly immersive. I reckon it's King at his best, but that it also shows up his limitations - the priority is to scare the reader. There are token nods to various themes and ideas, but none of these are ever properly followed through. A book that is thematically weak is usually a book written on the hoof and without much forethought. One consequence of this approach is a weak ending (the point in the story where the author resolves the story's issues and by extension, clarifies his themes and his attitude towards those themes) - something 'It' signally fails to do.
  • Squidge
    by Squidge 4 months ago
    John, that made me laugh! Can you imagine the fabulous editrix, telling Himself that his words need tightening? I'm sure lots of people of faith over the years had wished God was a bit clearer, too... I know I've wondered at times! ;)
  • Scarlett
    by Scarlett 4 months ago
    I think it's all down to the reader. It might surprise you how many people don't know good grammar or where a full stop should be instead of a comma. (Mine is terrible).

    But I have been known to put a book down when it's being badly told. I've also put a book down when the story is poor. So I think what makes a good book is the combination of all the skills you need to write. Good character creation, good story, good knowledge of the English language, the ability to manipulate the reader to care and to have emotion. All of it.

    I respect Stephen King, but I find the vast majority of his books hard to get through. You get to page 200 of some of them and still NOTHING has happened. For me that breaks the suspense and the fear factor.

    But that is just my opinion.
  • John Alty
    by John Alty 4 months ago
    @Scarlett Yes, I know some people have a blind spot for punctuation. I thoroughly enjoyed Lynne Truss's book on the subject, Eats, Shoots & Leaves and, on the other hand, I've just finished a book with no commas in it at all. But that was deliberate manipulation of punctuation not ignorance of it.
    Good editing should sort out grammar and punctuation but self pub books by-pass this important quality control function.
    SK writes in a genre that doesn't particularly interest me, but I found his On Writing compelling.
  • Debi
    by Debi 4 months ago
    You made me laugh, John. If I were editing the bible, I would ask first about the genre. Fiction? Creative non-fiction? MEMOIR?

    With books that are poorly written, there are many trade published books that fall into that category too. All of Dan Brown's, for example (there are some fabulous spoofs floating around) and yet he sells in the zillions. I don't think we should be too snobbish about what so many people love to read - and wouldn't we all love his sales figures? I ploughed through The Da Vinci Code because I thought I should see what it is that makes it so popular and it's plot and pace. That's what fans are buying his books for. The writing in Fifty Shades of Grey is supposed to be risible (I haven't read it) but no one is reading it for the 'good' writing. Poorly-written self-published books are rife and many fail on the story front too - though there are many wonderful self-published novels out there, with authors who take their job very seriously.

    Ideally, what we all want is to write fabulous stories that avoid all the things you've listed. Cloudies in pursuit of excellence, that's what we're about. :-)
  • Jill
    by Jill 4 months ago
    A good story written well is definitely my preference. I believe everyone should strive for their own level of excellence in whatever field and however long it may take in the honing. I believe that gives personal satisfaction and a sense of achievement and self worth. As writers, we are advised to make a manuscript as god as we can make it before submitting or self publishing, so it is hard to understand, is it not, why and how badly written books get onto the market, especially those published by the traditional route which have gone through many different edits.
  • Jill
    by Jill 4 months ago
    Good, not god!,
  • John Alty
    by John Alty 4 months ago
    Couldn't agree more, Jill.

    Debi, I realise quality of writing varies and that it can be subjective. I'm talking about fundamental issues of grammar and punctuation and I don't think basic errors in those should get into print. I bet King James didn't take any nonsense from his scholarly scribes!
  • Squidge
    by Squidge 4 months ago
    Debi - love it! I'd guess at memoir, produced by a selection of hand-picked ghost writers... ;)
  • mike
    by mike 4 months ago
    Years ago, I did a course in bookbinding. This was at a time when sewn bound books were still produced, Times have have changed and books now have a short shelf life. They are often poorly produced -even by respected publishers and the paper is not acid free. I am reading a Terry Pratchett novel and the text is printed too close to the spine.
    As far as conventional structure is concerned, the novel leaves a lot to be desired. I often have to go to the beginning of a paragraph as who is speaking to whom is not clear. Pratchett goes from scene to scene within explanation or physical devision of text. He also assumes you have read previous books in the series and it is certainly not a self contained novel, It is good fun, nevertheless.
  • mike
    by mike 4 months ago
    There is a very good description of a girl trying to understand the Trinity in Elena Ferrante's book 'My Brilliant Friend' but I wom't do a spoiler.
    I came across the Trinity when researching my grandfather who CANNOT WRITE. I think I must be a one of the world's experts in the analysis of a triple personality in fiction and his novel must be one of the few examples of the genre outside the bible. I think he might have invented the genre. But he cannot write. What had had was humour, originality, extraordinary self belief and,most unfortunately he ascribed to the romantic movement and was mad.
  • Joyful
    by Joyful 4 months ago
    But who are you writing for? I have a strong suspicion than thousands of people enjoy reading a good 'story' and couldn't tell you what is an adverb, gerund or POV. So, do you abandon these folk or push forward and do your best. I never came into writing to win the Booker I came believing I had good, easy to assimilate stories. So far of course it is friends and relatives who are so enthusiastic. Whilst none have first Class degrees in English Lit they never push a door that says 'pull'. I've just released 'Neat and Tidy Vera' which was selected to read 500 words excerpt last September. It is on Amazon and is a neat book to carry or pop in rucksack or handbag. Quite chilling in beginning but it becomes a thriller toward the end. Enjoy and thank you.
  • BellaM
    by BellaM 4 months ago
    I enjoy Dan Brown, and John Grisham. I even ploughed through the whole Fifty Shades trilogy because actually there was just enough story to make me wonder how it all worked out in the end. The writing is indeed risible and the sex scenes so unutterably boring and repetitive that I ended up skipping them, which speeded up the whole job immensely.

    For me story is vital. The basics of grammar and punctuation do matter to me (I notice errors and grind my teeth) but I will tolerate a few errors to finish a story. The story then has to be totally stonking, mind. I'm not particularly bothered about stylish writing and if I come across something that comes across as "up itself" I usually don't get further than the first page. I completely appreciate stylish and skilful writing, don't get me wrong, but it's not a vital ingredient for me.
  • Woolleybeans
    by Woolleybeans 4 months ago
    Some books I have read for the plot and others for the writing. Usually, it's some mixture of both. There's a sliding scale.
  • mike
    by mike 4 months ago
    What are your aims? My grandfather's aim had been immortality, He failed. He writes of the 'immortality of what might have been' which has left a problem to be solved. All I have to do is tell the story.
    I had about ten minutes of intelletcuwal' stuff on Sunday. We discussed tropes in tv cop drama but didn't get much further than isolating a trope. Had the discussion gone further I might have argued that a TV cop show is successful because it adheres to the trope, or I might have argued that a TC cop show is successful because it re-defines the trope - in which case it would not be a TV cop show. A parody would still be the trope,
    Is good or bad writing the issue? My grandfather had been a musician. If he uses a musical metaphor in his prose he becomes, my present standards, a bad writer. What is good or bad writing varies from decade to decade. Thus Jane Austen overwrites.
    Last night I went to the hot London production, Every performance had sold out and I got a £5 standing ticket and watched it though binoculars and the theater's headphones to hear the actors.
    The subject of the show is the power of the media. The audience clearly enjoyed the evening. So did I. Towards the end -about the last twenty minutes - I became a bit restless. Dialogue become increasingly speechyfied and monologues were addressed to the audience and other members of the cast. I felt like shouting 'Get on with it. But that is only my opinion.,
  • Aonghus Fallon
    by Aonghus Fallon 4 months ago
    Talking about cop show tropes, reminded me of this Tom Gauld cartoon (it appeared in the Granuaid last Saturday):

    In terms of accuracy, you just have to compare something like 'Vera' with 'Agatha Christie's Marple'.
  • mike
    by mike 4 months ago
    Dear Aonghus,
    There had been a splendid version of 'The Murder in the Library' . It was produced by the BBC.
    The maid knocks on the door of her employers' bedroom. She enters and, with absolute joy and excitement on her face, exclaims ' Modum, there's a body in the library.'
    If one follows the Christie trope, you cannot predict the ending with any degree of certainty as a vital clue is only revealed just before the denouement. I think Christie is still read because she defined certain tropes. For example 'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
  • Aonghus Fallon
    by Aonghus Fallon 4 months ago
    I think Agatha Christie's books stands up pretty well, inasmuch as they do what they set out to do. She does have her tropes (e.g. the couple who collaborate together to carry out the murders) and I enjoyed this Mitchell & Webb skit in particular -
  • T B Carter
    by T B Carter 4 months ago
    Have any of you read Feersum Endjin by Iain M Banks? If you can get past the total lack of spelling from the MC's POV there is a great story there. I have to admit though that I have a very high crap threshold.
  • Daedalus
    by Daedalus 4 months ago
    One of my favourite of Banks' space operas, that. I rather enjoyed being made to work through the phonetically written section to get the Bascule POVs. In that case it was principally the voice that kept me plugging away, though the story was excellent too
  • RichardB
    by RichardB 4 months ago
    No, but I have read 'The Bridge' by Iain (not M) Banks, which contained long passages of phonetic Glaswegian that were very hard work indeed. On the other hand, I found the phoneticisms and misunderstandings of Jesika's child-speak in our very own Skylark / Amanda Berriman's 'Home' no problem at all, and indeed quite captivating.
  • Donna
    by Donna 4 months ago
    I think what Stephen King means by "the story is everything" is that the story should be the first thing for a writer to get right.
    Only after we have a good story should we attempt to write it.

    Why do we read fiction? Because of the story.
    What is the first thing that catches our curiosity in a new book? The story.
    What do we remember most about the books we loved to read? The story.
    What do we talk about when we recommend books or talk about books? The story.

    If the story is good, a writer can then use all his/her best skills and techniques to write the best fiction.
    The story is the fundation. We must start with a quality fundation.

    On this note, I often come across books that have won prizes and yet they do not apeal to me because the story is lacklustre and the writing pretentious. It seems that prize wining literary fiction does not often result in bestsellers or most read.
    But it could also be that we are not educated enough to appreciate...

    P.S. I did not like Elena Ferrante´s My Brilliant Friend either. Will have another go at it to try to find out why so many readers think she is so good. And I don´t think it has anything to do with poor translation because she is not italian and she writes in english.
  • mike
    by mike 3 months ago
    Dear Donna,
    The best book I read recently had been 'Little Women' I had never read this and only knew the story from film versions. The early 1936 version with Katherine Hepburn is the best, though I cannot now recall the Elizabeth Taylor one. Little Women is mentioned in 'My Brilliant Friend' and the two girls read a well thumbed copy. I wonder why? I found the book difficult to follow because there are so many characters. For me, it rather conveyed 'West Side Story' and the characters in the musical could well have originated in the Naples Ferrante describes. What she conveys well is a world of machismo seen from a feminine eye and she writes of emerging female sexuality. I wonder too, if the narrator is the Jo chatter from ;Little Women'
    It was just a book I picked from a staion bookshop but I will look out for subsequent volumes.
  • mike
    by mike 3 months ago
    Oban speech.
    Last year a play called 'Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour' came down to London from the Edinburgh Fringe. A group of schoolgirls went on the rampage with the appropriate language and accompanied by a pop group on the stage. It was difficult to follow because of the Scottish dialect. I wonder if it was 'The Prime of Miss Brodie'- the true story. I notice the play of this returning to the London stage/ "our Ladies....' is based on s novel by Alan Warner.
    A few Americans have told me that they cannot now follow some English plays as they find the actors incomprehensible. I replied that it can be the case with an English audience too. I saw one play at the Old Vic which had the text displayed on a screen for the hard of hearing. I had to resort ti this. One actor shouted her lines and you could not understand a word she said. You don't have the option of subtitles in the theatre, so it is quite a problem for the audience. On the other hand, there has been a sudden spate of classic plays. Pinter, Wilde, O'Neil. These featured well known actors and every word is clearly spoken. None had pop music added to the play and there were no disco dancers,
    I think the old Vic play came down from Durham which might explain the incomprehensible speech. It was a shame as the play had many good ideas. It was a disaster and the Old Vic were discounting their stall seats for £10 and it had a very short run. I asked someone in the audience what she thought and she said it would not have been put on if it had nor been by Alan Ayckburne I had gone there because I thought a different play wad on, so my opinion is totally unbiased.
    Often the Irish accents are the worst, though Welsh is seldom heard on the English stage. The Abbey Theatre came to London and were perfectly clear.
  • mike
    by mike 3 months ago
    Ghoti. This word had been credited to Shaw. In his will he left a bequest of money to be used to for the simplification of the English language. He exploited the confusions of class and dialect in what is now known as ‘My Fair Lady’ The dialogue is still Shaw’s, but endings of the play are seldom the one that he wished for. This spell checker objects to Lady as it is gender specific. ‘ My Fair Person’ is suggested or ‘My Fair Individual’
    A word checker does not allow mispelling I pointed out elsewhere that placing one’s prose under a spell checker, would result in it resembling a company report. This might well be the modern style.
    Just a Tuesday morning ramble.
    The English language has been simplified by the Americans so two spellings of the same word are permitted. A lift is replaced by the more accurate elevator. But what about Stanley Unwin and Finnnigan’s wake? Comedy and High art. What about patois or, as Unwin might pronounce the word - patios. We are told language is continuously evolving. What about dialect - regional variations. Wilde is extremely polite on the surface. What about Polari? There is a polari group at the Southbank centre or center. The spell checker allows both, I attended a performance of ‘St Mathew’s Passion’ last night and the Southbank Center - where the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’ - is partly resident, became transformed into something else - The Royal Festival Hall and Bach’s church at Leipzig. The south bank of the Thames rather interests me in the ways the buildings have ghosts of their own.
    Referring to a recent Shakespeare production, if a machine gun had been available at the time, Shakespeare would certainly have used one, so the production lacked logic in keeping to a knife - is this a dagger I see before me. The knife can be a metaphor and the machine gun have a silencer. (His plays were written by a committee and the spelling organised by a compositor and there are variations of text.) My own view is this. If Shakespeare was alive would have have understood his own play? I am not sure. Banquo appears in the banquet scene as a drunk and nothing in the text suggests this. The play has not been updated. If it had, Lady Macbeth would have kicked Macbeth in the bollocks. (Be a man you wimp!) I saw a recent production in which a character rushes across the stage with the words, ‘Wa- hoa, high fives, man’ as leaps high, smacks hands, and greats Hamlet. But I digress.
    The mid Victorian lower middle classes were keen on self improvement. A great aunt’s dairies refers to ‘Aping the ladies ..” Playing the piano, the arts, learning to write, were thought to be accomplishments as was language - ie,,speaking proper. The only actor who got things right on a recent TV Howard’s End was the one who played Bast. The production made no sense. Kipps could have been written in 1848 - a few generations earlier than Wells suggests. The musical “Half A Sispence’ ends with Kipps marrying his working class sweetheart and abandoning all thoughts of self improvement. Speaking proper was not an issue and being a potato head considered a virtue - along with mass playing of the ukulele.
    I.m off to change my library book ‘ Trigger Mortis’ for something else. If you do not use your library it will close (Statistics)
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