Quick! What’s more important? The story or how well it’s written?
No, the correct answer isn’t ‘both.’ our goal as writers and storytellers is, indeed, ‘a good story well told.’ Bear with me now, I'm not dissin' anybody's writing ability, but I'll argue till closing time (and the car is about to be towed away) that a terrific story line gets the nod over great writing ability.
A compelling and unique plot, with terrific conflict and a strong resolution, will have your reader weeping in despair when they arrive at the dreaded words “The End.” That story will be remembered far longer than a weak or predictable one, no matter how well the wordsmithing is done. Yes, there are examples of brilliantly executed but humdrum plots that achieve an audience. But there are far more with blockbuster plot lines, yet barely credible characters and believable dialogue. The authors of those novels and screenplays are sipping boat drinks on a tropical island while the rest of us criticize them and complain “I coulda done it better.”
And maybe we coulda. But a little advance planning on the story structure woulda been a great idea.
I wrote a few novels before I tackled one I thought was worth a damn. I had a general idea of the plot...up to a point. Some of it had actually happened. As soon as I left the realm of what happened and had to actually make stuff up, I got unmoored, like a hot air balloon floating with the wind. The story had gotten away from me. I tried to make up for the lost story line by continually rewriting and improving the way I told the story. The characters realized that no one was steering the ship and mutinied. They fought over who was the protagonist. They lied to each other. They started drinking and fighting.
The 80,000-word story I had planned grew by half. All this extra writing was good stuff- it just didn't advance the PLOT. What plot? It took the story down one-way streets and forced me to edit and delete. I had to rip out stuff I loved--some of my favorite descriptions and dialogue. It was heartbreaking. But that stuff should never have been written in the first place.
There must be a better way. I found it at the library's "fill a bag for a quarter" sale. One bag was filled with Reader's Digest Condensed books. I had never read one. I'd heard about them, of course, but the whole concept was silly. Maybe not.
Someone had managed to take a full-length novel and squeeze it into a few thousand words. At that size, the plot moved with lightning speed and was brilliantly clear and understandable. Would the concept work in reverse? Could I take my novel idea, and instead of just charging ahead, could I tell the whole story, first, in a short form...with all the major plot points, the central conflict, most important dialogue, and the resolution? Could I write my own private version of a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book, without meandering into all the subplots and self-indulgent scenes that I like writing way more than the meat-and-potatoes plot? Could I stay focused and just write THE STORY?
What an exercise! I had no plans to show it to anyone, not even my writers' group. No one swooned at my writing ability because no one heard it but me. In its concentrated version I quickly discovered what was right with the story and what wasn't. When I threw out pages, they were, in fact, 'pages.' They weren't stacks of sheets that I had poured my heart into. I learned to write quickly. I spent less than a page on each chapter. I ignored spelling and grammar mistakes. I skipped the research...what difference does it make on what date or what street something happened? I could find that stuff later. I kept going until I had told the story.
My condensed book was about 2500 words, way longer than any synopsis, nothing at all like an outline, shorter than any novella. It was my novel, in miniature. By compressing the story, the faults in the plot line became obvious. The essential characteristics, good or bad, of the theme, conflict, and resolution stood in high relief. I had plenty of stuff to fix, but that was okay; I hadn't spent months tearing these pages out of my soul only to throw them away.
It was easy to do. I made the fixes and then started at the beginning, writing carefully, concerned now with the flow and the language. I knew the hard work was done. In the end, I got the best plot I could make along with the best writing I was capable of. The 'writing part' was easy. We can all do the writing part. That's because we're writers, right?
Gino B. Bardi was born in New York City in 1950, and lived on the South Shore of Long Island until he attended Cornell University in 1968, during the tumultuous era of Vietnam War protests. Armed with a degree in English/Creative Writing, he diligently sought work in his field and soon wound up doing everything but. For the next forty-four years he cranked out advertising copy, magazine articles, loan pitches and short stories while running a commercial printing company in Upstate New York. Along the way, he married his college girlfriend, became father to three lovely daughters and decided that winter was an unnecessary evil. In 2008 he sold the printing business, retired, and now writes humorous fiction in his home on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Two signs hang above his desk: "Bad decisions make good stories," and Mel Brooks' advice that "You only need to exaggerate a LITTLE BIT."
The Cow in the Doorway is his first full-length novel and won the statewide Royal Palm Literary Award for best unpublished New Adult novel for 2015.
LinkedIn: Gino Bardi