How often have we heard people say something along the lines of, a good story is more important than good writing? Many times, right?
I was a believer, too, until lately. I can’t explain why but more and more I’m reading books that are riddled with lazy writing to the point where any evidence of interesting story or compelling characters is completely obliterated. I find myself stopping every other page (or pausing every few minutes when I’m listening to an audio book) to groan or cringe.
I know what you’re saying, it’s difficult for writers to turn off their internal editor when they’re reading. And you’d be right. I’m constantly thinking of how I could rewrite that line or change this plot element or tweak a character. When the writing is good, I can at least tone that impulse down to a negligible level.
Lazy writing isn’t to be confused with “taking a momentary rest” or “allowing what’s really important on the page to shine”. Sometimes an author intentionally choses a very simple line in order not to detract or diminish from what came before and what’s coming ahead (less can be best).
Take this excerpt from Jodi Picoult’s book OFF THE PAGE:
Before I realize what he’s doing, he’s pulling me around a corner, into the narrow hallway that leads to the photography lab. In a delicate choreography, he spins me so that my back is against the wall and his hands are bracketing me. His hair is falling across his eyes as he leans forward, lifts my chin, and kisses me.
“What was that for?” I ask, dizzy.
He grins. “Just because I can.”
I can’t help smiling back. Three months ago, I never imagined that I could even reach out and touch Oliver’s hand, much less sneak away from school for a secret kiss.
There isn’t much to the sentence: He grins. There doesn’t need to be. In fact, something like, His face splits in half, the twinkle from his grin traveling his eyes where it explods, would be too much. Ms. Picoult knew the right moment to “rest” so that we would focus on the emotion and the action.
Now, let’s look at an example of lazy writing and the kind of thing that stops me:
“Do you come here much?”
“No, only once before with some friends from the office.”
“Where do you work?”
“I’m the manager of a large apartment complex in the Biltmore area.”
“No fooling! Appears were in similar lines of work. I’m a superintendent for a multi-housing developer. We recently started construction on our first apartment project here in the valley.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“You look like someone who works outdoors a lot.”
“No, I meant that as a compliment. You’re very, umm, fit.”
“You’re very fit yourself.”
“No really. I never work out.”
Okay, I’m quitting here before you expire from boredom. What’s wrong with this passage besides it’s uninteresting? Well, I have no idea who’s talking the entire time. I know almost nothing about these two people besides where they work or have any insight into their characters. There are repeated words, especially no and not. Punctuation is used to convey emotion rather than description or action.
I could go on, but I won’t. In about the same number of words, Ms. Picoult described her setting enough that I knew exactly where the characters were and several telling details about them. The teenaged girl has insecurity issues and believes the boy is out of her league. She obeys rules rather than breaks them. She has strong feelings for this boy, who, unlike her, is confident, experienced, and probably popular at school.
Now, before you Google the example of bad writing in order to figure the author of that awful passage, I’ll save you the trouble. It’s from a short story I wrote about seventeen years ago. Hard to believe I actually won a contest with this bomb. There must have been all of three entries and mine was the least worst.
How much better it would have been if I’d just added a little bit:
“Do you come here much?”
The lame pickup line wasn’t worthy of a response. She answered anyway, blaming the dimple in his left cheek. “No, only once before with some friends from the office.”
I suppose if there’s a takeaway form this blog post it’s that, in my opinion, a story is only as good as the telling.
For me, I’m heading back to my pages and making one more red-pen pass.