Good prose vs. a good story

What do you think the ratio is between well-written prose and telling a good story?

Obviously telling a good story is more important than having great prose. But is it by much? A story with terrific prose can't be saved by a story that's sloppy or doesn't hold a reader's interest. But can a story with lackluster prose be saved by telling a good story?

What are your thoughts?

I think that line is way too audience-specific. There are some people who read for prose, some who read for story. So, I think the answer is going to come down to the usual question: Who are you writing for? Something like The Tom Drake Experience is not going to appeal to the same audience as your story, for instance. All the best prose in the world is wasted if your audience wants superheroes and fighting.

That said, I think working on the prose is always worthwhile. Nobody ever complains "I loved the story, but why did it have to be so well-written?" :-)


Well, in general I agree with Chris. It depends a lot on the audience that you're writing for, your genre, your niche, and a whole heck of a lot of other factors.

That said, here are my personal opinions:

It depends, for me, on what you mean by lackluster. If we're talking about not being particularly good or bad, than yeah, I think story can make up for it. Think of Stephan King: I'm not even close to a fan of his writing, and yet he's clearly a huge commercial success. He preaches the KISS method of writing, relying on his storylines to carry the book along. In terms of fans and finances, it works wonderfully for him.

It's mostly true for how I read, as well. Provided the prose is just basic (not bad, per se), than the storyline is what will win me over. Give me a character to care about, a plot that I can't set down, and/or some hot sexin' and I'll stay with a serial to the end. But give me three pages of great prose with no plot, and you'll lose me quicker than bad directions from Mapquest. There's just nothing for me to invest in, nothing to care about -- I can't daydream about what spotless prose will eat for lunch, or wonder what it would be like to be stuck on an island with spotless prose. For me, even the best prose is bland without a strong concept behind it.

The characters and plot keep me coming back, and that's really what I rave about in my reviews here. I read web fiction for the niche, not the prose. IMHO there are plenty of well-written published authors that I could read for great prose, and even more amateur writers that have their work available for free. We're talking hundreds of thousands, provided I'm not picky about content/want non-niche content.

Unfortunately, there are significantly less stories that I can find if I wanted, say, a lesbian, erotic, urban fantasy story. I'm more likely to forgive bad prose/web design/updating schedules if a writer gives me something I can't find elsewhere.

Standard YMMV Clause: People who have different reasons for reading will have different desires, of course.

Hi Morgan, PC,

BTW, the end of my first paragraph should have read "All the best prose in the world is wasted if your audience wants superheroes and fighting *and you don't give it to them*". Slight difference.

What I was trying to say is there are different ways to people's hearts, and not all ways will work with all readers. Morgan, you like character and plot and some heat. PC, you strike me as a plot man. :-) For me, an interesting character is the most important thing. And I like my angst. :-) Plot is nice, but not even a requirement -- nor does it often save something that lacks interesting characters. There are a bunch of great books I simply can't read because they spend all of their time on the prose and plot and none letting me get to know somebody. On the other hand, I can read something with interesting characters and poor writing and be perfectly fine with it. But if you give me good characters *and* good prose, that's definitely best.

I think the whole "write what you know" thing is a bad direction. You should write what you *feel* . . . write what you want to read. You probably won't be alone in it, and, if you have something unique to say, you might even appeal to people who aren't just like you, too.


But can a story with lackluster prose be saved by telling a good story?

That depends. Would you sit through a 90 minute movie that was filmed entirely on a 200 dollar video camera from walmart? That would have to be a damn good movie.

Likewise, in the writing world "that you have to be a damn good story". That being said, I think that it is possible for lackluster prose to be overcome by a strong story. Just ask any fan of Isaac Asimov.

Not really what you were talking about, Dustin, but I was a huge fan of the movie Cloverfield.

Actually, now that I think about it, Cloverfield is a good example of exactly what I wanted to say. More on that in a mo'.

See, writing isn't really good or bad, unless you don't hit what you were shooting for. There are tons of different styles: descriptive prose, straightforward prose, prose poetry, flowery prose, purple prose, lots of other prose styles I can't think of at the moment... Your job as a writer is to find the style of prose best suited for the kind of story you want to write. Is it a story about characters? Is it about in part what the kind of prose used says about the narrator? Is it an action story? Is it a romance? Is it set in the past, present, or future? All of these have different prose styles that are generally regarded as being well-suited for them.

But there's actually more to it than even that anti-"good writing" screed. Take the movie Cloverfield. On the one hand, you could argue that its direction is techincally deficient. It was shot cheap and looks it. You could also argue that it was shot wrong. Every other Godzilla movie has been shot primarily from a birds-eye view. How can you see the epic scope of Godzilla's destruction from a puny human's perspective?

Ahh, but that was the point. By shooting it cheap, they gave the illusion that it was really shot by the characters involved. That guise of verisimilitude (hey spelled it right on the second try) makes the movie feel much more realistic. When you shoot it from above, you're distancing yourself from the action. In the same way, incredibly descriptive or psychological prose can be completely out of place when you're talking a straight action scene. Furthermore, in the case of Godzilla movies, the "epic" scope distances you from the characters. Who cares about the characters in a classic Godzilla movie? All you want to see is destruction. But by making the filming of Cloverfield more personal, we come to care about the characters, we get to know them, they get fleshed out. When the Cloverfield monster destroys a nearby building, we are truly terrified, a feeling you don't get when you see a building destroyed from a bird's eye view.

The interesting thing about Cloverfield, to me (and something I only realized while writing this), is that every other single Godzilla movie is shot wrong, not Cloverfield. It's like everyone was writing really simple prose for complex character studies, or really elaborate prose for action scenes, and someone stood up and (LOLfiction-style) said, YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG. And sci-fi dorks looked upon it and saw that it was good.

I also enjoyed Cloverfield -- despite thinking I wouldn't. It's a highly effective movie.

I would argue your final point, however. It's not that every other Godzilla movie is shot wrong. It's that the world in which Cloverfield was made was *different* from the one in which previous Godzilla movies were made. Those other movies changed things, intervening events (like the destruction of the World Trade Centre) changed things. Cloverfield is a very effective movie because it understood its times and reacted accordingly. It may not age any better than those older movies, but that's a different discussion altogether.

aricollins, I think what you're getting at is, "don't be afraid to break the rules". I agree, if it makes sense for your story, do it. But before you do that, learn the rules and tricks of the trade. Then, once you've mastered them you'll know when and why to ignore them.

Interesting point, Chris. And thanks for summing me up so well, Dustin.

I think the real absolute line comes when the prose is bad enough to distract from the story.

A good story with fairly poor writing quality can work as long as the prose is good enough to let the story come through. If not, it doesn't matter how good the story is, I won't keep reading (partially because it will be tough to enjoy, and partially because I wouldn't be able to keep myself from editing it in my head as I read).

That said, good writing will only get me through a few chapters before I give up on a bad plot. A good story will get me a little farther into it, but I generally won't stick around.

I think I'm more forgiving of a slow plot with good writing than a good plot with bad writing. I'll give up quicker if there's no plot, but I'll want to hang on longer if the writing's good.

Personally, I wish I didn't obsess over the cleanliness of my prose as much when I'm writing--the type of story I write can handle a few extra passive sentences and such, and it would help me speed up my schedule. Unfortunately, I can't help it.

I'll sit there and obsessively rework a sentence until I get it how I want it, or finally force myself to move on. As a result, my prose is clean but it takes me forever to write chapters.

So is that another balance to think about? Cleanliness and revision versus timely or more frequent posting?