Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Good writing versus beautiful writing: Is there a difference?

Since December, I've been writing—every waking minute and some not-so-waking minutes—but this fall I took some time off writing to read. A lot. I caught up on everything I’d been wanting to read this last year but didn’t because I was absorbed with my own characters. I found some new favorite authors and read a few lemons. But, as I was doing all this reading, I was struck with something. Some authors take a lot of words to say something very simple. This isn't meant as a criticism, but an observation.

I tend to lean toward simplicity in my writing and truly believe that the author should be invisible. Two novels I've read in the last six months where this was the case were If I Stay by Gayle Forman and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins.

I love the way they write. Their styles, though very different, resonate with me. Simple and beautiful. Along with Jay Asher, John Green and a handful of others, they’re some of the least obtrusive writers I’ve ever read, meaning their words never distracted me from the story. And they had me crying, I don’t know, like twenty times.

That said, my favorite authors are still Melissa Marr and Kristin Cashore, who tend to be slightly more literary. I catch myself thinking about the writing while reading their books, but only enough to say to myself, holy cannoli, I wish I could write like that, and never enough to pull me out of the story. It's a very fine line.

There are some beautifully written stories out there that are sometimes too beautifully written. I know it sounds crazy, but if the prose is so beautiful that I start thinking about the prose, I’m no longer living the story. As a writer, I’m thinking that’s not such a good thing.

Am I wrong? Is there a difference between a well written story and a beautifully written story?

What do you think?


  1. I think you're completely right. For non-writers, I think that kind of writing can be really difficult to read. Whereas a writer would be paying attention to the writing itself, looking how it's crafted, those parts may bore straight readers looking for a good story.

    That's why Hemmingway is one of my favorite authors. He has mastered the idea of the simplest prose possible. I'm always amazed when I read him how little he puts in but how large an impact it makes on me.

    This is also one of the reasons I can't read much Tolkien. His world-building is fantastic and his descriptions beautiful. But when I get wrapped up in three pages of gorgeous description, I completely forget Frodo is dying. It's hard to pay attention when I'm watching the writing.

  2. I don't think a beautifully written story and a well-written story are mutually exclusive. In fact, I don't care how beautiful the words are, if the story isn't well written you end up with an Orc in Elven clothing. Examples? *scratches head* I'd rather not say, seeing as the author is a friend of mine.

  3. I think there is a difference, and that there is a continuum between those two ideas in fiction. "Well-written" to me means that the language strives to be unambiguous, communicating with clarity and straightforward purpose, while beautiful writing is enamored of the feel of the words in your mind and on your lips, creating a response that is more concerned with the aesthetic or sensual aspects of language. I think that jibes with your distinction at the end about focusing on the words rather than the story. Most writing has some admixture of these, the prosaic and the poetic, but writers generally strive for one or another as a textual strategy.

    I like both sorts of writing, but I have a soft spot for the poetic and difficult: http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2011/02/draftbellowing-ogre-championing-the-difficult-and-the-poetic-in-fantastika/

  4. I've been thinking about this too, but one thing I come back to is the question: Am I reading this as a reader, or am I reading this as a writer? Because I wonder if teens (elusive lot that they are) read some of the more lyrical prose out there and if it pulls them out of the story too, since they're not saying ,"holycrap, I wish I could write like that." You know?

    It also kinda goes back to the whole "kill your darlings" business.

    In the end, I want beautiful prose for things that warrant it, not when a character is crossing the room. That's my two cents.

    Glad you've opened this up the floor! Curious to see what others say.

  5. I don't overly enjoy beautiful writing. It pulls me out of the story like you said. I guess it's fine for school where we're supposed to read challenging literary masterpieces but in my free time I'm looking for a good story.

  6. LOL, this is why it took me so long to read Jennifer Donnelly's Revolution. It was like it was way too beautiful and yes, it distracted me from the story.

    I tend to be a pretty simplistic writer myself, so it may be personal bias, but I think you're right. I like to be swept away by a book, but when I spend too much time mulling over the writing style, it takes me out of the story.

    Interesting post, Lisa!

  7. I love beautiful, lyrical writing. If it's not right, it turns precious, show-offy, or distracting -- the line is fine, and sometimes I cringe when I read something too similar to my first-draft overwriting.

    I also like stripped-down, spare writing, where each word is perfect and necessary. That's different than being utilitarian though.

  8. There's a difference between beautiful writing - for example, a lovely and apposite metaphor that actually illuminates the scene and pulls you into the story MORE - and purple prose, pretentious writing where the author is trying to show off.

    I think Scott Fitzgerald is a good example - the writing's beautiful but it doesn't pull me out of the story, quite the opposite.

  9. I had to tweet the "orc in elven clothing" quote.

    I don't think that "beautiful" has to be wordy. I generally think of it as being mostly about having wonderful voice.

  10. I think there's a different too. There are many books that hit all the right notes, so I give them a 5 on Goodreads. Then there are books that are in a league of their own like To Kill a Mockingbird.

  11. Thank you for all the thoughtful comments. It seems many of you think that a really good book needs to stradle the line, but is this always the case? Can you think of examples of books that stuck with you but were extremely sparce. For me, Cracked Up To Be by Courtney Summers sort of falls into that category.

  12. Love it! And I agree, when I get swept up in the story and forget I'm reading words, that's the book for me!!

  13. I'm partial to the 'happy medium' between simplistic prose and beautiful prose. I often find that simplistic prose can often read 'lazy' whilst beautiful prose can come off 'word heavy'
    oddly, i prefer first person narrative to fall on the 'simplistic' side of the scale (unless its non fiction) and third person to lean more towards beautiful.
    I am currently reading Gemma Files "A Book of Tongues" her style of writing is so unique and different from anything i've ever read previously. having said that, her style often veers off into jarring territory and yet i remain riveted by her play and use of words to tell the story.

  14. Personally, I am drawn to beautiful writing. I love moments when the music of the writing makes me stop and read the sentence again. Just last night I was reading the first page of the Grass Harp by Capote and read one paragraph about 4 times because it was so gorgeous. You can take it too far. The other day I had a similar feeling when reading Faulkner but got frustrated because I couldn't figure out the plot, so I lost interest in the story even though the writing was stunning. But overall, I would say I am more interested in how an author says something that what they are saying.