I read something on social media the other day, and try hard as I might, I can’t stop thinking about it. It disturbed me, in part because of the tone with which it was said, but mostly because of the content. The gist of it was this: Story (as opposed to writing) isn’t just everything, it’s the only thing. Writing only exists insomuch as it’s necessary to tell the story. No one gives a crap about your writing, they just want a good story.
Now, I’ve seen plenty of reader opinion polls that say story is first, I’ve read lots of craft pieces saying the same thing. I’m not disagreeing with that, but I’d like to offer up a metaphor that I think describes the process better, and makes an argument for the value of good writing.
Think of your book as a house. The story is the structure–the two by fours and other framing that will hold the whole thing together. If you build a frame that doesn’t have the things a buyer wants–space for two bathrooms, a kitchen big enough to eat in, bedrooms that are separated from the living room–then people won’t like the house (or the book).
Now writing is the skin–the finishes, the bricks on the exterior, the granite countertops, the natural cherry wood floors. You can build a structure that has everything the buyer wants, and then you can cover it with corrugated metal, put cheapass vinyl floors in it, and leave the pressboard moulding unpainted, but why would you? Why would you spend all that time building a frame for someone’s dream house then treat it like it’s an off-campus student apartment? Some of us–some readers and some writers–do care about writing. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about story too. But we want the dreamhouse to be beautiful, not just functional.
In addition, the writing is your chance to make the house your own–it’s no longer simply a three bedroom ranch with two baths and a finished basement, the writing is what creates its own unique aesthetic. If your house is filled with marble tiles and crystal chandeliers, that’s a different aesthetic than one that’s filled with recycled wood from the rainforest and custom bamboo floors. They’re both beautiful, and they both enhance the structure of the story, but they allow your three bedroom house to be different than Jane Author’s three bedroom house. Because if everyone builds a three bedroom house and uses vinyl and corrugated metal, how will readers differentiate?
A house that is gorgeous but doesn’t have the right floorplan isn’t what we want, but I’d argue that neither is one that has all the right spaces and none of the amenities. Part of the value of language is the ability it gives us to communicate nuance, emotion, sensations, conflict, and beauty. When I write a book I try, each and every time, to build a great house, and make it as beautiful as I can. I feel that it’s part of my responsibility and to do otherwise would be giving my readers less than my best.
So go build your house, writers. Make it big, give it ALL the rooms, design a floorplan that’s truly spectacular, then cover it in words that are beautiful or raw or hysterically funny. Make that house yours, and make it a thing of wonder. Your work deserves nothing but your best, and your readers deserve it too.