The Marriage Between Story and Language

A good book is ultimately the result of a happy marriage between story and language. This is true both of fiction and non-fiction. In non-fiction, we might sometimes need to substitute the word “information” for “story.” (But not always. Many non-fiction books are also stories).

When a manuscript is rejected, it’s often because the writer has failed on either the story level or the language level…or both.

The story level is simply a matter of: is this really a story? Does it have interesting characters, a good plot, a sympathetic theme, and an appropriate setting?

If we can think of the human body as a metaphor, the story is the skeleton on which the author must hang the flesh of language. Without a firm and reliable skeleton, even the best writing will amount to no more than page after page of words nicely strung together.

At the language level, we’re talking about the author’s ability to use exactly the right words to make the story come alive. Two writers might begin with the same great story idea and if one knows how to bring about a romance between the story and language and the other doesn’t, it will be the former who succeeds.

Two quotes come to mind here. First, it was Mark Twain who said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Really fine writers are always trying to replace the “almost right word” with the exact “right word.” That’s why multiple drafts of any manuscript are so important. On your sixth and seventh drafts, you should still be finding words that need replacing. One way to find those words is to read your manuscript out loud. This step is a must for all good writers. They know the power of the ear to catch glitches that the eye misses in silent reading.

The other quote is one of my favorite writing quotes of all time—and that’s saying a lot, if you could see the massive collection of writing quotes I have. This quote is from the highly prolific writer, the late Isaac Asimov, who said, “It either sounds right or it doesn’t sound right.”

Profound, eh? And yet, that’s what good writing is all about. It simply must sound right (to the inner ear of the reader) in order to succeed. And the skilled writer will persist with a manuscript until he or she is convinced every word is the right word for this story.

If you sense the “language” part of writing is hard for you, you may need to read more. Avid readers develop a keen inner ear for when the author’s use of language is working (or not working) in a given story. As a writer, you need to develop this skill too.

Most of the time I spend editing a manuscript for publication is simply exchanging good words for better words. Near-miss words to direct-hit words. You can do that too. You might have a rejected manuscript you’ve given up on, but still believe in. Bring the thing out into the light again and read it aloud. Does it sound stilted now after being in storage for a while? If the answer is yes, then you need to know that the manuscript was just as stilted when it came fresh out of the printer. You just didn’t see it then. Perhaps because you were less attentive to language and more attentive to story. After all, coming up with your story is the relatively easy part. It’s the constant reworking of the language that marks the professional writer—the published writer.

8 replies
  1. Camille Eide says:

    I love the marriage analogy, and can appreciate the love of good word choice to make a great story shine all the more. I love the clever use of language (while not overdone) in a story, and I think that’s what often makes the difference between my liking and loving a book. They work together as a team, like a solid marriage. Great reminder.

  2. Judith Robl says:

    You know me. I’m a language nut. But if there isn’t a story in it, it’s just so much blather. Thanks for a pointed reminder that a book walks on both legs.

  3. Michael K. Reynolds says:

    You’re right, Nick, this is a valuable observation for authors. Both elements should be very strong, although I would argue that the market is more lenient on mediocre writing than mediocre story.

  4. BJ Hoff says:

    A really good entry, Nick, and helpful. “Sounding right” to the inner ear is absolutely vital. And I don’t think you can ever stress too much the advantage of *reading* more to help with this. Time and again I’ve read stories that were published (but maybe shouldn’t have been) by a writer who clearly had a good sense of story, but who came up short on the language part–too many places where the “rhythm” or even one word or a brief phrase threw things off. It’s true that some writers seem to have a highly developed sense for the right words and the rhythm that accompanies those words. Odds are that if you asked them, you’d find that those writers have also long been avid readers. And it does take a long time to develop that sense, probably years. So you can’t start too soon! Two other cautions along the same line: Even if you don’t like listening to audio books, they can help sharpen that inner ear. (So long as the one reading the book on the audio is a *good* reader.) The other–it’s not wise to read or listen to a lot of books that are outside the genre you’re writing in. In other words, if you’re working on historical fiction, it’s probably not going to help you if you read or listen to mostly contemporaries. The rhythm and pacing will be different enough–because the style and words used will be different–that you can easily “confuse” or muddle the very sense you’re trying to sharpen.

  5. Jane Daly says:

    I read Dean Koontz’ bio today. He writes for 10 hours a day and produces only about six pages in that span. He writes and rewrites each sentence, each paragraph until it shines. As Christians, we should strive for that level of excellence in our writing. Let’s leave laziness behind and reach for the high calling for which Christ has called us.

  6. Nick says:

    Thanks, BJ. Good words.

    Jane, I would blow an internal fuse if I wrote ten hours a day. Ugh.

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