Home » Quotes » If you can tell stories

If you can tell stories

23 January 2013

If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.

W. Somerset Maugham


22 Comments to “If you can tell stories”

  1. Just tell it!

    Great advice, except…

    When I “just tell it,” somehow the telling gets a little more ornate than is popular these days!

    Can a good story cope with less than severe terseness?

    • J.M., I’ll trade you some of your description for a cafffeinated beverage of your choice. I’ve been told my first drafts look like stage directions.

      The other complaint I get is rather sexist and I don’t want the good gentlemen readers of this fine blog to start throwing pixelated tomatoes at me.

      • LOL!

        I still go through my drafts striking adjectives and adverbs, but some of them seem necessary. So they stay. And the complex sentences…well, not all are complex, but enough are…and they stay too.

        On the other hand, once my first reader is through, I must often add scenes. A bit too much of the story stayed in my head, didn’t escape to the page. Thank heavens for first readers!

        I’m curious about that unrevealed complaint, Suzan. Perhaps we could bargain with the good gentlemen here? If Suzan puts it in quotes, you’ll refrain from tomato tossing?

        • “You write like a guy.”

          Sadly, the two male members of the critique were more offended than I was, and for some strange reason, the group broke up shortly thereafter.

          • Feh. What were their criteria? Mere scarcity of description? Lack of adverbs? Or is that the wrong reaction from me? ! Somehow I can’t help suspecting this group lacked vision.

          • Suzan, my pixilated colleague, so what if you “write like a guy.” To be honest, I don’t even know what it means. Read Julie Phillips’s biography of James Tiptree, Jr.

      • Oh, and tea. Definitely tea. 😀

    • Please, don’t worry about what’s “popular” and write the way you want to! There are those of us who are so sick and tired of terse, “all showing, no telling” writing that we rarely read anything that has been published recently anymore. I’d love to discover more works that don’t follow contemporary “popular” trends.

      • Amen to not worrying about what’s popular, Sarah.

        Though I prefer more showing than telling. I recently had a review that complained that she ‘didn’t know what she was supposed to feel’. I had written the alien’s voice more formally and poetically and that didn’t work for her. She wanted to be told what she should be feeling rather than figuring out for herself. How to make an alien different from humans yet still have a connection.

        Sigh. So much for rules of writing.

      • Glad to hear it. Thus far I write what inspires me, intrigues me, sets me alight. And I write it the way it seems to call to be written. But sometimes in the dark of the night, I fall prey to the Monster of the Second Guess! 😀

    • This sounds like (to me) a revisit of the old tussle: “Shall I write well? Shall I write interesting? Or shall I write to market?”

      There was a time when there were writers that, should you have even broached aloud the idea of writing to market, would have instantly and forever after regarded you as a soul-less being, or soon to be.

      And I am gradually becoming more and more of the opinion that writers that prostitute themselves to market do in fact suffer increasingly coarsened and degraded psyches and sensibilities over time.

      The subset that includes both soul and market tends to be a narrow one, where it exists at all.

      At any rate, mass cultural sensibilities in general seem to have been sliding steadily over many decades now, in all the arts. Should artists sink along with them?

      Here is another question, which smacks of so-called elitism (a catch-word by which the cognitively impoverished berate their betters): Pick out an average person, or whatever person, you may happen to see here or there … on the subway, at the airport… How would you feel if that person were actively reading a copy of your book, there in public? …Proud, or embarrassed?

      The soul cries out: Keep the adverbs and adjectives where they are worth keeping! The vulgar masses be damned!

      The wallet cries out: Hell! If the soul is worth selling, might as well compose the sauciest porn ever and retire young!

  2. “Can a good story cope with less than severe terseness?”


    I’ve been Audio reading a lot of David Hume of late, and while the style is arch, and endlessly over-complex. When the story is there, he can be thrilling. His account of Azincour*, for instance is “bracing.” Some of the tales of burnings at the stake, under Queen Mary, were heart-rending.

    Just yesterday, I chomped my way through a sentence of 373 words. You try to get the breathing right for that monster:)

    Macaulay, with all his vicious pomposity is the same, and so funny.

    So, I reckon, if you’ve got a decent story, it will trump the style. Go for it.


    *That’s how he spelled it.

    • Brendan, you comfort me.

      • Brendan, good point. I still enjoy complex sentences, reading and writing them. Yet there are times I prefer shorter and simpler ones; it depends on the story.

        J. M.- I, too, have noticed a more utilitarian preference in writing these days. And while I agree that too many adjective and adverbs are cringe-worthy, they’re words for reason and perfectly acceptable. Since when did people suddenly vilify poetic prose? There’s poetic and then there’s purple, and they’re not the same thing. I suspect some don’t quite understand the difference and are putting the hate on for all of it. Which sucks because there are times in which I enjoy writing more lyrically when it fits the character or tone.

        But, meh. What’s old is new again. It’ll all come back around sooner or later.

        • I hope you are right…!~ But you’ve seen the discussions on ‘the new orality’, I trust…? There is something to the idea. Youngsters especially, growing up on the web, have limited vocabularies, a narrower experience with range of expression regarding the word, etc etc…. seldom will take the time to look up words that they are unfamiliar with, and when they do, typically arrive at ‘dictionary’ sites that offer just the briefest clipped meaning.

          By way of example, on another forum, totally unrelated to the topics here, someone was openly puzzling over the meaning of the word ‘ennui’. I watched ‘from a distance’ and finally the group arrived at a weak consensus that it just meant ‘depressed’, and openly wondered why the redundancy. Sigh! And these were by and large college grads! Didn’t Orwell have a plank concerning diminishing vocabularies?

          Literature may end up more or less following the newspapers more and more offstage as the presences of the web takes over everything.

          • Eh, that’s been a common complaint for years.

            Once upon a time, a game designer named Monte Cook, who never used a single-syllable word if he could use a six-syllable word instead, wrote a game module called “Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil.”

            As the group of us gamers descended into the depths of the temple, wary and fearful and excited, the narrator described the depths of the ruined temple of nefarious deeds. It was all setting the mood until he stumbled, and sounded out “the torchlight reflects balefully on the ver-mic-u-lat-ed walls. What’s vermiculated?”

            “Uh, isn’t vermiculite like mica?”
            “Glittery? Nah, that couldn’t be right.”

            Fifteen minutes and a dictionary later, the mood was thoroughly destroyed, the game called off for the night (in fact, we never did get back to it) but we all now know it means worm-eaten.

            I have no objection to using uncommon words in prose. But if you feel the need to use words like “vermiculated” in a story, please include enough description that your readers can figure out what it means without having to stop and look it up.

            • Well, at least now you can just tap the word and get a definition in a second and go back to reading. I do that often and don’t find it too distracting.

            • Monte Cook? Really?

              Monte and I shared an office (along with Kevin Barrett) way back in the day (1990 or so). Kevin edited the SF stuff, I did the Middle-earth games, and Monte handled Rolemaster. Then he moved on to TSR, and I lost track of him. (Return is unknown to me. Maybe a TSR production? Or WOTC?) Maybe I should do some googling for old acquaintance!

              • Second thought: vague memory that my colleague was Monty Cook, rather than Monte Cook. Too bad! I was enjoying that “small world” sensation encountering mention of him here.

  3. As long as you can draw the reader into the story and feel the passion, you are absolutely correct. Well said.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.