Most writers--even those with many published books to their credit--will tell you they're still learning their craft and I am no exception. However, there is one small segment of the writing craft where I think I have something of value to share. Apparently The Writer Magazine thinks so, too, because they published my article on the subject. Also, some local chapters of Romance Writers of America have asked me to give workshops on the topic which is: "Word People versus "Story People."
During my earliest years I attended many workshops and critique groups, listening to or reading others' unpublished work. And almost immediately I noticed that there seemed to be two types of writers: "story" people and "word" people.
Here's my definition of word people versus story people. Word people have a fine grasp of language. They choose interesting adjectives and verbs, produce outstanding images, and invent unusual similes and metaphors. They may write poetry or literary fiction. They may spend an entire day choosing the perfect word, in the perfect sentence in the perfect paragraph.
Story people--to use a phrase from the film industry--cut to the chase. Their work is marked by action and dialogue; something is always happening and characters talk a lot. These writers usually like commercial fiction, including mysteries. And of course they especially love: Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl. And they're more interested in the plot than the actual words.
Perhaps the differences in style are ingrained, like DNA. Or the right-brain/left-brain theory may be in play. Left-brained people are supposedly methodical and well-organized; right-brained people are creative.
Yes, there are some--that lucky few--who seem to be both word and story people at the same time. But unless you're with that writer at every step of the process, you can't be sure she hasn't gone back--maybe several times--and inserted what she failed to include in the first "off the top of her head" draft.
Because successful fiction needs both.
I think of words and story as the music and lyrics of fiction. A successful book isn't just beautiful words strung together--there's going to be some action and dialogue. Nor is it all action and dialogue without a few instances of description so the reader knows where she is and who's at bat.
If you're an as-yet-unpublished writer, maybe it's because--if you're a word person, you have too many beautiful words strung together and not enough action and dialogue. Or, if you're a story person, you have plenty of action and conversation but not enough description to let the reader know those five questions every journalist is taught: who, what, when, why and where. Both music and lyrics are necessary to produce a song you walk out of the theater singing, and both words and story are necessary to write a novel you won't soon forget.
The question becomes: How do word people or story people "cross over?" How can a word person learn to tell a better story. How can a story person learn to use language more effectively? First, of course, you must be aware of the type of writer you are. Surprising to me, there are many beginning writers who seem unaware of this distinction. The next step is to adopt some of the habits of the other side.
A. Techniques for the Word person to become a better story-teller:
1. Read and analyze lots of books of the type you want to write. Use colored pencils to determine the percentage of narrative and description compared to action and dialogue.
2. Write out a character analysis and go through your manuscript to see exactly where traits of the main character are revealed. Sometimes they're in your head and not on the page. Add such scenes if necessary.
3. Understand the story you want to tell and set up events that take the reader from beginning to end, with logical stops along the way. In a love story, for example, a character does not go from hate to love in one leap. The steps may be: hate, dislike, mild dislike, indifference, understanding, grudging admiration, like, love. Then write scenes that reveal the steps.
4. Don't let your love of language run away with you. Two adjectives before every noun are probably too much. Too many similes or metaphors may call attention to themselves and become annoying. Be creative without being pretentious.
B. Techniques for the Story person to improve narrative skills:
1. Since vivid word pictures may not pop into your head, a thesaurus can help, but be sure the substitute you choose is truly a synonym. Don't write "throat" when you mean "neck."
2. That colored-pencil routine works here as well, or--if you already know it's your weak point--go through the manuscript looking for places where more description is needed.
3. Study the rules for narrative writing. Set the "search" feature on the word processor looking for "was" or "were" which could be turned into more active verbs. Search for sentences beginning with "It" or "There" and try to improve them.
4. Become more observant of the world around you and try to find the telling details that describe what you see. Read good books and stick yellow Post-it notes on pages that have vivid descriptions so you can learn from them.