The importance of story

As a writer, I often see nuggets of wisdom such as:

  • “Don’t use non-said or non-asked dialogue tags,” he seethed.
  • Use adverbs sparingly.
  • Don’t overwrite. If you can use one word in place of two, always condense.
  • Almost always show, almost never tell.

And a million others. But then as a reader, I see these party fouls all the time in massively-bestselling books. How can this be?

I listen to a certain writing roundtable podcast, and I recently purchased a book by one of the podcasters because I wanted to see if his writing matched his advice.

In the first chapter of his book, I found overwriting, clichés, non-said dialogue tags, adverbs, passive voice, and more. But the thing is: I didn’t care, because the story had engaged me. It’s fantasy, which isn’t even my genre, but I experienced a driving need to find out what was going to happen next.

And that’s the lesson to take away here: when it comes to the importance of storytelling, a good story trumps all.

When I say storytelling, I don’t mean plot. I mean Character + Arc + Plot

Give me a character I can care about, either because she’s sympathetic or she’s compelling, put her through an unpredictable, escalating series of try/fail cycles, and make her either change or learn something as a result.

Works every time. And if you do it right, I won’t care if you slip into passive voice on occasion, or write replied instead of said. I mean… I’ll notice these things, and they may bother me a little bit, but I’ll press on to find out what happens next. I’ll probably buy your next book, too.

Great example: Hugh Howey’s Silo series. There are heaps of clunky, awkward prose, but I love this trilogy because of the captivating storytelling. Readers don’t go through fiction with a red pen like an English professor or a writing group partner. They read because they want to be entertained.

So if you’re an aspiring author and you keep coming across advice like the bullet points I outlined at the top of this post, just know this: rules can be broken, if you do it with some style. And the style here is remembering the importance of storytelling. Dan Brown is nowhere close to being a good wordsmith, but people buy his books in droves because they find his stories irresistible.