What Makes for Good Writing (Part II)

As promised last time, the subject requires further consideration, so here is another post with more thoughts on elements of good or interesting writing.

-A story within a story. Sometimes these may be structured as a frame story, where the true heart of the novel or story lies inside an outer story that “frames” it. But sometimes this is not the case, and regardless of the structure, this stylistic device can be very fascinating. Most often, the inner story supports the larger narrative, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. An interesting backstory about a particular character, for example, draws the reader in.

-Letters. This does not have to denote the novel as an epistolary novel. But a letter within a novel makes the reader feel privy to some sort of secret information, gives us a story within a story sometimes, and fills in some information we might not be able to get otherwise.

-Multiple angles from which to read it. This point will appeal more to the literary scholars and lit crit people, but great works of literature can be analyzed in many different ways. Dracula, for instance, could be read from Darwinian, Gothic novel, historical, Freudian, etc. etc. perspectives. Anna Karenina could be read as feminist, pre-Marxist, historical, Christian, and more. Same for Henry James’s The Beast in the Jungle. In other words, what this means is that there is a complexity and layering of ideas in these novels that lend themselves to multiple interpretations.

-Pacing. A good novel or story will unfold its mysteries with timing that hooks the reader enough, without giving away all the information. It draws us in because we want to know what the next event is, the next revelation of information, how the character got to be the way they are, etc. This is an extremely difficult thing to do. In novels, there is more time, and the author can take her time getting to her point. In stories, however, the urgency must be felt upfront; things have to be resolved in a short span of time. But with both genres, the reader must be engaged from the beginning so that she can be emotionally invested in the narrative.

-Subtext. Charles Baxter is one of the leading experts on this craft issue, as one can read in The Art of Subtext. There is the level of what is being said, and the level of what is not being said. Are these at odds with each other? Do they support each other? Do we get enough of a sense of where the author is going with his/her message and themes? This is employed to greater or lesser degree by various authors, and some people might argue that some writers do not use this at all. Dialogue is one area in which subtext can really be evident.

And finally,

-Simply telling a good story. When I attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2015, there was an elderly participant named Norton who was, literally, just a year short of 100. Hoping to benefit his wisdom, I asked him what his best advice was on writing. “Just tell a good story,” he waved my question away, saying that people get too caught up in technique and craft, etc. And I think this is really fabulous advice. One thing many literary agents will mention is that they want to keep reading past the first page. How often do we think of someone asking us to recommend A Good Book? A good book draws us in with a compelling story, makes us want to keep reading.


What Makes for Good Writing (Part I?)

This post may have to be written in installments, as there are so many things to discuss about the subject. And of course, tastes will vary greatly — anyone in the arts knows that tastes are quite subjective. That said, if we look at certain elements of technique and craft, I think there are some constants or things that everybody would agree upon. Let us have a look.

-The prose. The use of language that makes us see things in a different way, or a more specific or creative way. Toni Morrison is a master of this: she phrases things uniquely, but her prose is always accessible and readable. Salman Rushdie creates his own lexicon and own language in his novels, a very florid, convoluted style to be sure, but he has such fun playing with the language that we cannot help but enjoy the ride. And then there are the Zen like, minimalist writers like Cormac McCarthy or Raymond Carver, who are able to create full pictures with a minimum of words. And let us not forget the inimitable Oscar Wilde
– the unparalleled wit masks a lot of wisdom!

-Metaphor. Consider Nabokov’s stunning line in The Gift, in describing a street where the protagonist lives, “… It rose at a barely perceptible angle, beginning with a post office and ending with a church, like an epistolary novel.” Upon reading the sentence, I put the book down and shut it, simply blown away by the brilliance of the metaphor, sitting in stunned silence for a few moments. Toni Morrison’s work is rife with metaphor, as we can see many times in The Bluest Eye. Symbolism, metaphor, allegory – these larger themes enhance a work of literature, expanding it beyond what is merely on the page.

-Omniscient narration. This has largely fallen out of vogue in modern fiction, but omniscience truly gives us an understanding of the overarching picture of various things in a way that only omniscience can. Tolstoy is the first writer that comes to mind for most people, his penetrating insight into characters and the human condition and social mores is astounding. Willa Cather gives us this, as does Jane Austen. It suggests a certain wisdom on the part of the author, an understanding of human nature that, as above, expands beyond the words on the page. It can make sweeping generalizations and sum up grand truths that are part of why we need literature.

-Sort of on the flipside, intimacy. Edith Pearlman’s stories are warmly intimate; we truly feel we are with the characters. Philip Roth hilariously and disgustingly pushes the limits of intimacy in his brilliant Portnoy’s Complaint, which is a case of Too Much Information. Even the popularity of books like Bridget Jones’s Diary show the human need for confiding in a literary friend who is full of foibles and wants to share it with the reader.

-Unique subject matter. Ian McEwan’s Nutshell is brilliant: the retelling of Hamlet from the womb is unlike anything else. James Baldwin’s stories in Going to Meet the Man show a fresh perspective on Black life at a time when Blacks were still seen as the “House N—–” or The Other, only beginning to be integrated into American society. Dystopian novels like 1984 or Brave New World are still appealing because they are stories like nothing else. And even the success of the Harry Potter books shows that readers love a fantastical world where there is magic, villains, heroes, and an underdog hero. J.K. Rowling created a world of her own, and in doing so, her work developed a universal appeal.

These are but a few things that make for good writing. Perhaps this post shall be continued in the future.