I recently finish reading Joe Hill’s latest novel, The Fireman. I was originally thinking about doing a review on the book, but decided that a blog would be a more appropriate medium to express the complex feelings it made me feel. It really made me think about the balance of effective prose and effective storytelling, and how this balance creates an effective story.
Let me start by clearly defining these terms. Prose is form of language that is more natural, more speech-like, and free from rigid structure (such as poetry). Storytelling is the act of… well, telling the story. It is how the plot, characters, settings, and finer details are constructed to make a compelling tale. The best authors are masters of both prose and storytelling, but no one is perfect.
Thus, when I finished The Fireman, I felt conflicted. Joe Hill is a master of prose. His command of the written word is a true art form. Each of his sentences compels you to read the next. He may be the son of Stephen King, but he has truly established himself based on the quality of his prose. However, the story of The Fireman is somewhat mediocre. It had a lot of promise in the first two-thirds of the novel. A fantastic story about an infection that can cause people to spontaneously combust and a group of infected survivors who have learned to control their infection was original in its own way, and masterfully crafted. Combined with Hill’s excellent prose, I loved the first two-thirds of the book.
But then the last third came along, and it was tough. The book was too long, had too much that amounted to not enough, and was dragged on way longer than it should have been. The book, which clocks in a bit shy of 800 pages, was asking me to stop reading, but Hill’s writing kept me going.
So that leads back to the topic at hand: Can stellar prose make up for a weaker story? Or, on the other hand, can an incredible story make up for weaker prose?
If you look at the extremes, the answer is obviously no. You can be the best wordsmith in the world, but if your story isn’t captivating or interesting in the least, no one will read it. You can have the single greatest story on the planet, but if your words hurt to read then it will go unappreciated. I have started reading some books that seemed to have an amazing premise, but I could not get behind the way the author actually penned it, and this includes both indie and traditionally-published authors.
That being said, a mastery of one can make up for a weaker grip on the other. Your prose or storytelling do not both have to be A+ material. We would all prefer if it was, but it will most likely not be the case. Everyone has their own specific talents, even successful authors like Joe Hill. You will have strengths and weaknesses, but it just means you have room for development.
And that is the key here. Yes, your prose can support your story, or maybe the other way around, but it is up to you to make both pillars strong. Be self-critical and honest about which you excel in and which you need to work on. Look at your writing and be honest: does this piece of the story need to be here? Does this sound awkward? Get advice from friends, beta readers, or a critique partner. Honesty is important and will help in the long run. Life is a continual learning experience, so learn!
Leave a comment below with one thing that you are great at, and one thing you need to work on. Be honest with yourself and growth will come naturally. As for me, I know that aspects of my prose can use work. I write strong action scenes and dialogue, but I am working on including the finer details of settings to really enhance the experience for the reader. It is not a quick fix, but it is one that will reward me in spades.