On the surface, the last two books I covered – ‘A Monster Calls’ and ‘The Harpy’ – have nothing in common. It’s only for their influence on me as a writer that I relate the two together. Both reads I’ve got a lot out of in one way, been very disappointed in another way. They’re good books, very good books in fact, but reading them I was left feeling that their potential simply hadn’t been reached.
This is often the case, I feel. I think very few books are actually bad – more likely, when I dislike a book, or even just feel that twinge of disappointment, they’re good books whose potential has not been reached. This can be for a number of reasons, but in this case, and indeed many cases, it’s because they either had a good story, but weaker presentation, or good presentation, but a weaker story.
The two books are opposites in this way. But that fundamental truth has been instrumental knowledge for me growing as a writer. So today, I’m going to compare the two major aspects of a work of literature’s make-up, and ask a question that I’ve often pondered and never quite been able to answer. I guess we’ll both find out if I’m able to answer it this time.
The question, of course, is in regards to the narrative of a book, and the way this narrative has been delivered. Which one matters more? Which is more important?
Let’s leave conclusions aside for now, and discuss this one step at a time.
I guess a good place to start is what we mean by ‘matters’ and ‘important.’ The reason I focused on how X makes you care with its Y in those two previous essays is because, as I’ve mentioned in previous discussion essays, how a story affects you on an emotional level is the most significant factor in determining how much value a reader gets out of it. So what my big question really comes down to, is which of the two aspects most effectively makes you care.
One thing that’s clear to me, is that presentation and narrative are never entirely separable.
There’s a couple of reasons for this.
On a more technical, tangible level, there’s the epistolary nature of certain stories. For example, a book that is told using letters or emails or documents. Or even without such things since, with regards to a first person story, I’d argue the story is being directly pulled from that first person narrator’s consciousness.
The less tangible, more abstract reason is the fact that a story cannot exist without being told in one way or another, and vice versa. By the very nature of both of those things, a story cannot exist if it isn’t being told, and you can’t tell a story in which there is no story.
Dammit, this is getting a bit Dr Seuss isn’t it?
The reason this is such a difficult and frustrating discussion essay to read is probably because it’s an equally difficult and frustrating one to write.
I want to know which of the two is more important, I really do!
Okay, let’s start again. Let’s assume we have two different books. They’re not like the last two I brought up. Rather, one of them has a masterful narrative, but the worst possible storytelling. On the other hand, the second book has beautiful, compelling storytelling, but the story itself has every possible issue you could imagine.
Which of the two would you rather read?
I won’t force anything on you – you can come up with your own answer to that question, and I’d love for you to leave it in the comments or send it to me on social media. But I have my own answer to that question.
Honestly, I think I’d take the presentation book over the narrative one.
The reason for this is because I believe a great narrative voice, or a great way with words, can save a bad story. If you’ve ever listened to a great speaker before, or well, read a book with great presentation before, then you know how easy it is to be swept up in the artistry of the prose, or the passion in their voice. But I don’t think I could enjoy even a great story if its writing was bad, simply because I personally would be too distracted by the repetition, or the typos, or the cringeworthy word choices, or whatever other issues I was being forced to engage with in this hypothetical scenario.
Now, there’s only so far that can go, obviously. If the story is head-shakingly disastrous, then no amount of linguistic flair is going to stop the head shaking in question. And I think it’s equally obvious that no book is this cut and dry. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book whose strength and weakness is this extreme. And most books that are great at one thing are at least acceptable quality with the other.
In fact, the two books I talked about previously are a good example of this. I think a writer with great talent is going to make their story at least somewhat compelling if they’re talented enough to tell it well. And I think a writer with a great story to tell will have enough passion for it that will shine through in their voice and prose.
So maybe this is the point we should start with. If a book is at least passable in one way, but is really, truly great in the other, that can be more than enough for a reader, even some of the most critical readers, to get a lot of value out of it, and enjoy the experience.
The big issue with this discussion is that, as I alluded to earlier on, the story being told and the storyteller are never separable. Any reading experience is going to involve both quite intimately. And the only way to avoid such a thing is by having someone else rewrite the story – which would inevitably change the narrative as well as the presentation, leading to the same question once again.
I chose a hell of a discussion topic this week, didn’t I?
As I said in the beginning, it’s a topic I find myself thinking about a lot. I’m somebody who appreciates great presentation, and a great story. And I think we can all agree that the very best books out there succeed in both areas. But I have encountered people who value one over the other – in both camps, presentation or story – as well as some people who don’t even remotely care for one of those, entirely succumbing to the other.
The last thing to do is go right back to the beginning. I opened my essays on ‘A Monster Calls’ and ‘The Harpy’ by mentioning that they were important stepping stones for my development as a writer. What I didn’t do is explain what I meant by that.
I first read ‘A Monster Calls’ when I was going through a reading slump. At the time, I hadn’t enjoyed reading a book in a long time, and was starting to get concerned that I’d lost the ability to do so. This book was so emotionally powerful that it got me back into reading. I still wasn’t a big reader – not yet – but I was back on that path. And yet, I had issues with its presentation. Parts of it bothered me, parts of it that I could feel in my heart could have been stronger, and made the best parts of the story even more affecting.
I had, in short, convinced myself that I was a reader who valued presentation over all else. That a strong voice and great writing style were the most important thing, and could save even the weakest story.
And yet, that realisation alone hadn’t totally got me back into reading quite yet.
Well, because I was wrong.
But I didn’t realise I was wrong, not consciously, until a couple of years after that when on a whim I started reading ‘The Harpy.’ From the first moments, I was enthralled with its uniquely classical presentation style, that immersed me in the main character’s life and got me to care about even the mundane elements. But at the end of that book I realised there was something missing from the experience. Its story, while good (even better than I realised, I decided after writing my analysis on it the other week) didn’t quite hit me. There was something missing from it, or perhaps it didn’t go far enough.
And that’s why those two books together reappear in my thoughts quite frequently. It’s why they were so important to me on my development as a writer. Because without them I probably wouldn’t have had a complete grasp on what makes a truly great book (and also probably wouldn’t have appreciated my favourite books moving forward).
I still think it is the presentation that pushes a ‘good book’ into ‘great book’ territory, but the obvious catch is that, you need a good story before it has any ability to push in the first place. Thus, I leave you with a slightly different list of three to normal.
Story is the foundation, and it's with a great story that the process of creating the next masterpiece has to begin.
Presentation is the second stage that pushes your story even further. It elevates great ideas into great stories, and important scenes into powerful ones.
Getting both right is the key to a genuinely masterful creation, and it's not without both key elements that a book can really stand above the rest.
I think the short version of this comes from the cover photo I chose for this essay. I actually took the photo on a whim – but looking back on it later made me want to put it here. It was the reflective element of the photo that made it. There were two candles. One physical, and thus more prominent. One intangible, and slightly overpowered by its doppelganger. But it wouldn’t have been a good photo if either one of those was cut out.