In the previous post I commented on a section of Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular in which Rust Hills differentiated between slick fiction and quality fiction. While I think Hills is unnecessarily dismissive of entertainment for entertainment’s sake, just as he is clearly invested in art for art’s sake, I think his condemnation of slick fiction is valid because slick fiction is bad craft.
Craft and Effectiveness
The problem with my own condemnation is that it’s no different from Hills’: it expresses a personal preference. Like Hills I can make a compelling case for craft (doing so is one of the missions of Ditchwalk) but at the end of the day I’m still advocating for the kind of storytelling I care about.
Despite his personal preference for literary fiction, however, Hills bases his advocacy on proven craft, not bias. By the same token, while I’m open to a wider spectrum of storytelling, I believe that craft knowledge allows authors to make conscious, informed choices about the stories they intend to write, which in turn increases the likelihood that those stories will impact readers in the intended way. To the extent that learning craft requires more effort — at least at the apprentice stage — the return on investment is an increase in the likelihood of narrative success. Whether you use craft to create better entertainment or better literature (if we really need to bifurcate), the Ditchwalk definition of better — like Hills’ definition of better — is that more readers will be pleased with, or appropriately affected by, the end result.
Still, it’s inarguable that there are plenty of readers who are perfectly happy with the effects of demonstrably bad craft. If stories premised on a character shift or deus ex machina plotting thrill you, I can’t claim you shouldn’t be thrilled. I can point out how the authors of those stories jerked you around or cheated you or gave you less than they might have, but I can’t tell you that you didn’t feel the enjoyment you felt.
So the very charge I respectfully level at Hills — that he’s unnecessarily elitist — is one that can be leveled at me. Yet even as I freely acknowledge that taste and sensibility play a part in the appreciation of storytelling, I refuse to budge from my position — which is also Hills’ position — that more knowledge of craft necessarily improves your chance of successfully telling a particular story.
Craft as Freedom
For any storytelling medium there are tens of millions of audience members who do not understand or care about the difference between drama and melodrama, and who will not appreciably notice the difference between them. (That’s probably a conservative estimate.) The existence of this less-discerning population may seem like a good thing because they won’t notice when you botch what you were trying to do, or because you can set about the business and pleasure of writing for them with a lesser grasp of craft. The problem with this appraisal is that even if your target audience is forgiving of works exhibiting bad craft, practicing bad craft still makes it less likely that you will hit whatever fictional target you’re aiming at.
If your intended audience is perfectly happy with melodrama, and you know as a matter of craft that melodrama springs from characters that, in Hills’ words (p. 49), “shift according to the demands of plot”, and you can save time by omitting the preparation necessary for more convincing character movement, and you have the other necessary craft skills and authorial gifts to deliver whatever it is your audience is interested in, then by all means write melodrama. If you don’t know all that, however, what you’re really doing is guessing, and guessing is not a part of storytelling. Inspiration is, and guessing may feel like inspiration, but it’s still guessing.
Given how much uncertainty authors face fighting their way from pitched scene to pitched scene, if not word to word, anything you can reliably hang your hat on is a good thing. And craft is something you can reliably hang your hat on. Even better, as I’ve said endlessly, more knowledge of craft obligates you to nothing. No matter how much craft you accumulate you can still write whatever you want, and you can break any rule if it serves your fiction.
I see no benefit in willfully ignoring craft no matter which genre or market or audience you want to write for. In fact, other than laziness I can think of only one reason an author might be reluctant to embrace Hills’ advice or my advocacy of craft, and that’s the fear that doing so could alter or change who they are as a writer. (Given the prevalence of bad and formulaic advice floating around these days I agree it’s good to be cautious, lest you be led astray artistically or professionally. I do the same myself.)
Craft and the Muse
Because of Hills’ advocacy for literary fiction, and the swipes he takes at mainstream fiction, the non-literary storyteller might conclude that what Hills is saying is of little value. Since I’m going through his book section by section on Ditchwalk (an equal opportunity storytelling website) I obviously disagree, but I can see how people might reach that conclusion.
If what you’re interested in writing is genre fiction, or series television, or entertainment of any stripe, Hills’ book might seem inessential, or at least secondary to books specifically written about those genres and markets. I can even see how Hills’ book might potentially feel like a threat, the idea being that learning how to write literary stories might somehow damage one’s mainstream instincts.
I’m spending a lot of time discussing Hills’ book not because it’s about literature, but because I believe the lessons it contains are applicable to any story and writer apart from the demands of a particular market. It is precisely because Hills doesn’t care if you ever make a buck that his advice is so valid: it’s literally about nothing other than the craft of fiction. How you use that knowledge in terms of the stories you write and the markets you aim for is up to you.
I can think of no instance in which craft knowledge changed an author’s output in any appreciable way, except to make it better. But I’ll go farther than that. In my opinion, who you are as a writer or potential writer is so hard-wired into who you are as a person than no amount of craft study can obliterate that deterministic core. If your personal interests run toward romance, mystery, sci-fi or any other genre, including literary short fiction, nothing you learn about the craft of storytelling is going to materially alter that preference or convince you that it’s wrong. What you like to write is what you like, and I support your right to like it and write it. How good you are at writing is a separate matter determined by, in some measure, your innate gifts, craft knowledge and personal dedication.
Art vs. Entertainment
An unspoken premise of any discussion about art and entertainment is that making art requires more talent or gifts than making entertainment. This fallacious assumption in turn fuels other debates, including the question of whether writing can be taught. (I addressed that question while discussing the introduction to Hills’ book. Scroll down to the asterisk.)
I do think literary fiction requires more craft knowledge, precisely because there are no conventions upon which to rely. Where a character shift might be overlooked in service of a genre goal, in literary fiction it pretty much means you failed because there are no other goals.
Writing anything well takes a lot of talent and commitment, even for truly gifted writers. It’s all hard, and made all the more so by those elusive, unpredictable moments when words flow freely from your mind like liquid gold. Whether you’re aiming for art or entertainment (or ideally both) makes no difference. You will have to work your fingers off and be fortunate in order to knock any story out of the park, let alone do so repeatedly.
As far as I’m concerned, anybody who takes sides in a debate about art and entertainment is simply expressing their own bias. That’s true for Hills, it’s true for me, it’s true for you. Is art more important because it’s art? Is it more important than laughing or shedding a tear? More important than going on a mental vacation for a few hours? Is entertainment less important because it speaks to the masses? Should everything be dumbed down for the great unwashed? Or should all audiences be encouraged and seduced to explore more complex works?
The debate is never ending, and the reason it’s never ending is because at the pinnacle of narrative perfection there’s no difference between art and entertainment. They’re not mutually exclusive even if they are routinely distant.
To my mind the proper approach to thinking about art and entertainment is to ask how any work you create can be seen as both. If you can pull it off — as Shakespeare did from time to time — it makes you impossible to dismiss, and gives you the kind of creative and professional freedom that few authors (or artists of any kind) ever know.
In the history of all life throughout the known universe, there never has been and never will be a clearer distinction between the indefinable traits and qualities that define art and entertainment than John Lennon and Paul McCartney. And yet, it’s only because the two stood side by side that we can make such comparisons. Is McCartney really artless? Is Lennon unable to entertain? No and no.
Collectively and separately they did more to change music artistically and commercially than any two people you can name. In doing so they also gave you permission to go with your bliss and do whatever you want.
Free Will vs. Determinism
A second unspoken premise in debates about art and entertainment is that people choose which road they want to go down. In a commercial sense I think that’s true: people of all talent levels and inclinations do decide to write for art or money (or both), and may switch between commercially motivated projects and more personal, artistic works over time. As already noted, however, I don’t believe most writers (or artists) have a great deal of choice in their authorial temperament and skill set. Craft issues can be learned, genre conventions can be adopted, but the base sensibilities that drive an author’s work seem, in most cases, to be innate.
And yes, I know I’m close to saying something politically incorrect here. It’s generally not a good thing to claim that a person is born into a caste they cannot leave if they so choose. In my experience as a writer, however, and in looking at other writers, I can only conclude that who you are as an observer and interpreter of the world around you has a lot to do with what and how you write. And I think it’s fair to say Rust Hills would agree.
Consider the implications of this quote from the section of Hills’ book mentioned above:
In truth, slick fiction seems to have been easy only for those who could do it.
Hills is clearly dismissive of slick fiction, and by extension of writing to entertain, but this comment cuts both ways. If slick fiction can’t simply be written by slumming artists — if it requires its own sensibility — then there’s something going on in slick fiction, and by extension in entertainment, that isn’t a pale imitation of, or failed implementation of, literary craft. What that means is that there are some components of storytelling that aren’t dependent upon craft, no matter what kind of stories you write.
And by “components” I don’t mean “bad taste” or “stupidity” or “blindness.” Rather, I mean some skill, some perspective, some way of seeing that taps into something as equally universal as art. Call it emotion, call it populism, call it whatever you want: it’s been a foundation of storytelling since the first caveman recounted his epic battle with a pliosaur. Every person who ever told a fish story, including Ernest Hemingway in The Old Man and the Sea, tapped into this common human thread. Hemingway’s expression of that story was undoubtedly literary, artistic and elegant, but at root it’s the same story Uncle Zack tells about the big one that got away.
If Hills had said, “Literary fiction seems to have been easy only for those who could do it,” nobody would object. Everyone agrees that writers like Hemingway are born with intangible gifts that allow them to aspire to art. The premise that art is more important or harder to create than entertainment makes the statement seem obvious, while Hills’ actual quote seems almost pejorative, but in truth each statement says the same thing. People who are good at any kind of storytelling are good at least in part because of innate capacities that transcend or defy even mastery of craft.
Your First Gift
Because we are human and full of ego, we tend to blow past the trivial and mundane when we compare our own aspirations to history. There are plenty of mountains to climb, but only one Everest. There are many holes to fall into, but only one Grand Canyon. There are many writers in the world, but only one Hemingway, or Stephen King, or whichever literary master sits atop the mountain (or in the hole) you aspire to occupy.
Competing with others when there is no direct competition is a soul-sapping mistake. Learning from others, and particularly those who have attained a level of mastery, is a better approach. The rubber only meets the road, however, when you put what you learn into practice.
After the above quote, and a few sentences trashing slick fiction writers, Hills adds:
…like writing television series drama today [circa 1977], it seems to be easier to analyze how it’s done than to be able to do it.
I’m not being a wise-acre when I point out that the same can be said of literary fiction. In fact, here’s Hills in his own words, from the introduction to his book:
…of course it’s another cliche that “Those who can’t, teach.” There you’re getting personal, you know, because I’m not a fiction writer myself, have never written a short story in my life, not ever even for a moment presumed to think I could.
I cannot imagine a sharper admission that storytelling of any kind requires intangibles beyond craft. Hills clearly knows the craft of fiction inside and out — he knows the good stuff when he sees it, he knows how to edit it and make it better, he knows how the parts should relate to the whole — yet he never presumed to do it himself.
As I’ve said endlessly, writing problems are writing problems, they are not problems of analysis. Until you’ve picked up a pencil or pounded a keyboard in service of fiction, you know nothing about writing fiction. Which leads us back to the question — asked and answered above — of whether fiction writing can be taught. Yes, you can teach craft, and Hills does that better than anyone I can think of. No, you can’t teach the intangibles, whatever they are and however you define them.
We all want to do and be and have everything. The difference between our fantasies and reality is that in some cases we take our feet off the desk and do something to further the cause. If you’ve ever written a short story, or the chapter of a novel, or a screenplay or a stage play or a radio play, then you’ve already separated yourself from the masses, and even from craft masters like Rust Hills.
That’s your gift. Or at least one of them. The desire to try, the willingness to fail and learn — that’s an intangible that can’t be manufactured. No writer ever became a good or great writer because somebody beat them into it. It’s too hard and too risky and too lonely a path to follow to even meager success. Depending on your own temperament you may see this desire as a curse, particularly if you’re the sort of person who competes with ghosts or saddles yourself with great expectations. But it’s still a gift. It still separates you from the norm.
The Flexibility of Authorial Determinism
Hills believes writers of all kinds are born with a temperament or bias or sensibility that leads them to, or allows them to be more successful at, certain kinds of stories. In defense of this deterministic view, he writes:
The only serious writer who ever had much success writing slick fiction was F. Scott Fitzgerald; and without disparaging his great work at all, I think it is possible to see a romantic tone even there that made the slick story easier for him than it would have been for other good writers.
However you feel about statements like “the only serious writer” and “other good writers,” even a passing familiarity with Fitzgerald will probably have you nodding your head. Fitzgerald was a great writer, but among the all-time greats he was also one of the most romantic. His fiction was steeped in romance, and defined by the inevitable tragedy of an alcohol-fueled life devoted to style and image, to say nothing of his terminal love for a tormented woman. The Great Gatsby succeeds precisely because Fitzgerald makes the artifice of wealth and success central to his embrace of those subjects. Had he bought into those trappings he would have rightly been dismissed.
But Fitzgerald isn’t the only great writer of the twentieth century who wrestled with the line between art and entertainment. Of the four regularly acknowledged masters — Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Steinbeck — the case is fairly easy to make that Faulkner was the most purely artistic. His hits are powerful, his misses interminable, and despite attempts to pigeonhole him in a regional category he clearly broke through on the literary merits of his work.
And yet…early in his career William Faulkner was so frustrated with his struggle, and with the success of more entertainment-driven writers, that he decided to try his own hand at the popular hard-boiled mystery genre. The resulting work, Sanctuary, is a good book. In fact, other than the plot and the author’s intent, there’s not a lot to distinguish it in skill or voice from his other novels.
The novel A Fable, which won Faulkner a Pulitzer, is also viewed as an artistic miss, but in a pure sense. Critical appraisal of A Fable seems to be that his intentions were good and true, but he simply didn’t pull it off. This is as against Sanctuary, in which his intentions were impure and seemly, even though the story as a whole works better than A Fable.
Sanctuary is viewed negatively by the literary crowd because Faulkner dared to step over the line between literature and entertainment, thereby diminishing the former and legitimizing the latter. In order to secure his own artistic reputation, which he clearly cared about, and in order to secure the approval he wanted, Faulkner subsequently had to join the critics and scholars in treating his own work like a bastard child.
Yet Faulkner the writer was Faulkner the writer no matter what he wrote. He couldn’t turn himself into a pulp writer any more than pulp writers could turn themselves into Faulkner. Despite his gifts he was also constrained by his innate abilities and sensibilities as every author is, no matter what they write or how broad their literary range.
Determinism and Voice
To read John Steinbeck is to read someone who had a rare, poetic, observational gift. His ability to frame and document and set a scene is amazing. Had he set out purely to entertain in his writing (he may have, I haven’t done a full survey), it’s difficult to imagine he would not have written in a voice similar to The Grapes of Wrath and Travels With Charley.
When people talk about an author’s voice, what they’re describing is the literary expression of that author’s intangibles. It’s impossible to nail down all of the contributing factors (hence use of the umbrella term), but we acknowledge the truth of it in a know-it-when-we-see-it way. Voice is not simply style, or an affectation, but something deeper; revealing if not almost pure.
To see what I’m getting at, imagine Steinbeck writing As I Lay Dying, or Fitzgerald writing The Grapes of Wrath, or Faulkner writing The Great Gatsby. Even if specific words don’t come to mind, you can probably imagine how the feel and form of each work would be changed by the new author’s distinctive voice.
No matter how nascent you are as a storyteller you have your own voice. Even if you’ve only written a few sketches. It may be embryonic, obscured by craft confusion and artistic uncertainty, but it’s there. It’s there in what you like to read and what you like to write. It’s there in how you think and speak and feel. It’s there in the way you yell when you’re mad. In the way you laugh when you’re hungry and you know supper’s ready. In the way you eat and in what you raise and where you live. That’s voice.
Were you to dedicate yourself to stiffing your voice and writing in some wholly different manner, my guess is you would fail or destroy your writing soul in the process. It’s a part of you that even masters can’t control, and for that you should be ever thankful.
And yet…voice says nothing about what you write. It says nothing about whether you write for love or money or both. You get to make those choices and you get to decide which genres or goals, if any, you aspire to in your work. You may be lucky and choose to write works that fit your voice, or you may choose to write works that conflict with or test your voice, but it’s your choice.
To the extent that who you are as a writer is beyond your control, the only way you’ll ever become the best writer you can be is to aspire to mastery of craft and clarity of voice in the service of the stories you want to tell. To echo Hills, again, the more agreement you have between all three of those sources, the more power you’ll wield as a writer and the more likely it is your stories will affect readers in the way you intend.
Writing for Art
Let’s assume, for whatever reason, that you are called to write for art. Assuming you also have the intangibles to do so, and the desire, what does that mean? Well, one thing it doesn’t mean is that you’re going to end up writing literary fiction. Why not? Because literary fiction is its own genre and market, and it’s as much or more defined by trends and fads as any mainstream genre.
Writing for art — in a pure sense — would be like sculpting for art, or painting for art. It would be done with no objective or expectation other than completing the work itself. Does that describe you? Are you willing to pound out pages without caring who the intended reader might be, let alone dreaming about the critical acceptance of the literary fashionistas who bestow such honors? While we’re on the subject, how many literary writers do you know whose work reflects that kind of authorial purity?
If you’re drawn to literary fiction because you think it’s better or more legitimate than crass commercialism, are you willing to stick to your guns as you embark on a journey that will almost certainly net you zero dollars in writing income — to say nothing of the economic hole you may dig for yourself along the way? You can certainly go the MFA-to-salaried-professor route in order to underwrite your storytelling — and I know a good many sincere writers who have done so — but even there you open yourself to the charge that you are simply writing for a different kind of market.
Fortunately, it doesn’t really matter what you aspire to, or whose approval hoops you think you should jump through, or what kind of writer you think you’re supposed to be. The writer you are in voice and temperament is going to have more to say about the stories you write and the writer you become than any role you might consciously adopt.
Writing to Entertain
If your tastes run toward genre fiction, or entertainment, you may think you’re made a more realistic choice. The good news is that you have. The bad news is that the odds against you are still beyond prohibitive and approaching insane. Which means you better think twice about writing to entertain if it’s not what you really, really want to do.
Just as writing for art does not inherently mean writing literary fiction, writing to entertain does not necessarily mean you’ll be making money. Trying to make a buck (let alone a living) by writing fiction of any kind is arrogant. Very few people pull it off for any amount of time, let alone a lifetime. Pursuing more lucrative literary pathways makes practical sense compared to, say, writing poetry, but if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing then trading creative happiness now for a theoretical check in the future will probably leaves you jaded, bitter and incapable of writing anything but jaded, bitter fiction about jaded, bitter writers. And don’t we have enough of that already?
As endlessly discussed on Ditchwalk, writing to entertain also does not free you from an obligation to master craft. It may seem as if craft is secondary when you watch bad television, or read bad fiction in your favorite genre, but there are a lot behind-the-scenes factors driving the broadcast or publication of any work, including favoritism, nepotism, celebrity and stupidity. When you’re writing to entertain you’re competing against all the other writers who are writing for those markets, which means you need to do everything you can to gain an advantage and stand out from the crowd. The better your craft, the less likely it is that you’ll be easy to ignore, and the less likely it is that you’ll fail to deliver if your other authorial gifts leave you high and dry. Or if the editor you’re working with insists you change your protagonist into a vampire.
Writing for Love
As you can see, there’s no way to be logical or smart about what you decide to write. For every argument in favor of one road there are two in favor of the other. Fortunately, most writers come to the question with as answer in hand. Somehow, either innately or during their formative years, would-be writers stumble across or are steered toward works that spark an initial ape-like interest.
Whatever choices a would-be writer might face along the way, this initial moment — this spark of desire and commitment — relates in some way to innate voice and sensibility. It ignites apart from questions of commerce and critical praise, even as it may evolve to embrace those objectives. Who you are as a reader is part of who you become as a writer, because you resonate internally in a particular way. You may be saddled later with other people’s preferences and expectations, but if you’re fortunate or obstinate or in touch with yourself you’ll carry that spark into your writing life.
I’ve said many times that writing is hard enough as it is. If you’re driven solely by expectation you may eventually attain your goals, but you’ll probably have a miserable time of it. On the other hand, if your initial spark leads to an appreciation and enjoyment of your writing journey — if you embrace the process as much as the product — you’ll be more likely to profit (in every way) from your subsequent effort and commitment. And that, in turn, will sustain you no matter which road you go down.
Putting the Fate in Innate
I said above that some of a writer’s innate gifts are deterministic, but that there’s flexibility built in. To be more specific, most authorial gifts have some applicability to both artistic and commercial pursuits. If you think, feel and bleed art, you can still find commercial demand for your talents, as many painters do. If you innately think, feel and bleed entertainment, you can still aspire to art in more personal works, precisely because the world of art is infinitely free and welcoming — aside from whatever faddish clique has temporarily seized power in literary circles.
From Hills’ quote about slick fiction being easy only for those who can do it, and from my own belief that innate aspects of a writer’s voice are necessarily deterministic, it might seems as if choosing between art and entertainment is preordained. I don’t think so. I think there’s sufficient latitude between the two for you to aspire to either or both — or better still, both at the same time. You may not get there, but your decision to pursue one or the other won’t preclude success. Particularly if you are graced with plentiful gifts and you arm yourself with all the craft knowledge you can.
More important to your eventual success, I think, are the specific intangibles you bring to your writing life. Over time, I’ve come to see three literary gifts as particularly determinative of a writer’s fate. I think they’re worth considering as you embrace the writer you are.
Style and Fate
When I think of style I think of the way an author puts words together. It’s a component of voice, and in many writers the one most easily recognized. Most great writers have a distinctive voice, but I wouldn’t say most great writers are great stylists. Their style may be recognizable, but it exists as part of who they are as writers: it does not define who they are.
If you are a natural stylist — and I don’t think there’s any other kind — that gift is going to have a lot to say about the writer you are and become. Whether you’re drawn to art or to entertainment or both, the readers you attract and the things they remember about your work will be heavily influenced by your natural style.
Being a stylist is neither good nor bad. For readers who enjoy the lyric and melody of storytelling it’s clearly a boon. For readers who want to drift off on a cloud it can be an obstacle, because style is a constant reminder of the author’s presence. Poetry obviates this problem in large part by doing away with suspension of disbelief, but it’s the same effect: the power of the words calls attention to the person who wrote them.
If you are drawn to literary fiction, and particularly to popular literary fiction, you could have no better weapon in your arsenal than dazzling style. The literary world is, appropriately, not simply interested in stories, but in linguistic pyrotechnics. Like great song stylists, great literary stylists are gifted in a way that can turn the most mundane subject into an artistic tour de force.
The downside, as hinted at, is that style can quite easily overpower substance, and it’s almost always substance that stands the test of time. Hemlines may rise and fall, but they tend to do so apart from functionality, purpose or need.
If you’re a born stylist — and particularly if style is your dominant gift — you’re going to be hard-pressed to escape your stylings or adopt other traits that infuse your work with more substance. The one thing you can do, however, is learn as much craft as possible. Craft stands apart from style and acts as a check against the sleights-of-word that stylists tend to get away with.
Humor and Fate
The ability to write humor, to say nothing of full-blown comedy, is a true gift. I’ve never known anyone who developed the ability later in life, or who set out to become funny and achieved that goal. You’ve either got it or you don’t.
Even more so than style, if you have the ability to write humor your readers will forgive any failings. Too, there is no genre or subject that is not fertile and acceptable fodder for humor. Whether you’re a literary humorist, a mainstream humorist, a stylistic humorist, a genre humorist or any other kind, nobody turns down funny.
Like stylists, however, humorists run the risk of seeming insubstantial. (It’s tough to win an Oscar for a comedy.) While everything under the sun is grist for the humor mill, life is not a laugh riot. If your ability to write humor keeps you from writing with convincing seriousness you’ll have no contrast in your work. And it’s contrast that allows humor to be grounded and heightened at the same time.
It’s probably obvious how a funny bone will impact your writing career. It should also be obvious that mastery of craft does nothing but help you gain control over your humor, if not provide more opportunity for using that gift. By the same token, if you can’t write funny there are some doors that will always remain closed.
Unlike style, humor translates equally to all mediums. If you’re funny in print you’ll probably be funny on the big screen or stage. It’s not a given, but the odds are in your favor — provided you can write dialogue.
Dialogue and Fate
The good news here is that unlike style and humor, it’s possible to get better at writing dialogue. The bad news is that you have to have a minimal level of competence.
If you don’t have that ability — if you can’t write convincing dialogue, no matter what genre you’re working in or what other gifts you have — you’re going to be seriously hamstrung as a storyteller. Much of a writer’s ability to show rather than tell is manifested through dialogue, or through prose sequences in which dialogue plays an important role. The ability to iris in on a character from any point of view — to bring that character to life and let the character express itself — almost demands dialogue. (If you can’t write dialogue you’ll only be able to dramatize at a distance, or through internal monologue.)
If you do have the authorial gift of literary gab you should consider yourself fortunate. Unlike the attention-grabbing gifts of humor and style, the ability to write convincing dialogue is the character-actor’s ability to adapt, chameleon-like, to any moment. Dialogue is applicable to every imaginable fiction-writing medium, and it’s a skill that is portable and applicable to all kinds of commercial work.
To see the difference between dialogue, humor and style, note what happens when they’re combined in any way. Style almost always dominates and humor become an objective, while dialogue is a conduit by which those other gifts are delivered. People who are strong stylists or non-stop funny may actually have a hard time writing realistic dialogue if their style or humor overpowers the moment. (If you’re constantly drawing attention to yourself as an author, that spotlight is costing your characters something.)
Difficulty writing dialogue won’t keep you from aspiring to art or entertainment, but you’ll probably have to focus on prose fiction. Stage plays are all dialogue, screenplays are mostly dialogue, and even interactive writing tends to focus on dialogue. Fortunately, literature thrives on extended prose, meaning you may not have to go to the dialogue fountain too often. And that’s particularly true if you have strong stylistic leanings.
Ernest Hemingway was a great writer and a stylistic minimalist, yet his dialogue was never a strong point. To bring the subject back to Hills’ mention of Fitzgerald, and Faulkner’s writing of Sanctuary, I’ve always felt the hard-boiled tone of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories failed somehow. Particularly in contrast with hard-boiled writers like Chandler and Hammett, whose dialogue beats Hemingway’s to paste. Yet obviously the man had no trouble telling a story because for the most part he played to his own authorial strengths.
The Writer You Are
From the moment you first think about writing until your write your last word, who you are as a writer will probably be defined as much by your innate gifts as by anything you learn. More to the point, who you are at the beginning and who you are at the end will probably be absurdly consistent. It’s in the middle, when you’re learning craft and learning how to harness your own voice, that you’ll be prone to flailing.
I’m not against setting goals. If you have authorial goals for yourself, I’m glad. But I think it’s also worth keeping your initial authorial spark in mind, even if you aspire to outgrow it. There’s something there — something unsullied by other people’s expectations, or your own — that’s worth hanging on to.
I also think it’s useful to inventory your gifts. You don’t have to limit yourself, but self-awareness is never a bad thing. (Self-awareness is not to be confused with self-consciousness.) If dialogue is a strength, not only should you be aware of that, you should be cautious about relying on it too much. If style is a strength, recognize it, play to it, but arm yourself with as much craft as possible to broaden your range.
Just as Hills advocates agreement in all aspects of a short story, it makes sense to aspire to agreement in your writing life. I’m always in favor of experimentation and exploration, but if you’re not a funny person you probably shouldn’t set out to write a rip-snorting comedy.
The writer you are may not equate with the writer you want to be, but it will almost certainly lead to the writer you become. The more you can do to avoid frustration in your writing life, and to put the writing muscles you already have to work, the more enjoyable the journey and the more likely you’ll be happy about the stories you write along the way.
— Mark Barrett