Writing to engage the reader vs. writing to impress them

In the same way that I’m not sure who told writers starting out that writing a conventional story is so simple there is really no need to practice the conventions that make them up, it confuses me who told writers starting out that the thing that impresses readers is impressive prose.

Impressive prose in an impressive story that takes a character on a journey to the end of the story that delivers a story that gives the reader an enriching experience for having spent the time in the world is impressive. If the only impressive thing about the story is the prose itself, however, I’ve always wondered what emotional experience the author hopes the reader will leave their story with. Even if the prose is impressive in isolation, being impressed by a story’s prose isn’t the same thing as being moved by it.

While I saw a lot of this “impressive” prose in stories that were aimed at pleasing writing instructors during my degree, I see it in genre work all the time, too. Stories full of characters pontificating at each other, descriptions that have some truly inspired lines but not a character with a problem that lives in the world it paints, and exposition that would have told an excellent story had those events been what the story followed instead of the follow-up the events caused.

It took me a lot of years not to hear what I shouldn’t do as a writer and not open a can of beer so someone could hold it. It took me a lot of years to realize that the amount of effort required to write a story that’s only dialogue but still delivers to the reader the engaging experience that would fill the void of a character trying to change their fate could be used elsewhere to tell better stories. I’d have to do multiple revisions to ensure the structure of a story told through dialogue is not repetitive to the reader.

And that was before I realized that even if I pull the story off perfectly, it still has to compete with all the other perfectly told stories by industry professionals. If I’d known that, I’d put the beer back in the fridge.

Only the very best of the wittiest banter can carry a story where the character isn’t presented with or requires any opportunity to change. If that still makes a writer want to find someone to hold their alcoholic beverage, I’d like for them to consider what good witty banter can do to a story with a character who has to overcome what’s holding them back from what they have to do.

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