Reading the Masterful and Less than Masterful to Write Better
Some people only read stories that are considered masterful to become better writers. I find it every bit as important to read stories that are good, but don’t quite come together. This is why.
In my creative writing classes, I studied stories that were considered masterful: those by James Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor, and Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain”. Generally, these stories lived up to their billing and, while not the genre fiction I aspired to write, I wanted to emulate their quality in my own writing. Seemingly, it was the perfect teaching method, giving me a benchmark to work towards.
At the same time, it wasn’t enough. A few of my professors would assign works with obvious flaws. Examining these stories and comparing them to the near flawless ones, was more productive for me. A defining feature of a great story is that all its elements are seamlessly woven together. It can be hard to pry them apart to understand exactly why they work so well. This intractable nature makes less accomplished stories, where some of individual pieces aren’t interwoven as well, a useful comparison. Read together, the two types of stories help draw out each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
I read two novels recently, The First Sister by Linden A. Lewis and Red Sister by Mark Lawrence, that illustrate this really well. In my longer pieces, I can struggle to weave together individual scenes to form a cohesive whole. Sometimes they sort of lurch together, lacking clarity in how one scene leads into the next or in creating a convincing sense of time passing. Read together, these two novels helped me get a better sense of how to tackle this weakness in my storytelling.
In Red Sister, the scenes almost always flow seamlessly into one another. Time is also conveyed effectively. Each scene has the right amount of information for suspense and clear stakes. Even though every interaction isn’t shown, it feels as if the characters spend a great deal of time together, strengthening the bonds the reader feels between them.
The scenes in The First Sister lack the same amount of cohesion. Particularly at the beginning, I found myself having to continuously reorient with each scene, initially lacking the information to understand the action. A sense of time often wasn’t effectively conveyed and it felt as if the characters did not spend that much time together. Even strong scenes felt like they didn’t pop as much as they could have because the preceding scenes didn’t help set the stage.
Comparing the differences in the two novels really helped to me zero in on the strengths of Red Sister’s information reveals and scene structures. The majority of The First Sister’s scenes begin in medias res, straight into the scene with no context provided. I tend to do the same, thinking that mystery equals suspense. Unfortunately, done repeatedly, it just creates orientation whiplash and keeps the reader at arm’s length. In contrast, Red Sister begins in medias res for its opening scenes, but afterwards gives the reader similar context to the protagonist. It’s easier for the reader to be fully present. For the secrets that serve as exceptions, the narration makes it clear that information is being deliberately withheld. The reader isn’t forced to wonder if they’ve missed something crucial.
In terms of scene structure, I realized the importance of small scenes that are 1–2 pages or less. Red Sister employs them commonly. The First Sister does not. The short scenes allow for brief meaningful character actions that connect key moments in the text. This makes it feel as if the characters regularly interact, building a sense of all the little moments that are every bit as crucial to a relationship as the drama-filled ones. Time not only passes as factually stated in the text, but viscerally as well. Subsequently, all the scenes have more impact.
I wouldn’t say that the scene structuring in Red Sister creates hard and fast rules — I hate hard and fast rules. Instead, it provides good guidelines for how to tell a particular type of story. None of which I would have discovered without reading The First Sister in tandem. There is a tendency to isolate truly great works. To make a category of what constitutes the best of literature and a category for everything else. (Red Sister certainly wouldn’t be considered literature, but it could be considered fantasy royalty.) To only teach and learn from the former category. Doing so would make everything I learned above impossible. All authors work with the same ingredients, with the same goal to create engaging and meaningful stories. All stories exist together rather than in isolation. For me, it is precisely in acknowledging this togetherness, in comparing the masterful to the less than masterful, that I learn my most valuable lessons.