Being Clever versus Being a Good Storyteller

Over the weekend I went to a reading for a local speculative fiction author. In the course of his talk, he said something that resonated with me.
That with his first book series, he was trying very hard to be Clever and write Very Important Stories. But now, a few books later, he’s focused on good storytelling, no matter the milieu he’s working in (I’m paraphrasing here).
I found this to be an interesting distinction he made, and it echoed some of my internal (but not quite fully formed) thoughts about my own work and what I need to be focusing on if I want a career in this field.
Case in point: One of my short stories that I have been submitting since early 2012 has been shortlisted or bumped to the second round at SIX pro or semipro markets. But it still hasn’t found a home, and I have to ask myself why. I’ve settled on the fact that it is my “cleverest” story, given its subject matter. It asks a lot of the reader at the beginning, but it also rewards you once you get to the end. (Yeah, that kind of story.)
The first couple of times it was shortlisted, I chose to be encouraged, thinking I just haven’t found the right market. But after six (six!) times being a bridesmaid, well, I think it’s time to reevaluate things.
Perhaps I’m a little too in love with my cleverness, and as a result, I’ve forgotten the number one reason for writing a story for publication…. Readers.
I’m not saying cleverness is a bad thing. Instead it’s a matter of emphasis.
Putting story and the reader experience first does not mean you can’t also be clever. In fact, being clever in that context can be an amazing thing.
But the flip side? When being clever is your primary goal, sometimes to the exclusion of all else? That’s where you tend to lose people. (A semi-related aspect of this is when beautiful writing overwhelms a story to its detriment—see the recent article Literary Talent versus Story Talent.)
I think this is a particular problem in SF/F because Ideas!and Science! are often an integral part of the story. A nifty idea can make up for a lot of sins in craft, character development, and plot. Almost to the point where that nifty idea becomes a crutch.
My story has a nifty idea, and it also commits a few sins of good storytelling. And that combination has netted me a whole lot of close-but-no-cigars. So where do I go from here? I’ve got to figure out a way to present my nifty idea within the context of good storytelling.
That can be a hard gulf to bridge for any writer, beginning or seasoned. But letting the story rest and getting some new eyes on it will go a long way. At least I’m hoping so.
Warning signs your “cleverness” is getting in the way of your story:
  • Focusing on your “nifty idea” to the detriment of other story elements.
  • Reader feedback saying they didn’t understand aspects of your story.
  • Infodumps that are necessary to explain things to unenlightened readers.
  • Telling yourself the above is okay because you’re writing for a select/smart/in-the-know audience which consists of you and maybe five other people.
Have you ever been guilty of letting your ideas take over your story?

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One thought on “Being Clever versus Being a Good Storyteller

  1. Unfortunately I am dreadful at writing fiction. I have a tendency to over-explain and over-qualify. But one of my other problems is my tendency to make the plot a vehicle for the ideas. As you have mentioned, the narrative is the most important thing.

    For me this reached a pinnacle with Umberto Eco. I read “The Name of the Rose” and fell in love with it: a rich, powerful, evocative story with layers of scholarship woven in. Then I read “Foucault's Pendulum” and finally “Baudolino”. I found them impenetrable. Where was the story? Basically nowhere amid all the little erudite flourishes and academic in-jokes I didn't get. Worse, like the Emperor's New Clothes, I assumed that reviewers were all terrified of being considered too stupid to have enjoyed the books, so praised them lavishly. It seemed a circumstance where Eco (good luck to him) started to believe that what his audience wanted was his cleverness, when what they really wanted was his ability to spin a good yarn.

    Vivienne.

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