Recently, a friend and fellow writer told me they felt discouraged about writing. They were upset about so many people being unable to spot the differences between a good story and a bad story. Real gems languish in dusty corners while insults to the English language fly off the shelves. And not just books, but movies too. Their question was: “If people can’t tell the difference between good and bad stories, why put forth the effort of crafting a really good story?” Thinking out the rules of the world, creating three-dimensional characters, filling plot holes to make a seamless narrative…all of that takes work. And if people don’t notice and don’t care, then why bother?
(NOTE: The movie links contain spoilers!)
I’ve been thinking a lot about what they said. Because they have a point. I know I get frustrated when I see books like The Coldfire Trilogy or the Mathew Swift series falling between the cracks while monstrosities like Fifty Shades get movie deals. I want to scream when people tell me how much they enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness or The Desolation of Smaug when I can smell the shoddy storytelling from a mile away. And it’s not like this stuff is coming out of a small vanity press or an independent film company; no, this is sewage spewed from major publishing houses and Hollywood, Land-of-the-Megabucks. And the prospect of spending years making a story the best it can be only to be shoved aside in favor of pandering nonsense like that I think rightfully angers and scares writers like my friend and I.
But. (There’s always a “but.”) There are a few things that I think get forgotten in literary blacklash. First is that the definition of “good” can be fluid. People are notoriously bad at not saying what they actually mean, or not clearly defining the words they use. There are words that are filled with subtext for some people that the person you are talking too might not be aware of. They might not ascribe the same meaning or weight to it. And unless you are a wordsmith of some kind, most folk don’t have to think about it. It doesn’t come across their radar screens.
So, when someone says that Star Wars: The Clone Wars is a “good movie,” I actually don’t know what they mean. Do they mean it’s “good” in the sense that they enjoyed watching it, regardless of the poor plotting? Do they mean it’s “good” in the sense it has great spectacle and CGI effects? Is it a “good” movie but a “bad” story or adaptation of a story? Is it “good” for a sequel (since the middle part of a movie trilogy is often the weakest link)? Or do they mean it’s more objectively “good” in the sense of having believable characters, tight plotting, good pacing, etc? Until you go deeper in the discussion and encourage people to explain what they mean (and clarify your own positions and opinions), you aren’t going to know.
Second, for many people, poor writing doesn’t affect their enjoyment of the book or film. They either don’t notice or skim past it. I think that Thor: The Dark World is objectively a “bad” movie because of plot holes and logic failures the size of Minneapolis, but I still enjoyed watching it. But then there are some books or movies where I can’t just “go along for the ride,” because I find the lack of care with the story and character insulting to my intelligence. Because there are more non-writers than writers, they often miss the flaws (or strengths) that I notice. They aren’t necessarily stupid; we just don’t see the same things. Have two people watch the same movie or read the same book and you’ll get two different impressions of it. And when I criticize the book or film, some people react badly because they think I’m insulting them and their choice of entertainment. And boy, people can be touchy about their entertainment! Debates over differences of opinion dissolve into flamewars because people stop criticizing the work and start insulting each other.
Last, I feel that it ultimately doesn’t matter if the populace goes ape-shit over Fifty Shades, or Twilight, or yet another Nora Roberts novel. Why? Because I’m not writing for them. If one of them picks up my book and likes it, more power to them! But I’m writing the stories that appeal to me. To my friend. To people who like the same things I do for the same reasons I do. For me, it’s also a matter of personal pride. I can’t stand shoddy workmanship in other stories, so why should I tolerate it in mine?
So don’t let the frustration over popular poorly-crafted stories discourage you from writing the best stories you can create. Because there is an audience for well-crafted stories: fans of shows like Babylon 5, Firefly, and Deep Space Nine prove that. Like-minded souls will find your work. And maybe they’ll even make a movie out of it.