Story versus Prose

I have been doing a lot of self reflection on my own writing and writing preferences lately, mostly in attempting to understand why I have so much difficulty. Among a number of other things, I have started to understand that, at least for me, there is a fundamental conflict between Story and Prose. Or, rather, the two vie for my time, energy and attention in the writing process itself, and the casualty is usually a completed work.

I am a disciple of Story, first and foremost. What happens — both what actually happens, and what is happening, if you get my meaning of the difference — is the point. No matter what else you are trying to accomplish with the story — to titillate, to inform, to inspire — you cannot accomplish it without the story itself. By story, I mean the arc of the tale, the beginning(s), middle(s) and end(s). Big Fat Fantasy of literary micro-fiction, the core is the same, like how a fish’s skeleton and a human’s are fundamentally alike. That is not to say that all stories are fundamentally the same, but rather that all stories must have Story to be more than mere ideas or descriptions.

That said, I also love the craft of writing, the Prose. It simply feels good to manipulate the formless ephemera of words into a real thing. A well crafted sentence is a jewel unto itself, and a well written story is a crown. It takes time and care and, most of all, experience to produce such art. It can be a frustrating process, discarding one imperfect word, phrase or sentence after another until the perfect one appears. And when it does not, the hard choice must be made between stopping everything or leaving something lesser in place and going on.

I was not fully aware of the conflict between Story and Prose, though the unnamed idea of it was often a cloud in my mind, until relatively recently when I finally read The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. The Last Unicorn is one of my favorite stories. I first saw the animated film as a child and have watched it innumerable times throughout my life. I knew the film so well, in fact, that I never bothered to read the novel. I cannot say for certain why this is; The Last Unicorn is hardly the only adaptation I was exposed to before the original material, but still I read The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, for example. Perhaps I knew that those adaptations were incomplete or inaccurate, since Tolkien’s work inspires a kind of fandom beagle’s does not and therefore I was more fully aware of the Good Professor’s works in a way I was not familiar with Beagle’s. Or perhaps it was simply that the film was so satisfying to me, I could not imagine what value the novel might have — or worse, I feared that I would love the film better (an unforgivable crime for a young, budding writer). ¬†Whatever the cause, I only finally read the novel The Last Unicorn mere months ago. Upon doing so, I hated myself for waiting so terribly long.

Beagle’s Prose, his mastery of the language, is nothing short of amazing, rivaling the likes of Hemingway in my opinion. I found in reading The Last Unicorn that I experienced it in an entirely new way, even though the story was nearly identical to that of the film. Contrast this with The Lord of the Rings, which I am currently re-reading: Tolkien also has a mastery over his use of language (though in a very different way than Beagle), but since so much of my reading attention is directed at how different Peter Jackson’s adaptations were, I feel almost as if I am less able to enjoy the Prose because of the differences in Story.

 

Once I read The Last Unicorn and became consciously aware of the distinction in my mind between Prose and Story, I began to look at my own writing in a different way. Specifically, I started to look at why I was having such trouble finishing some stories, or producing a good version of some stories. What I began to realize is that in some cases I had a Story I wanted to tell, but was trying to tell it with a kind of Prose that does not come naturally to me, or was not a natural fit for the Story. The sort of Modernist writing style, where we describe all the actions and emotions of the character has become the expected, even demanded, form of Prose for our written fiction. This is a relatively new development, though. From ancient epics to folkloric tales to all the other media we consume, most storytelling we do is focused on the characters and events, the Story itself. One could write a 5000 word short story version of Hansel and Gretel, for example, but would it be “better” by any measure than the shorter form used to tell the events of the tale to children before bedtime? Prose is art and can be beautiful for its own sake, but it can also weigh down the Story, obscuring it under layers of unnecessary detail. I realized that in many cases, I was trying to tell a piece of folklore or talk about a series of things that happened in this imaginary place to these imaginary people, but was not, in fact, trying to “write a story” in the conventional sense.

 

The questions arises, then: is there a market for such fiction? In a world dominated by Modernist, Prose-centric preferences, is there a place for Story-telling? I worried that the answer was “no” until I realized something very important: the world of non-fiction, from magazine features to biographies, looks very much like this. When we are telling stories about what were or are or might be, involving real people, we almost invariably focus on Story rather than Prose. (This, of course, does not mean there is not a place for strong writing and a good turn of phrase.) And I realized, then, that there is no reason why that form of storytelling can’t be applied to fiction as well, and that there is sure to be a market for it in the same way that there is a market for non-fiction in that form.

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The Too High Bar

The very first story I remember writing was a fantasy. I don’t recall how old I was, although I am fairly sure I was under 10 because I had not yet discovered Dungeons and Dragons, but I do remember writing it in one of those black and white covered composition books. Nor do I recall anything of the story itself, except that it was about a champion on a quest to slay a dragon. Strangely, I do have a very specific memory of writing it, particularly at a moment when I described how the dragon’s eyes “glew” with fierce light and my mother corrected me that it was “glowed.” I recall arguing, as well, holding up “blow” and “blew” as evidence that she was surely wrong. I do not remember whether I changed it. I wish I still had that notebook. I would like to know more about what I wrote, perhaps even uncover what it was inspired by. I imagine that nothing had so great an influence on that story as the Rankin/Bass Hobbit cartoon, which was my first exposure to Tolkien.

 

I love fantasy, especially the “Tolkienesque” kind, with elves and dwarves and heroes and Dark Lords and all the other trappings. I love Tolkien’s work in particular, but to be honest I am not that discerning at times. For example, to my shame The Dragonlance Chronicles and Legends trilogies are as close to my heart as is Lord of the Rings. Not because they rival the good Professor’s work in skill and craft, of course, but because of where they landed in my formative reading experience. In gaming, both table top and electronic, that flavor of fantasy is by far my favorite. All that said, I find that I have a difficult time writing fantasy. As I just began rereading The Lord of the Rings again — the mark of great literature is, I think, that one can revisit it again and again and always find something both meaningful and new in it, because the great works are able to speak to us across the changing landscapes of our lives — I think I finally hit upon why I have such difficulty with writing fantasy:

 

I will never be as good as Tolkien.

 

In particular, I will never be able to craft a world in the way that he did, with its deep history and complex languages. The fact is, I am far more interested in storytelling than world building. The problem is that the definition of fantasy for me, what makes great fantasy so rich and powerful, is a great fantastic world that is complex, cohesive and real feeling. That is what Tolkien created in me with his work, and now when I desire to write a fantasy, to tell stories about champions hunting evil dragons, I cannot help but see how thin and brittle the world in which I place that story is. The bar Tolkien set is too high for me to reach and so I often do not try at all.

 

What I found I prefer, as far as world building is concerned, is to take something familiar, whether it is our own world or the typical medieval fantasy world or any other archetypal setting, and season it with the unfamiliar. When it comes to fantasy, though, this is something that is all too common and I dread the idea of being another terrible Tolkien imitator, making Middle Earth with cat folk, for example. Unfortunately, I believe some stories belong in certain genres and are best told in those genres, which leaves me at a loss sometimes when I have a story to write that is absolutely, unequivocally a fantasy story. A world of knights and ogres and wizards and dragons brings with it a host of implicit qualities that aid the author in communicating with the audience, conveying meaning easily while offering accessible opportunities to subvert assumptions. Every genre is a toolbox with which the writer builds a story with the help of a genre savvy audience. To feel a genre closed off from me, especially one I so love, because of my own inadequacies is, to say the least, unpleasant.

 

This is a limitation I do not feel with other genres. If I have difficulties with any other genre in this way, it would be hard science fiction and that is only because I am not a scientist or even an engineer and therefore do not know a lot of things I should know in order to write such a story. Even so, I do read a lot of science and have access to the Internet, so I have those two tools — knowing which questions to ask and where to go about finding the answers — which usually suffice for any given story I am likely to want to write. There is no equivalent in fantasy, no way to Google up a long and detailed history of a particular region so the singular chapter the protagonists spend in the place is as real and convincing as life outside the reader’s window. Instead, I find myself relying in writing on a skill that has served me well in game-mastering table top role-playing games: treating the world like an old time Hollywood movie set, all veneer and no substance. That works when at a table, helping players navigate a monster riddled maze or dragon-haunted badlands. Players see through that sort of thing and don’t care because they are engaged in the game itself; readers are not so forgiving, I don’t think. Or, at least, I am not, which brings us back around to the problem itself:

 

I will never be as good as Tolkien. The bar is too high.