It’s a hard lesson that writers learn early and often: What you say doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to say it. That is, you can have the most amazing, earth-shattering idea in the world, but it won’t mean squat unless you’re able to effectively communicate your thoughts. Conversely, it’s perfectly possible to be a skilled communicator with nothing significant to say.
This is the difference between storycraft and prose—what you say versus how you say it. Both areas of writing are equally important, and being good at one doesn’t necessarily imply success in the other. These two skills each require their own flavor of discipline, insight, and practice, but before we can talk about how the two work together, it’s critical to understand each concept as a standalone.
What is storycraft?
What is the overarching theme of your story? What are the subliminal themes? What is your main character’s wants versus their needs, and what inner wound drives their emotional rationale? Does your story have a beginning, middle, and end? Tension, dramatic irony, and/or a McGuffin to move the plot along? Can you break your story down into major beats, and can you arguably fit those beats into a classic story outline like Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat!?
If your ears perked at any of these questions or even if you have no idea what I’m talking about, I want to welcome you to my zone of genius—the headspace I love hanging out in all day every day. Editing is my job, but storycraft is my vocation and my passion. I love nothing more than diving deep into the mechanics of how and why stories work. Why do some tales haunt us all throughout our lives while others fall flat? What makes a mystery truly mysterious or keeps an audience engaged through a seemingly mundane setting? Why do certain readers love a genre and eschew others? What, actually, defines that genre in the first place?
Storycraft, the art of piecing together disparate information into a cohesive, engaging narrative, is the what when it comes to what is said. Whether you’re writing an email for your company newsletter or drafting an epic space opera, your message—your story—needs to be structured so that whatever you wish to convey (catering in tacos for Earl’s birthday, the dark, searing angst of your protagonist to avenge her home planet) is comprehensible to your reader. Any writing should be informative, entertaining, or relevant—all three, if you can manage.
Storycraft is beautifully, simplistically self-explanatory. How do you craft the story—the message—you want to share?
What is prose?
If storycraft is the message you want to communicate, prose is how you communicate that message. Should your tone be serious, jocular, or smarmy? How many adjectives is too many adjectives? Is it, like, okay to use this many likes? And are the “scintillating rays of jagged consciousness” too much for my children’s picture book?
When we talk about writing, most of us mean prose. This part of the biz includes both objective mechanics like grammar and subjective concepts like narrative flow. When a piece of writing sounds good in your head—when the words on the paper move you to salient emotions or even visceral reactions (i.e., physically cringing when the main character takes an arrow to the knee)—good prose has done its work. Masterful writers don’t just convey ideas, they invite readers into an experience. Prose is the difference between prattling off details and creating an atmosphere, listing a series of events and ushering a reader into an adventure.
Good prose is the most accessible form of magic you can find. With the right tools, you can communicate volumes without saying anything at all.
My favorite example of this is sexy milk, an illustration I conjured up for a writing class a few years ago. Consider the following:
She took a sip of milk.
She lifted the crystalline glass, her long, dark fingernails tinkling against the dainty patterns.
“Mmm.” She sighed, long and wistful, the glass halfway to her perfectly pursed mouth. “If only I had a cookie.”
She licked her lips—top, then bottom. Her green eyes blazed. An electric tremble wracked her shoulders.
With a nod of her chin, she tipped it back. Every swallow, every gulp, chased ripples down the supple skin of her neck.
Sure, this description is violet, cartoonish, and downright ridiculous, but it illustrates my point. In these two examples, I communicate the same thing: “She drank milk.” But how she drank the milk (and the prose with which I describe the milk drinking) changes the reading experience completely.
How do prose and storycraft work together?
What you say is just as important as how you say it—and vice versa. You can have an epic outline of the next great American novel, but if your prose is lacking, your story very well may come out as complete gobbledygook. On the other hand, you may be able to write beautifully, but without an engaging, fully-articulated idea that stirs hearts and minds, all your pretty prose is just as good as Christmas wrapping paper, torn up and discarded the very next day.
Sound harsh? I meant it to be. Too often, I see writers with amazing ideas they can’t articulate. Unfortunately, I see the inverse just as frequently. Some writers focus so much on big words, violet descriptions, and lush descriptions of Victorian ballgowns, their plot threads are practically held together by duct tape.
The only thing worse than an author’s prose not doing their story justice is their luscious wordsmithing thinly veiling a shaky, ramshackle plot. It’s almost as tragic as those hulking meatheads running around with massive biceps and skinny little chicken legs. Prose and storytelling are not the same thing, and for one skill to truly compliment the other, there needs to be balance.
It’s completely possible to be a great writer and a poor storyteller—just as possible as it is to be a great storyteller but a lackluster writer. There are critical differences between the arts of storycraft and prose, but truly great writing requires time and attention to both disciplines.
Like I said, this kind of thing is what I LIVE for.