The more I think about it, the more I think that what separates a good writer from a great writer is how they put together a sentence. That is, it’s not the story, but how they tell it. Many have argued that there are only so many story structures or patterns. Robert Heinlein wrote that there were three: 1) boy-meets-girl, 2) The Little Tailor (that is, the man who succeeds against great odds, or its converse, the great man brought low), and 3) the-man-who-learns-better. The blog Murderati has a different list – and a nice discussion on the structures of stories here. If there are only a limited number of story structures, then how the story is told is what makes each version of the story unique.
With this in mind, I’m going to do something new. I’m going to pick out a specific passage by one of my favorite writers and talk about why it’s an exceptional piece of writing. For me, these passages are inspirational. Hopefully they will be for you as well…
To begin, if humanity is still around 100 years from now, the general consensus will be that Neil Gaiman was one of the greatest writers of the late 2oth/early 21st century, regardless of genre. The passage of time will let prejudices against comic book writers and genre fiction* fade, and Gaiman’s beautiful prose will remain.
To illustrate Gaiman’s talent, I will first rewrite one of my favorite passages from Neverwhere. I’ll strip it down to its essential content and summarize what Gaiman wrote in the plainest way I can. Then I’ll show the original passage…
When it rains it pours. Or, everything always seems to happen at once.
And now Gaiman:
Richard had noticed that events were cowards: they didn’t occur singly, but instead they would run in packs and leap out at him all at once.
This is just brilliant. First, it uses a very nice personification. Who hasn’t felt that “events” are sentient — that they get together at the corner bar and decide how they can really mess up your life in one fell swoop? I know I have.
Second is its style. I find that Gaiman’s stories, even the most modern, have a fairy-tale feel. Not simply because of the supernatural or fantastical elements they contain, but also because they give a sense that the reader is sitting by a fire, with a time-worn elder telling the tale. The sentence is a perfect example. Gaiman sets out a truism, and then proceeds in the following pages to provide a superlative example of that truism. Now, one could edit out the sentence and the following pages would make perfect sense. The plot would still be sound and the characters would still be themselves, but it would take out that “something” that makes the story special. Gaiman has a unique voice; it would be hard to mistake one of his stories for some other author’s. And that is why his writing pops.
*In my not so humble opinion, literary fiction is a genre, just like mystery, romance, or science fiction; it has its own rules and conventions that must be followed. I won’t mention any names, but seriously how many times in literary fiction do we meet middle-aged white men who have lost their passion for their wives, feel their jobs are soul-crushing, and that They. Must. Do. Something…Someday, I’ll have to write a full post on this topic.