The Writer vs. The Story

Got my 2000 words, though I ended up having to work pretty late tonight to get them. While I was writing, I was thinking about the discussion of diacritical marks and ‘conlangs’ that we were having a couple of days earlier.

Here was the comment that I was most thinking about: “Just a comment on this: I don’t think diacritics should be viewed as artwork at all. They are the only way (besides the IPA) to represent many non-Western sounds in the Roman alphabet. If one goes beyond the pastiche level of conlanging, and works out phonologies that are interestingly different from English, they become absolutely necessary.”

While the writer of this comment is absolutely correct about the value of diacritical marks in developing complex conlangs dissimilar to English, there’s a point that needs to be brought forward.

There comes a time when the writer starts working against his own story. A point where the worldbuilding and the development get in the way of the tale.

I like conlangs. I love language development. I’ve been a fan of words since I realized at about the age of eight or nine that dictionaries were a lot of fun to read; that they told stories of words that had started out as other words in other languages and other times. I have built a few very nice languages, and developed a couple of them to the point that I could actually write in them and speak in them — this is one of those geek confessions that I probably shouldn’t make except in the company of other language geeks, but what the hell. Mine were heavily inflected languages with some wildly non-English grammatical and pronunciation conventions, and letter combinations that would be about as cruel to the average English-speaker as English multi-consonant combos are to many non-English speakers.

I put so much work into those languages that I wanted to use them in the stories for which I’d developed them. I wanted to use them a lot. After all, developing a language is a hell of a lot of work, and I had a lot of language there to use, and it seemed awful to waste it. I loved doing all that language work, and I loved putting it into the story.

But I discovered that the story did not benefit from my careful language-development, or from the large passages of language that I tossed in and then casually translated. I ended up having to rip out almost every bit of the conlang material because it was boring, difficult, and had the effect on the story pace of a tire iron suddenly jammed through the spokes of a bicycle racing downhill. The results weren’t pretty.

I have had these hideous pile-ups over other things that were more me and less my story — attempts to shoehorn lots of details of cultures and religions that lived as the result of huge worldbuilding orgies into a story that didn’t need them, wild tries at dragging my characters to ALL the places on my map because all those places had such cool things in them ….

It comes down to this. Yes, you the writer can build a great language, or a great world, or a great culture, but none of these things is the story, and if you focus on the needs of your worldbuilding over the needs of your story — insisting, for example, on using odd diacritical marks that force the reader to pronounce the word your way even if he has to stop and figure out how �bv�rti would be different than �bviert�, or send the reader digging for a dictionary to even take a shot at what the hell you’re getting at, then you’re doing your story a disservice at the expense of yourself.

The writer and the story are natural enemies sometimes, wanting mutually exclusive things. The writer’s interests and hobbies and fascinations are useful in small degrees, but at some point they have to take a back seat to the needs of the story. Because if you hope to write, you are eventually going to have to throw the fight so the story can win.

image_pdfDownload as PDFimage_printPrint Page

About the author: Novelist, writing teacher, on a mission to reprint my out-of-print books and self-publish my new ones.

12 comments… add one
  • Linda Jul 2, 2003 @ 22:39

    Different people have different approaches, depending on what their goals are. Some people like worldbuilding. It’s fun. It can be a great hobby. You can even build worlds and never write a story or play a role-playing game in them. To be a writer, rather than a worldbuilder, you have to write the story (or stories). A hobby writer can balance the time between the writing and the worldbuilding any way he chooses. A writer who earns his living from his writing, though, has to put the writing time first.

    We have problems in our lives when our goals are different from the way we spend our time. If we’re writers and we spend all of our time on worldbuilding, we get frustrated. If we’re worldbuilders and keep trying to write stories, we get frustrated, too. If we’re both, then we need to find a balance that allows us to build our complex worlds and still get the stories written. So the trick is to figure out what we want and allocate our time so we get it.

  • Robert A. Sloan Jul 2, 2003 @ 19:51

    Way cool, Holly!

    I liked your point and agree with it, but just like the creature sketches and anything else that comes up around a book, I tend to treat stuff like that as its own project. I fantasize it’ll get big enough readers will want a concordance with all the details. Or a roleplaying game booklet with the conlang stuff and other details set up — great for those other places on the map.

    Or just do it myself on my website after the book’s in print so that any fans who got that immersed in the book can come see all the fun stuff and get into it, provided it hasn’t got spoilers.

    And like silverfire said — sometimes they’ll publish a dictionary…

  • Holly Jul 2, 2003 @ 16:04

    I don’t intend to prescribe my view for anyone; but it is one tradition of worldbuilding, and is every bit as worthwhile as the kind you’re promoting.

    I’m not "prescribing a view," or "promoting a tradition." I am offering my experiences as a full-time professional novelist who supports my family by what I do. My experience will be relevent to readers in the degree to which they wish to do what I am doing, and have the same or similar obstacles to overcome that I have.

    I have nothing against writing as a hobby. But the advice of people who write as a hobby is basically useless to people who write for a living. And the advice of people who write for a living can be safely ignored by those who have no wish to.

  • Vohpenonoma?e Jul 2, 2003 @ 12:58

    After the second one, Bones of the Past, which didn’t sell as well as the first one, when Jim Baen didn’t want anymore of those for a while, and when I was writing full time and my kids were dependent on me and my writing alone for food, housing, and everything else, I had to look at slightly simpler choices. "Starving" or "eating." And, beyond that, to "publishing" or "giving people enemas at 6 AM and doing CPR on ninety-year-old women and ten-year-old boys again."

    Not such a hard choice, really.

    Yes, I understand all this. But I already have a great job (in the field I went to school for, even) that affords me ample time for hobbies. I have no desire to be a writer who supports himself by writing. I don’t intend to prescribe my view for anyone; but it is one tradition of worldbuilding, and is every bit as worthwhile as the kind you’re promoting.

  • Kilerkki Jul 2, 2003 @ 12:32

    I agree whole-heartedly that worldbuilding can sometimes smother the story. In a novel on which I am currently working, I have developed the world and its denizens to such an extent that things which are self-explanatory to me are wildly confusing to other readers. If I throw in an explanation, I end up spending half a page discussing a sentence-long reference to an obscure Erkyni oath.
    Languages are my weak point; I enjoy the beauty and richness of the English language so much that I have a hard time creating new languages of my own. So when my other characters talk in a language foreign to the main character, it is more likely to be a collection of strange words which looked fun strung together than a coherent sentence based on sound grammatical principle. I’ve decided that I like it better that way; it saves me from wanting to write (and then translate) conversations in a foreign language, and it probably saves the reader a lot of headaches.

  • June Jul 2, 2003 @ 8:56

    Brilliant, Holly. And some of the best advice I’ve seen lately. You often come up with gems of wisdom — this one is exceptionally well cut.

    Thanks.

    June

  • Katherine Jul 2, 2003 @ 8:04

    Excellent post, and my reader side thanks you from the bottom of my heart. I don’t even read Tolkien’s conlang stuff, and he was a professional linguist who handled it about as well as it could be handled. Nor do I own a copy of the Silmarillon, even though I’ve worn out two copies of LOTR.

    Yes, massively detailed worldbuilding can be a huge help for the writer. Details like the fragrance of the local spring flowers or the rhythm of elvish poetry can help make settings come alive. But when you’re so proud of your worldbuilding that you bring the story to a screeching halt in order to show off, you’re missing the point.

  • Holly Jul 2, 2003 @ 5:21

    "Synchronic" and "diachronic" — nice analogy. I wanted to be a diachronic writer, working in Arhel for the twenty or so books I had already figured and planned when the first one sold.

    After the second one, Bones of the Past, which didn’t sell as well as the first one, when Jim Baen didn’t want anymore of those for a while, and when I was writing full time and my kids were dependent on me and my writing alone for food, housing, and everything else, I had to look at slightly simpler choices. "Starving" or "eating." And, beyond that, to "publishing" or "giving people enemas at 6 AM and doing CPR on ninety-year-old women and ten-year-old boys again."

    Not such a hard choice, really.

  • Jim Woosley Jul 2, 2003 @ 3:03

    It also depends on motivation.

    Tolkein was a professional linguist and devoted a large portion of his career — decades — to the "histories" of the elves and other people which became his background. Without any thought of eventually writing a novel set in that mileu. And when he did write such a novel, he didn’t choose to focus on the elves — he added the hobbits and focussed on events that took place during the declining years of the elves’s presence on Middle-Earth.

    To some extent, one can see why: the epic reach of the Silmarillion is incomparable in twentieth-century literature; indeed, the only thing in English literature that it can properly be compared to is the historical books of the King James Bible. And, just like the King James Bible, there are large portions that are frankly just flat and boring. It is Tolkein’s take on writing the equivalent of the KJV for a race which is NOT human, but in some ways greater than human. His success makes it one of the greatest achievements of English literature — and forever places it in the category of "just a little too good" for those of us mere Men (and women) who don’t share in the immortal heritage of the children of Beren and Luthien.

    Holly is a professional writer. She lives — or dies — literally on the results of her daily 2000 words, and we are blessed that she is willing to share the hopes and tragedies of that life with us through her blog and essays at and management of Forward Motion. But if world building becomes too much her passion, it takes time from her writing. She cannot afford to spend two decades of her life working in her spare time to develop a language and culture for an only dimly foreseen saga. In the environment of one of the most enlightened institutions of learning in the world.

    Else, she commits the fallacy of H. P. Lovecraft, who reputedly starved to death of answering his fan mail instead of writing.

  • Vohpenonoma?e Jul 2, 2003 @ 2:31

    If your novel is successful enough, though, you might be able to sell your editor on a dictionary … 😉

    Or maybe a grammar with dictionary. That’s always nice. But if your languages are interesting enough, they can spawn an entire culture of scholars and devotees–witness the massive studies that have been undertaken of Quenya and Sindarin. There’s definitely interest in languages among many fantasy readers; it’s just that the current publishing climate is against that sort of thing.

  • Vohpenonoma?e Jul 2, 2003 @ 2:06

    You make good points for a certain kind of writer–what one might call a synchronic writer (to borrow a linguistic term). But there are those of us (like myself) who are less interested in one single story that occurs in a world than in the evolution of the world itself; we’re most interested in the sum total of the world’s stories. You might call us diachronic writers.

    For us, there can never be "too much"; since every story in the world is connected in some way to every other, and they’re all connected to the world as it moves foward in time, every detail that you can manage becomes necessary and useful. Tolkien was like this; LOTR was but one phase of Middle-Earth’s history.

    I’ve spent 11+ years on my languages and mythology, and I’m in no hurry to see my name in print. I have the luxury of letting things develop organically and seeing where they lead.

  • silverfire Jul 2, 2003 @ 12:45

    Good points, Holly. There are ways to use conlangs to good effect in stories, but it’s very easy to go overboard and smother the story. That said, I think that if you’re creating a language for your story, you should develop it as far as you ‘need’ (read: want) to. You just have to keep in mind that you probably won’t use half of what you created in your novel.

    If your novel is successful enough, though, you might be able to sell your editor on a dictionary … 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Next post:

Previous post: