Writing Priorities Vs. Reading Priorities

I want to talk a little bit about priorities in writing and reading here because I don’t think they’re necessarily the same thing. This was triggered by a writing question I received recently.

Here a ranking of story element importance suggested by the questioner:

1. Story/Plot followed closely by
2. Character
3. World
4. Dialogue — although I’m not sure this can be separated from character.
5. Author’s general wit–Good examples: Pratchet, Zelazney
6. General writing prose
7. Description

This was cool for me for two reasons.

1) I always like to see how other people look at story.

2) It gives me a chance to unpack the idea that writer priorities and reader priorities are not necessarily the same thing. In fact writer priorities and writer priorities are not always the same thing, not even in the head of just one writer. Taking these seven elements as my base set, (I could and probably would add others on my own) I actually have three* different ranking priorities** depending on how I look at them: personal reader preference, personal writer enthusiasms, professional writer necessities.

As a reader it goes like this for me:

1. Story/Plot
2. Character
3. World
4. Prose
5. Wit
6. Dialogue
7. Description

As a writer jazzed about writing a story:

1. World
2. Story/Plot
3. Character
4. Wit (in this case, smart, not funny)
5. Prose
6. Dialogue
7. Description

As a professional writer aware of audience needs:

1. Prose
2a. Story/Plot
2b. Character
3. World
4. Description
5. Dialogue
6. Wit (in this case, smart, not funny)

I think the reader set is fairly self-explanatory, that’s what I notice and what I enjoy as someone reading for pleasure.

The second set is also pretty obvious. These are things that excite me in terms of composing and writing a work.

The last one looks a little bit different.

It starts with prose. That’s because if you don’t put the thing together in a readable manner the rest of that stuff just doesn’t matter because no one’s ever going to see it. Now, what exactly constitutes a readable manner is open to a lot of debate. For me it means first and foremost clarity. The reader has to be able to understand everything I want them to understand. Second, the mode of the prose has to suit the mood of the story. Perky text message speech is probably not going to go well with a Gothic horror piece unless it’s used very very carefully and deliberately. I personally also prefer invisible prose, where the reader is hardly aware that they are reading rather than experiencing the story, but I’ve seen beautiful, obtrusive, poetic prose work as well.

Second I’ve put plot/story, though I could make a persuasive case that character should go first, which is why I changed the numbering scheme. You really need them both. Stories with one but not the other are going to lose a big portion of readers. You can pull off something that’s great for a subset of readers with one being outstanding and the other craptacular, but if you don’t have both, you’re in serious trouble.

I put world third though it’s both my favorite element to write and a really critical component, especially in SFF. Yes there are readers who put setting first in terms of what draws them into a story. And yes, setting can be the difference between a good book and a great one, but it’s really not as important to the average reader as the other two. That’s because it’s more fungible. There are a lot of stories that can be told equally well in New York, Feudal Japan, or Middle Earth. SFF is rife with stories that could only work in the magnificent settings created specifically for them, and it’s only behind the other two by a hair, but I do think it has to come in third.

I’m not going to get into 4, 5, and 6 here because I’ve already run long.

*It’s actually four since I have a professional reader’s set too, but that’s a whole post in itself and begins with coherence, which isn’t even on this list, so I’m going to leave it out here

**They’re also shifting priorities over time and depending what I’m working on

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog August 20 2008, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)