Have you ever been immersed in a book and suddenly been struck by the knowledge that the writing isn’t just good, it’s great?
Of course you have. But what exactly is it about the writing that gets to you? What hits you over the head and makes you say, “Wow”? Is it what the writer has to say, or how they say it?
To my mind, great writing requires both. It not only has to impart something worth saying, but it has to say it in a particularly artful way. I came across an example of this today while reading “One-Eyed Cat,” by Paula Fox.
This book is an example of how characters, setting, mood, plot, and theme all come together delicately yet quite powerfully. The author has something to say to young adult readers, and she says it with finesse. I couldn’t help but think “Wow” to myself several times while reading. Here’s an example of what I mean:
“The stillness was deep as though the earth itself had drawn in its breath. The only thing moving was a wasp near the roof of the outhouse. Ned watched it as its circles grew smaller and smaller until, all at once, it disappeared. Probably its nest was there just under the roof. Maybe there were snakes in back of the outhouse where the tangled grass grew thick. He suddenly recalled how Janet had flung her whole self against Billy, how the snake had flown out of his hands. A thought was buzzing and circling inside his head, a thought that stung like a wasp could sting.”
With those few sentences, the author creates a silence, then fills it with small terrors. She has not only created a mood, she’s put us right inside of Ned’s head and made us feel the sting of the painful thought that Ned can’t just swat away. That sting is the tangible representation of the book’s central theme.
After that paragraph, I couldn’t stop turning the pages. I was in Ned’s head and I wanted to know how things would turn out. The theme was what hooked me, and the writing style made me a very willing catch.
And here’s another analogy: great writing is like great painting. The subject is important, but so is the execution. A splash of blue color on canvas is just that, unless it happens to be as majestically painted as Starry Night. A face could be quite boring unless it’s captured the mystery of the Mona Lisa or the terror of The Scream.
Great writing requires a solid subject and an artistic brush.
What examples of great writing have you read lately?