Harlan Ellison once said how he wrote a script and handed it to a director. The director took one glance at the first page and said, “Not filmable.”
Ellison was taken aback. “What do you mean it’s not filmable? You haven’t read it.”
“I don’t have to read it,” the director said, handing it back. “It doesn’t look right on the page. That’s all I need to know to pass on this.”
This may seem kind of goofy to new writers, but there’s a lot of truth in it. Maybe that scares you. But you shouldn’t let it. How a story looks on the page reflects certain attitudes and facets of the story. Maybe it’s subliminal, I don’t know what’s at work here, but it does affect the reader.
It exists. It’s real. A story not only has to be well-written, it has to look “right” on the page.
Yes, you can come up with a lot of writers like Faulkner and McCarthy who have long dense passages in their novels, even at the beginning of the novel. Well, my response to that is “You’re not Faulkner or McCarthy. And neither am I.”
Believe it or not a good editor can tell right away from a glance at the manuscript whether or not the story she has in her hands is worth pursuing. I’m not talking about formatting errors here, although they are important as well. No, I mean what emotion or ‘sense of being’ does the story portray to the reader by how it looks on the page?
I’ve seen this very thing happen a lot and it’s happened to me, too. It still happens to me, especially during first drafts. But I look back at some of my earlier stories and notice right away they’re just shaped all wrong.
The story itself is all right. They just look all wrong on the page.
Writing isn’t rocket science. You don’t need talent to be a good writer, though it helps, I think.* But this is one more facet you need to be aware of. Maybe not consciously. This doesn’t have to occupy the higher tiers of your brain and creative process when you are transferring the story initially from your brain to the page.
But after you finish the story, and the dust settles, and you come back to it fresh in two or three days, take a look at how it appears on the page.
Editors and publishers and agents all want that one story that will stand out over the others in their inbox. Because they receive literally hundreds (if not more) submissions a month, they aren’t first looking for a reason to buy your story…they’re looking for a reason to reject it.
Don’t give them this one excuse. It’s way too easy to fix. 🙂
*I do believe you need talent to elevate writing into a higher art form. But I freely admit that may also be a silly conceit.
4 Replies to “So You Wrote a Story. But, Does it Look Right on the Page?”
I know thick blocks of paragraphs can turn me off right away. Break them up or something. I don’t want to read an entire page that lacks white space.
Yes, I always try to avoid big blocks of paragraphs right away. Later on in the story when the reader is settled I tend to use them more.
kenneth, I have to disagree with this. Artistic vision is always original. I say writers need to write their hearts and let everything else go. Don’t attempt to meet others’ expectations or preconceived notions.
Thanks! I do agree everything else should take backseat to artistry. If that is the writer’s vision, and they way she sees the story, and believes that is how the story should be presented, then of course that’s exactly what she should do. 🙂
But even then I do believe how a story presents itself on the page gives the reader some subliminal aspect of “tone” and I have read stories in the past that were written in a dense, minimalist paragraph way.
Artistry first. I never argue that point. 🙂