The Text and its Story

February 3rd, 2007

The people who do literary theory and criticism like to use the word “text” a lot, but I suspect I am going to be using it here in a way they might not approve. The text as I conceive it is the arrangement of words that tell a story, but it is not itself the story. The story itself exists prior to the text, in the mind of the author, and beyond it, in the minds of the readers. The act of writing a story is the attempt to recreate the story in the author’s mind in the medium of written words – a text. The act of reading the text is the recreation of the story in the reader’s mind.

Of course words are not the only medium in which a story can be told, and some people call those other forms of telling “texts” as well. It is possible to tell the same story in different ways – not only in different words, but in different media, yet it remains, in some fundamental way, the same story. “Cinderella,” for example, has been retold thousands of times, with and without using words: spoken, written, sung, danced, mimed, drawn. Yet through all these alterations, it remains at its heart the same story. The thing that we recognize behind the difference in media is the story itself.

In an art studio, we can often find a dozen different artists drawing the same model. The resulting portraits are usually quite different from one another. The artist is not, as a rule, attempting a perfectly exact replication of the model’s form and features. It is rather that in the mind of each artist there is an image of the model that he is attempting to capture and reproduce in lines or brush-strokes on paper; this mental image is the analogue of the story, and the lines of the pencil are the artist’s words.

By the story, then, I mean the “thing told”; by the text, I mean the particular telling of it. And that the story itself, in our minds, exists in our minds apart from and independent of any of its tellings.

 A writer, then, is attempting to tell a story. To compose a text. She has the story in her mind, she knows what will happen, she knows who the characters are – how they think, how they feel, what they will do. The story is there, and what she needs now are the words to tell it. The right words.

The process should be familiar to any writer. Typing one set of words, deleting them, typing others. Reading the draft of the text, crumpling pages, tossing them away. The words aren’t quite right, they haven’t succeeded in capturing the heart of the story. The story is there in the writer’s mind, but the text doesn’t tell it as she wants it told.

Perhaps the point of view needs to be more intimate. The writer switches mental gears from third-person to first, rewrites the text. Now there are two texts, two versions of the same story told. In which does it come better to life? In which does it come closest to the version of the story in the writer’s mind? She reads both, compares them, perhaps composes a third version of the text. Sometimes a story can be elusive, hard to capture in words.

Of course different writers work in different ways. For some, the story has to be reasonably complete before the composition of the text can begin; for others, the story grows in the author’s mind along with the text on the page. There is a paradox: while [each version] of a text is fixed, a specific arrangement of words, the story itself seems to be infinitely plastic; it can take a variety of different shapes and forms. While the text has objective reality, the story is subjective; it exists in the mind as an idea, which can be a protean thing.

It might be enlightening to think of the story as the raw material, the clay that we can shape or form into a specific form as a text. Of course, in the case of a story being re-told, such as a fairy tale, or one taken from history or fact, the material is to some extent pre-shaped before the writer goes to work on it. In the case of original, imaginative fiction, though, the material tends to be amorphous. Any notion can become the seed of a story. A dragon, say. The writer pulls the notion this way, that way. Adds more elements – a dragon-slayer. Perhaps a virgin. Changes some elements — what about a unicorn instead of a dragon – unicorns like virgins, too. What if the unicorn is really a dragon? So the material of the story is shaped, until at some point the writer begins to select the words to tell it.

When I review a work of fiction, I look at both the text and the story it tells. I try to answer the questions: is this a good/enjoyable/ story? and how well does the author tell it? Of course it is impossible to review the story as it exists in the author’s mind. I can only read the story as it is told in the text. The term “medium” is very appropriate here, as the text stands in the middle between the author and the reader. It is a truism that the author publishes a single text, but each reader reads a different story.

For me, as for every other reader, the story I read includes my images of the characters, my emotional reactions to them, my involvement in the events of the plot. These aspects of the work, I have found, are what interest most readers of reviews: the elements that make up what I am calling the story. They want to know what the story is about, what kind of story it is – hard SF, mythic fantasy, romantic comedy. They want to know if it is amusing, depressing or uplifting; they want to be warned if it is boring, pointless, unoriginal or possibly offensive.

When it comes to the actual words of the text, however, things are a bit different, as it moves further into the realm of judgment. What makes a story well-told? What makes it done badly? While I have found that many readers care less about issues of prose than those of story, it is necessary for a reviewer to address them.

Actively bad writing is the easiest to identify. The rules that are broken are usually quite clear; the examples of bad writing well-known. And while individuals vary greatly in their level of tolerance for infelicitous prose, it is hard for any reader to enjoy a badly-written text, when it comes to the point that the mis-steps in the writing distract from the story being told.

I find that most readers of genre fiction seem to prefer their prose “transparent” – that is, prose that lets the story through without calling attention to the words used to tell it. Some readers may feel that this sort of prose is not worth noting, but the fact is that it takes a high level of skill to find the perfect word and avoid the less-than-perfect, to produce sentences that are not just not wrong but that tell the story with total clarity and subtle grace.

Then there is the sort of prose that actively draws attention to itself in the hope of admiration. This can be tricky, as all too often an author’s attempts at high-flown prose cross the line into bad writing. Still there are a number of readers who do prefer this sort of prose, and, if well-done, it can enhance a story. Here, I think, is the key point. An ornate or striking prose style can also sometimes draw too much attention to itself and distract the reader from the story being told, detracting rather than enhancing. This is the sort of writing sometimes criticized as self-indulgent. Still, there can be no doubt that such prose can often add another dimension of enjoyment to the reading of a text, and the readers’ appreciation of the story it tells.


See my reviews of short genre fiction at

15 Responses to “The Text and its Story”

  1. David Louis Edelmanon 03 Feb 2007 at 3:53 pm

    Fascinating discussion, Lois.

    I disagree with you that “text” is largely a medium to convey “story.” It may have started out that way thousands of years ago, just as painting and drawing were once just efficient ways to communicate what something looks like. But if you’re just trying to transfer a story from author’s mind to reader’s, film is much more efficient. Likewise, if you’re just looking to communicate the look of something, it’s quicker and easier to photograph it.

    Painters long ago realized that they didn’t have to be representing some thing in the outside world, or even some thing in their own imaginations. You don’t look at a Pollock or a Kandinsky and try to figure out what the squiggles and blobs are standing for — they are themselves.

    The same thing holds true, I feel, for writing. I don’t see text as a necessary evil or something that stands between the author and the reader. The text is the art that the author is trying to produce, and plot is just one aspect of it (along with rhythm, metaphor, structure, etc.).

    All this isn’t to say that story is irrelevant. Prose just for prose’s sake is… well, I don’t know what it is, but it’s generally not very readable. But I get very frustrated at readers who want their prose “transparent.” Why not just read the Cliff’s Notes, or read somebody’s plot summary on the web? You kind of wonder if, instead of visiting the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, they’d be just as satisfied with somebody telling them, “There’s some chick standing against a backdrop of rocks and water, and she’s got a mysterious smile on her face.”

    Another thing to think about: if the text is just a medium for conveying a story… then what’s the story a medium for conveying? An emotional state? An idea? Why bother telling the story, when you could just convey the idea?

    (Oh, and please don’t think I’m trying to rant at you, Lois. This is just something I feel very strongly about.)

  2. Lois Tiltonon 03 Feb 2007 at 4:13 pm

    David, I’m quite sure lots of people will disagree with my views on “texts.”

    But to clarify: the written text is just one form of a “text” as I am describing it. Film is another.

    Nor am I saying that all works of art are texts in this sense of being the medium for a story. Even written works, such as poetry, may be without a narrative to be conveyed. But a story can not be conveyed without the medium of a text, which obviously includes the spoken word.

    I do agree, indeed, that the text itself is the work of art that the artist is producing. A text can be a work of art in itself and at the same time the medium of a story. And some texts are more art-work-like than others.

    And of course if a story is a mental entity, then there is no other way of conveying it – saving telepathy – than through the medium of a text.

  3. David Louis Edelmanon 03 Feb 2007 at 4:32 pm

    Thanks for clarifying, Lois. On rereading your article, it seems like we agree on this topic more than disagree.

  4. […] 10 – The Text and its Story “It might be enlightening to think of the story as the raw material, the clay that we can shape or form into a specific form as a text.” Lois Tilton gets philosophical about the writing process; enlightening little essay. (tags: storytelling transparency style prose viewpoint text story fiction writing) […]

  5. Kate Elliotton 03 Feb 2007 at 9:39 pm

    Gee, Tilton, make me THINK, will you?

    Good stuff. But i have to run out to see a film, so will comment later.

  6. Lois Tiltonon 03 Feb 2007 at 11:55 pm

    I went to a concert. The element of story was minimal.

  7. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 04 Feb 2007 at 12:07 pm


    Thanks for putting into words a concept I’ve had a lot of trouble explaining to people.

    One clarification I’d add is that it’s also important to differentiate between “style” and “media.” For example, I just went to see Pan’s Labyrinth. My reaction was pretty much Omigod, this is the first time I’ve seen an actual fairytale on film. Reading an interview on the website, I found that Guilermo de Toro had intended it as a sequel to one of his other films, which was more of a horror movie, but he’d realized that this tale would be best told as a fairytale.

    A lot of this is like the book designer’s task of choosing the right font and page layout to present a story. The “transparent” mode is to basically use something like Century Schoolbook or Goudy Catalog, vaguely timeless and highly readable, whereas the more fancy presentation requires something quirkier. Ditto the illustrations. Look, for example, at different editions of Alice in Wonderland. The words are identical, but the presentation of the book designer enhances or detracts.

  8. Kate Elliotton 04 Feb 2007 at 1:16 pm

    Dave, how are you defining ‘story’?

    Because when you say But if you’re just trying to transfer a story from author’s mind to reader’s, film is much more efficient. I’m not sure I agree. Or maybe I do agree and just don’t know it yet.

    But anyway, film isn’t necessarily the most efficient way to transfer some kinds of stories; indeed, certain kinds of stories are far more efficiently transfered within text, or even can’t be duplicated in film. And vice versa, I expect.

  9. David Louis Edelmanon 04 Feb 2007 at 1:45 pm

    Kate: I guess when I was saying “story” I was actually referring to “plot.”

    I suppose you’re right that not all plots are more easily conveyed via film. Now that I think more on the subject, I’m coming up with all kinds of things that could be more easily expressed on paper.

    Perhaps the sentiment could be better expressed in the negative: if you’re just trying to transfer a plot from author’s mind to reader’s, text is often not the most efficient way to do it.

  10. Sherwood Smithon 04 Feb 2007 at 2:14 pm

    This excellent post, Lois, comes when I am trying to steal time to read Lisa Zunshine’s superlative Why We Read Fiction. So many good questions raised here and in the book.

    I have a terrible migraine (which is why I’m not attending to this pile of overdue dayslog) or I’d fumble some kind of an answer, but this post is to acknowledge your riff, and to point up the Zunshine book to anyone who might have an interest.

  11. Lois Tiltonon 04 Feb 2007 at 4:03 pm

    Thanks for the rec, Sherwood.

    I do, definitely, intend more by “story” than the plot. I mean by it the entire thing that the author [or other artist] is trying to put into words [or other media] – including sometimes, paradoxically, some of the words. [tho this leads to certain vexing philosophical problems of identity]

  12. Wenamunon 08 Feb 2007 at 7:22 pm

    I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out how to fix the “text” of my reaction to this discussion into words and am, frankly, failing. :)

    I can say that as a photographer (amateur yet) I wrestle with this, sometimes instant by instant when I’m doing street photography. With photography, often what I am after is that single instant (what Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment”) that captures the significance of an event (and thus the unrecorded “narrative” leading up to and from that moment), or finding that one best view for more static subjects. Ideally, one captures more than just the subject and you don’t always know, at the moment you decide to press the shutter, what that something more is going to be. Other times you do know what it is and you go looking for it, hoping to convey some sense of emotion, some sense of spatial involvement. Written texts (whether plottishly narrative or not) do this.

    I wish I had more time to dwell on this but deadlines (of the writerly sort) are consuming too much of my attention and effort. Meanwhile, Lois, thank you for a most thoughtul, and thought-provoking, post.

    (And Sherwood, thank you for mentioning Why We Read Fiction. It sounds worth investigating.)

  13. Lois Tiltonon 08 Feb 2007 at 7:41 pm

    Ah, I did consider mentioning photography along with drawing. Photography is certainly a recognized art, in which it is clear that the images of the same subject by different photographers will by no means be identical.

  14. Alison Croggonon 13 Feb 2007 at 1:56 pm

    Before I started writing fantasy, I had never written, nor been interested in writing, a story. Plot was (and still is, to me) always the least interesting aspect of writing. Well, that’s a side effect of being a lyric poet, where narrative is generally subsumed beneath other preoccupations. It’s been fascinating to then turn to writing epic narrative.

    I don’t think there is such a thing a “transparent” prose (I’m with the “text” people here). Writing is always a thing in itself that a writer has made, good or bad. How many times has the Odysseus story been told? Why are Homer and Joyce still read? Not because people are excited by the plot… What counts is style, which I guess I define as language used as economically and expressively as possible to the ends the writer defines for him or herself. No matter how “literary” a writer is, if they’re any good their writing convinces you that they’re saying what they want to say in the only possible way it can be said (as true of Joyce or Celine or Beckett or Kadare as of Le Guin). Good style isn’t about showing off, it’s about getting the job done. I hold close to my heart Peter Handke’s comment that a writer’s ethics is in his style.

  15. Constance Ashon 13 Feb 2007 at 10:24 pm

    Well, when it comes to art and photography, for instance, in terms of ‘text’ first of all you have think in terms of materials. Because there are so many choices, and the final appearance of the form — or narrative — will be dictated by the materials.

    Which makes all that in terms of literary text a very different launching place.

    Love, C.

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