This idea came to me a few days ago as a way of thinking of different aspects of writing. I was thinking of H.P. Lovecraft as a matter of fact and considering whether he was a good writer or not. He is considered one of the masters of early cosmic horror, continuing on from Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce and William Hope Hodgson and one of the inspirations for modern horror. He was clearly hugely influential and was a master of huge, sweeping themes. On the other hand, his writing is filled with long, baroque descriptions and almost no dialogue. So, was he a good writer?
I concluded that he was good at big writing but not as good as small writing. Here was my thinking.
Big writing relates to the story, themes, action, and the characters. All the things you would say if you were asked what the story was about, and other Wh- questions.
Small writing has to do with the actual words the writer uses. It’s the description, the dialogue, the word choice. This is what comes out when you quote something from a story.
Of course, to be successful, you need to be good at both. No one wants to read a sweeping epic that reads like Dick and Jane, nor rich, velvety prose, sumptuous and sensuous as a triple layer chocolate cake if there’s no story to it. However, some writers seem to excel at one or the other.
Some notable “big writing” greats:
- J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings has some great dialogue and description, but it’s the epic feel of it that leaves an impression.
- J. K. Rowling. Not that her small writing is bad, but wow, it’s the world and big story that has made her a star.
- Michael Crichton. I really love his books and while he’s not a bad writer, it’s the stories and action that really pulls you in.
Some great “small writing” authors:
- William Shakespeare. This one is debatable, since he is great all around, but I would argue that his stories are fairly conventional and it is his rapier-sharp dialogue and turns of phrase that have made him a legend.
- Barbara Kingsolver. I thought of her because I’ve been reading the Poisonwood Bible lately. Just a few sentences and you feel like you are right there with the family in the Congo, breathing in the same air and all.
- Edgar Allan Poe. It is a joy to me to read his words, like some sort of lexical opiate.
These are a few examples that I thought of off the top of my head. Which writers do you think really excel at “big writing” or “small writing”? Let me know.
January 6th, 2015 at 11:44 am
There are all kinds of writers. I like these categories, David. I think I enjoy the “small writing” stuff better. Those are the stories that seem to stay with me. I’m reading a book called “Prep” by Curtis Sittenfield. She’ll make an observation about something that is so right on, and then that she is able to accomplish it within the story, which entertains and has characters that you can see and feel.
January 6th, 2015 at 10:35 pm
Both types of writing stick with you, when it’s done well. Have you read any Terry Pratchett? He writes the Discworld books. He’s great at those little turns of phrase that stick with you.
January 6th, 2015 at 11:35 pm
I’ve never read him, but have always wanted to. I’ll check him out. Thanks for the rec!
January 7th, 2015 at 1:46 am
loved the crit! (for rookies like me add some of the works of the authors too).
January 7th, 2015 at 5:59 am
January 7th, 2015 at 3:39 pm
I haven’t been reading anything but Game of Thrones lately. I love some of the phrases and descriptions, but some parts I find a little repetitive and confusing, some of the characters are a bit same-y. It’s the over-arching story that’s gripping.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton is something I would say is a mind-blowing big theme book. The story is so intricate, and every time a little bit more of the mystery gets revealed, it’s very satisfying. Despite it being so long, you never get confused about what’s happening but it’s very unpredictable as well!
January 7th, 2015 at 3:46 pm
I tried to read the Game of Thrones books but couldn’t get into them because there were too many characters and I couldn’t get invested in them. It’s a great series from all accounts, so maybe I’ll give it another try sometime. I haven’t read the Luminaries but it sounds interesting. I’ll see if our library has it.