When reading a story, focusing on the form is as important as content.A tough question we were asked today.  It becomes harder to answer and discuss about when we're restricted to "story" rather...

When reading a story, focusing on the form is as important as content.

A tough question we were asked today.  It becomes harder to answer and discuss about when we're restricted to "story" rather than literature/writing in all of its forms.  

Discuss.  If you can:

When reading a story, focusing on the form is as important as content.  

True or False?  

Expert Answers
Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

That is a great question, even if it is a tough one.  I am going to get some ideas and questions on the table that I hope will inform the discussion.

First, while I am not acquainted with how literature is written, consumed, and studied in all languages or cultures, I think that formal distinctions are made  more often than not, so that if Orhan Pamuk, for example, a Turkish author, writes a story, as opposed to a novel, this is an intentional choice.  His text is offered as a story, and a student in Turkey is quite aware that he or she is reading and studying a story, as opposed to a novel. The fact that these distinctions are, if not universal, then certainly common, suggests to me that the deliberate choice of the story form is as important as the content of the story, worthy of our focus. 

The second thought that drifted into my mind was a quote that my father was quite fond of, attributed to several different sources, including the architect Louis Sullivan.  And that is, "Form follows function."  This is an architectural concept, but just as useful in the study of the story. Think of all the questions it generates! What is the function of the story?  Why has the author chosen to offer his or her story in story form?  How might the story be different if it were told as a novel?  Could it even be the same story?  If it were a novel, would we know more about the characters or setting, but with a diluted sense of the author's point?  Is there a strength or drama in the brevity of the story that we do not have in a novel with the basic content?  Is a slice of bread sometimes more effective than the whole loaf? 

Third, if we look at other art forms, for example, music and art, we see that the choice of a short form is as important as the content, too.  A sonata is a perfect "package" for some themes, while a symphony is the perfect package for others.  Most who study art would agree that a sketch should be appreciated in form and content, a very different matter from a full-blown oil painting, created in medium by the artist as a deliberate choice.

The fourth thought that occurs to me is that I have read or heard many times an author's discussion of his or her writing in which the author discussed the choice of form. Authors have reasons for writing stories, instead of novels. I have also heard authors say that a work started out as a novel, but that it wanted to be a short story, and I have heard the converse, as well, that a short story really wanted to be a novel.  While we are free to make meaning without taking into account an author's, or even the content's intentions, since words have a way of taking on a life of their own, it really does inform our reading to contemplate the intentionality of this particular form.

So, the answer to this question, for me, is "True." And I will be interested in seeing responses from others on this issue.   

writergal06 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Such a great question, with many thought-provoking responses so far! Upon reading your question, my mind jumped from, "Yes! Absolutely!," to "No, content is always more important," to, "well, it depends." Then my mind wandered to literary theory, and I began to wonder if the one asking the question happens to prefer a formalist or structuralist approach to literature. 

As for myself, I do in fact lean towards a more formal approach to literature, and tend to regard every aspect of the written text as equally important, which is why my first response was, "Yes! Absolutely!" Several good examples of this have already been offered, but I think as well of novels such as Frankenstein, where the framework of the narrative adds credibility to the story, and The Canterbury Tales, where the satire is as much in the form of the individual tales as in the content. I think as well of The Imagist movement in poetry, which redefined structure in many ways, but still showed the importance of structure to meaning.

At the same time, audiences who prefer different approaches to literature may have a different response. Those favoring reader-response theory or cultural studies may answer that content outweighs structure, because it is through content that connections are made and univeral themes developed. 

I think that the answer to this question does not only vary by the text, but also by the audience.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Certain writers, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald are weak in their plot but extremely artistic and significant for their themes and techniques. So, sometimes form is even more important than the content, or plot.  Further, there is a pleasure to be derived from reading a work of literature that has a beauty of form. 

There are several levels in which great works can be read; it is a shame to choose only one.  One example of how  readers should direct themselves to both content and form is with the short story "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin.  While his narrator tells of the inner and external conflicts of two brothers and the theme of the human experience as well as the African-American experience, there is a musicality to this story that is imitative of the Blues,  a musicality which adds another dimension to the narrative and to the appreciation of the reader.



lsumner eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree that both form and content are important. Depending upon the assignment, the reader must determine which is most important. Depending upon the prompt, the writer is to examine what the prompt is asking the writer to do. As a teacher, I give three grades per essay. One grade is for content or substance. Another grade is for form. The third grade is for grammatical conventions. I have noticed that some of my students have excellent substance and content but they have trouble with the form. In order to make an excellent grade, my students must have an excellent content or substance. They must also understand form, and of course, grammatical conventions are important. I think form, content, and grammatical conventions are of equal weight. 

e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

...neither true nor false - but an interesting question.

I have to agree with the opinion that the answer will depend on the story. For some stories the form is very important to the meaning of the story. An example of this can be found in Grace Paley's story, "A Conversation with My Father". 

Another example of a story where form truly shapes the comment/theme/meaning of the story is "An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge", by Ambrose Bierce.

Though often content (plot, character, etc) takes precedence over form, in the stories mentioned here form is as important as content and serves to make the author's comment as much as the content.

literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I have to agree that one cannot be defined as being more important than the other. In some circumstances, form is very important (as in poetry). Other times, the content is what should be focused upon. It really depends upon how one is analyzing the text. That said, many classic analysts may believe that the form is of the most importance (given the form is what defines the texts placement in a genre, sometimes). Others may say that it is the content which defines a text's placement.

Essentially, the text must be regarded as defining what should be more important: the form or the content.

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think the sticky part of the question is the "as important" part.  I do agree that both form and content are important, but are they as important?  It really depends on the work.  There are certainly some cases where form is as important or more important.  Consider Ray Bradbury's "There Will Come Soft Rains" for example.  The form is like the diary of the house, which makes the story very unique.  It has to be that way because the people have been wiped out.