Like many endeavors, particularly artistic ones, that is true. But how does that play out in actually trying to write a good story?
If you break down those two elements, art and science, it helps to explain the why and the how.
Writing craft is the science side, while storytelling is the art side.
The science of writing is writing craft. It’s knowing sentence structure and grammar and POV and writing active sentences. It’s knowing the difference between “showing” and “telling” and knowing how to add layers to your characters.
Science can be learned. My own Writing Craft 101 series teaches the basics of these elements. There are countless books on writing craft. They teach the basics of story structure, what elements are needed and in what order. They teach character arcs and how to write in a new way. They teach how to increase tension and drive plot.
All the details that go into developing good craft, that is the science of writing. And it is absolutely necessary. Writing craft incorporates the tools you need to develop good art. Once in a great while, there comes along a storyteller who is so gifted that their stories sweep people away despite a lack of craft, but mostly it is good craft that enables a good story to be received.
Without good writing craft, the story gets lost in a jumble of poor sentences, POV issues, and backstory. The most important thing you can do as a writer is keep a reader reading. Because, obviously, if no one reads it, what’s the point? Good writing craft is the vehicle you use to get your story read. Good writing craft empowers a story, undergirds it and makes it stand, and makes it beautiful and shiny.
To be a good writer, you need to learn, understand, and apply good writing craft techniques.
But having good writing craft is not what makes it art.
If you were painting, you would need to learn the basics of contour and color and brush strokes in order to paint a beautiful picture, and though those techniques can be analyzed as contributing to the beauty of the whole, that is not what makes it art.
So it is with writing. Sentence structure and tension and characterization and so on are techniques, and the good execution of them is essential to creating good art. But you can have the most flawless execution of your sentences, you can have all the blocks of story structure in place, and you can have layered characters, and still not have art.
Art moves us.
Art is what happens when a reader picks up your book and is moved by it, engaged by it, touched by it in some way or another. Art is emotional and subjective and experiential.
When I teach flash fiction workshops, one of the points I always make is that you want to make your reader feel. Whether it’s funny, sad, happy, romantic, scary, or anything else, the goal is to engage your reader on an emotional level. Create that empathy, that visceral reaction. If you can capture your reader’s emotions, your story becomes memorable.
That emotional engagement, that reaction, that is what makes it art.
The science of good technique is necessary. The science can be learned.
Maybe. Maybe you can read a lot of stories and have an intrinsic understanding of what it takes to capture emotions. Maybe you can study writing long enough that it becomes ingrained. Maybe you can force it.
But I think to a large extent, that understanding of art is innate. That ability to create is a natural talent, and like all talents, we all receive it in different proportions. If you’re reading this, if you consider yourself a writer, you probably have the talent, to some extent. You have a love of stories. Words move you, and create in you that emotional connection, which is why you’re pursuing writing and sharing that emotional experience with others.
Study. Learn the science. Apply it. Do it often until it is second-nature.
And then, with luck, what you write will become art.