Writing and storytelling are two different arts, although they sometimes exist in the same person. Robert E. Howard was both. John D. MacDonald was. So was Poul Anderson. So is Dean Koontz.
Other writers can be primarily one or the other. Ray Bradbury – primarily a writer. Edgar Rice Burroughs – primarily a storyteller. James Lee Burke – writer. Louis L’Amour – storyteller. Cormac McCarthy – writer. Stephen King – storyteller.
But every individual in my second group above could pull off both elements even while their greatest strength lay in one. Bradbury told some great stories, although it was his luminescent prose that really drove those stories home. ERB told a whale of a story and didn’t seem all that concerned about his prose, but sometimes his spare descriptions were just simply gorgeous. And he often raised action scenes to the level of art. King’s prose is not what I would consider stand-out writing, but he can web you into a story as well as anyone. Misery was one of the greatest page turners I’ve ever read, despite the fact that I hated when he typed stuff in “all caps.”
The reason why I bring this up here is because I’m frequently asked by newer writers to read and comment on their stuff. I often find that the quality of the prose turned out by such writers is outstanding. They are definitely “writers.” They can turn words into poetry, can sling metaphors with the best of them. The greatest weakness I find is usually in the story.
I can empathize because, when I started out, I was pretty much purely a…writer. I could string pretty words together. I could describe images that others could see. But I wasn’t much of a storyteller. Most of my first few published stories were really vignettes, virtually prose poems. The plot was minimal, with one character and often very little to no dialogue. That does not a story make. I think I’ve gotten better. I’ve worked hard at it. But I know that I’m still no ERB or L’Amour when it comes to storytelling. Of course, I’m no Ray Bradbury for writing either.
To truly become a well-rounded writer, we all need to develop both skills. And, in my opinion, storytelling is considerably harder. Yet, it’s the story more than the prose that keeps most people reading.
So think next time you look at your work in progress. How is the prose? I bet it’s fine. But what about the story? Have you worried so much about the way you fit the words together that you’ve forgotten about the core tale? I’ve made that mistake myself. I’ve got some of those “stories” hanging around here. Well, at least if I run out of toilet paper…