Thursday, June 05, 2008

Storytelling Versus Writing

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…

36 comments:

Lisa said...

This post speaks to me through a megaphone! I used to (and still do) read references to stories that are either character driven or plot driven and I've come to take issue with that either/or description. Even the most "writerly" novels have got to have story and plot. I lean toward stories where the characters do undergo more personal transformations, but without some interesting challenges and conflicts to spur that change, it all comes down to a big "so what"? External events have to move these transformations and make what would otherwise be just a character sketch into a story. With general fiction, I find this very challenging. As I've been progressively incorporating more external events, I'm constantly worried that I'm going too far. I don't necessarily think I am, but for some reason there is a natural reservation and resistance to torturing the characters when I think that's probably exactly what I should be doing in order to make an interesting story. Great post.

laughingwolf said...

lol... i think you've nailed it, charles

i see it as: writing is a craft, storytelling, an art, which is, often, best done orally

both can be learned, but the latter, like you say, is harder to master

when the two are combined, sheer joy for the reader :)

Heff said...

"StorYelling" ? Huh, never tried that with my kid, lol !

SzélsőFa said...

Only the best of poetic writers can pull off having no story at all...
-
I found this entry a useful reminder to me to work on the story-part of my...*coughs* story...
My WIP's got some nice images here and there, but the story is weak...
Since I don't think it will ever be published...I'm just playing with the language you know :)

Steve Malley said...

One damn fine post.

No secret where my sympathies lie: I switch media in a heartbeat, *if* that's the best way to get the story out.

Way I look at it, 'writing' is technique, 'story' is The Goal. Much the same way, Ruenn might feint to his opponent's eyes to draw the guard up for an unportected slash at the legs. That's technique. Messing up the bad guy, *that's* The Goal.

Virginia Woolf would disagree with me, but I'm okay with that.

After all, it's not the lyrical passages and haunting descriptions that fired our blood as kids. It's the story.

Did I mention how much I liked this post? :)

Travis Erwin said...

Great post. I consider myself a much better story teller than writer and I have had to learn the craft but I come from a long line of bullshitters and have told stories for so long that that part feels fairly natural.

Barbara Martin said...

This post is a good reminder for me, Charles, to look at the story plot and the words that describe it.

Erik Donald France said...

Absolutely yes. Story telling is definitely a tough gig. Only standup comedy is as tricky or trickier.

X. Dell said...

I wouldn't recommend bond quality paper for that use. Too rough.

Storytelling, in a written text, seems to me an adaptation of an oral art and tradition. One tells stories around the campfire, for example. We tell tall tales (say that three times real fast).

When you get a work that you feel is short on story, I wonder if the writer can actually tell a compelling story orally? In other words, I wonder if there's any connection between the written narrative and the oral one.

Shauna Roberts said...

What a great post! I wish I had read it years ago. It took me a long time to reach the lightbulb moment when it hit me why my well-written short stories were being rejected in favor of pieces with pedestrian or even bad writing.

Charles Gramlich said...

Lisa, a truly outstanding story has to have both. I think it's interesting to look at them separately but know that they can only poorly exist on their own.

Laughingwolf, exactly. That's just the best, when a writer combines dynamite storytelling with beautiful prose. Makes me purr like a cat having it's ears rubbed.

Heff, I used to tell my boy stories about vampire mice.

Szelsofa, that's true. I probably would have read Bradbury just for the prose, but the story sure made it better.

Steve Malley, and years later, it's the stories we recall, not the individual phrasing.

Travis Erwin, it took me time to discover I could tell stories. I think I learned it best when I first started teaching and found that that was the best way to reach the kids.

Barbara Martin, thanks for dropping by. I'm glad if it helped.

Erik, I think you're right. I've always wanted to try stand up but it sure looks pretty tough. Though on occassion teaching has some of those elements.

X. Dell, I wonder that too, if a writer who doesn't do story well could tell an oral story. It would probably be very good practice for them to try.

Shauna, I know the feeling. It's a strange balancing act for writers. I love to "read" good stories, but I can also be very picky about good prose. And trying to do them both is tough.

Sidney said...

Conan really seemed like a tale told over a camp fire. Maybe we should have more camp fire gatherings, or a virtual one in Second Life to keep in practice.

steve said...

Charles, this is simply a brilliant post. I've never thought about writing in these terms,but it's clear that there is a difference. I'm lousy at oral storytelling, unless I've written it out in the first place.

Writing a novel in the Dickens Challenge, one chapter a week (well, not lately, but that was the original idea), can mean that the story gets lost in the drive to follow up on the previous chapter. When I get to then end, and start looking at the novel as a whole, I need to remind myself that I'm telling a story.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sidney, that's a pretty good idea. I do enjoy telling oral stories, but I really like doing it in the right conditions, around a campfire or something like that.

Steve, I'm glad you found the post useful. That's definitely something we all need to keep in mind.

the walking man said...

Truly the difficulty in being a writer is that it is not a time for the left hand to not know what the right is doing. But as it is with all things, the craft is developed with practice, an eye that isn't blind to criticism, and an imagination willing to forgo the rules of language.

It is an interesting post Charles in that directly I never thought about the difference between writing and story telling. Now I will have to go back and look.

Peace

laughingwolf said...

cbc radio used to broadcast oral storytelling by folk from all over the world, a few years ago... i was glued to them

hope that becomes a tradition, but i've not heard about it for about a while :(

Bernita said...

Charles, I agree completely.

Heff said...

I was actually trying to tell you that you left the second "T" out of "storytelling' on your post title, but OK.

Gabby said...

Am I lucky in knowing that my storytelling skills have always been my downfall? I know I'm not so great at it. Changing that, though, is a little harder. Interestingly enough, several years ago when I wrote my NaNoWriMo novel, I was so pressed for time that I dropped the "writing" aspect and got the story out. It's poorly written, but the story is there (though the end was rushed, as was I). It needs huge edits and many re-writes, but there are a few rough stones amid the jumble that I feel I've managed to polish into visual gems.

Michelle's Spell said...

Hey Charles,

I hear you on this one! My God, did I have a terrible time writing a story (and still do at times). I didn't understand that a nervous breakdown that nobody sees or understands isn't a story. :) But as a reader, I love good stories so I eventually learned from reading. One person who does both really well is Larry McMurtry. His books are like crack cocaine in that way -- completely brilliant easy prose and a story that won't let you go. I pray I get somewhere close to a marriage of the two elements at some point.

Charles Gramlich said...

Mark, glad you found something useful in it.

Laughingwolf, I think the idea of Oral storytelling has been revived somewhat and I hope that continues. It's kind of stressful to do it sometimes. Writers like to send their stuff out to be read, but not have to read them or "Tell" them themselves.

Bernita, thankee.

Heff, doh, I'm sort of dense. I didn't see your deliberate misspelling. I'll correct it. Story Yelling has a ring to it, though.

Gabby, I've noticed that in myself, that when I worry less about the prose the story sometimes improves, but then the prose goes to pot.

Michelle, I admire to some extent that "glass" prose, the prose that is virtually invisible so that only the story shows through. I can't do it myself, for sure.

Avery DeBow said...

A writer can spin out beautiful prose all day long, but if there isn't a solid story backing it, all he or she will end up with is three hundred pages of stunning, poetic yammering--a work as beautiful and functionless as a Faberge egg.

Donnetta Lee said...

Charles: I was thinking along these lines just a few days ago. You must be reading my mind. I think, when I was young, I was a terrific story teller. It helped my family get through some tough times. Then, as I grew older, I became more interested in actual writing. The struggle is: how to reconcile these two aspects. And that is what I'm needing to learn and perfect. I'd say you were there! Interesting post.
Donnetta

laughingwolf said...

agreed... i used to entertain my kids, when still young, first by reading, then re-telling the tales from my perspective... they had a good laugh at the inventions i added

in songs, as well....

Heff said...

I've noticed typos seem to become rampant with age. Feel free to correct mine when I fuck up as well.

Rachel said...

Yeah, what you said.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I think that's an interesting posting. Jon Zech and I will often get a friendly rivalry going. He will claim himself the better writer, but acknowledge me as the better storyteller.

Storytellers...go back a long way. They were the ones who created religion and kept it going. They inspired government, sexual fetishes, and have kept MSW's in pocket money for quite some time.

Here's to us.

Josephine Damian said...

I stopped reading "The God of Small Things" because while it offered gorgeous prose, there was no story.

I also just stopped reading a whodunit classic by Agatha Christie because of adverbs - great story - poor writing.

I also see a lot of wannabes indulging in what I call "style for the sake of style" - too many dramtic turns of phrase designed to impress, but it rends to bog down the story telling.

There's a host of mistakes writer's make whether they're writers or storytellers.

Since plotting is my strong suit, I tend to think of myself more as a storyteller. I doubt I'll ever be famous for my prose.

Danny Tagalog said...

What Josephine just said is so true. I rememember queueing up in Birmingham to meet Arundahati Roy and get my book signed, when she was being heavily promoted by Radio 4/the BBC, but her story went where?

Still, I also like abstract wordplay that verge on beauty, but yes - often I guess, writers get too lazy to achieve the required clarity within their prose and stories.

Greg Schwartz said...

great post, Charles. it seems so many writers are more concerned with words that sound good than with the quality of the story. i think a lot of writers (myself included, on occasion) think that if you "package" a story well enough, you can overcome a weakness of plot or character, which usually doesn't happen.

Lana Gramlich said...

I didn't even understand the difference until I read your post. Thanks for clarifying. You rock.

Charles Gramlich said...

Avery, that's the problem I had with "Blood Meridian." Truly there was some beautiful writing but no story that I could find.

Donnetta, I think I've gotten much better as a storyteller over time, but it is hard to meld the two at just the right level.

Laughingwolf, I use to always add embelishments for my son Josh when I was reading him a story too.

Heff, no problem.

Rachel, Right on!

Stewart Sternberg, yeah, come to think of it, there are some pretty good stories that have turned into culture.

Josephine, I've seen that style for style sake and it just leaves me cold. It sometimes garners a following, though.

Danny Tagalong, I like that kind of word play, and especially surrealistic writing, but it has to be fairly short. If it's longer than a page or two I'm looking for some story.

Greg Schwartz, it also depends on how big an audience you want to reach. Some very experimental work with great prose but not much story might sell in the small press and I myself like to read that sort of thing. But it's not gonna sell to a large audience. That's neither good nor bad. Depends on what you want.

Lana, thank you sweety.

writtenwyrdd said...

I agree Charles--storytelling is much more difficult. I'm still figuring it out, but I can write some great prose. At least I've got half of it right, lol.

Charles Gramlich said...

Writtenwyrd, that's 'half' the battle. Lol.

Travis said...

I struggle with storytelling, which is yet another thing that is wrong with my novel project. A series of well written scenes doesn't go anywhere. It's not a story.

I think that's why I tend to run back to poetry. Crafting a poem feeds the writer in me.

But I do need to work more on my story skills, otherwise I'll never finish my project and that is not an acceptable outcome.

Farrah Rochon said...

Wow. This made me think long and hard. I guess I'm still striving to be a good storyteller, while making sure the writing is as strong as possible.