Monday, July 23, 2012

Are All Good Writers Good Storytellers?

Are they? Or conversely, are all good storytellers good writers? The answer is no to both.

Let's start with the good writers. There are some amazing writers with sparkling voices and an envious command of the language. One sentence of prose can bring tears to your eyes. Some of them have won journalism awards, or poetry awards, and it's easy to assume any novel they write will bring a reader to her knees, crying out, "Brilliant!"

Uhm... no.

Just because a writer is clever with words doesn't automatically make him or her a consummate storyteller because storytelling is a craft. Can all sculptors paint? Are all musicians experts with every musical instrument? Do corporate lawyers slide effortlessly into the role of criminal attorney? The answer to all is no, because in each profession, special training is required for each specialty.

I notice this problem frequently with writing contest entries and some self-published books. You start reading them and you're like, "Oh my God! This is fabulous!" But after the first page, you're like, wait a minute. What happened? The writing is still stellar, but where's the story? The characters are kind of interesting, but where's the conflict? What's the character's goal? Where's the tension? Then it all falls flat after that.

These wonderful writers haven't yet learned the craft of storytelling. Maybe they assume they don't need to. Or maybe they just don't realize that a story needs structure to engage and compel the reader. Sparkling prose alone isn't going to cut it. Is there hope for a good writer to become a good storyteller? Absolutely. They just have to be willing to learn the craft.

Now for the storytellers who can tell one hell of a story, but who can't write their way out of a wet paper bag. They can hold you mesmerized by an oral account of an incredible tale that has all the elements of a ripping good story. Their instincts are spot on for emotion, tension, foreshadowing, and every other aspect that makes a good story great. So what's the problem? Reading their work can be the equivalent of mental gymnastics, and you may sprain a few brain muscles in the process.

I've read some of these great stories badly written. Admittedly, this will bother an experienced writer more than the average reader who doesn't have a writing background, however readers will often know there's something wrong and not quite put their finger on what it is. There are spelling errors, grammar problems, passive voice, character inconsistencies, awkward phrasing, and many other technical goofs that a good writer is less likely to make. BUT... the story is still killer awesome. At least it is for some readers, if you don't mind your eye twitching the entire time you're reading.

Some badly written books have been known to take off after self-publication and attract seven figure publishing deals. The trilogy-that-shall-not-be-named is a good example. This series has garnered more than enough attention from rabid fans and rabid critics, so I won't name names. I'm hoping, however, the books' new traditional publisher will fix the bad writing and make the books even better. Personally, I haven't read them.

Good writers can become good storytellers, and good storytellers can become good writers. The challenge is for both to be willing to learn what they need to do in order to achieve their respective goals.


Unknown said...

I agree with you totally. One does not equal the other.

Sisters of the Quill said...

Yes. We all have plenty of work to do in order to be good at both. Karen Lin

Karen Duvall said...

That's the key word: work. It's not a given, and like any craft, you need to learn it to be good at it. :)

Kevin Wolf said...

Very insightful blog. May I ask, which is easier to learn?

Karen Duvall said...

Thanks, Kevin. Wow, that's the million dollar question, isn't it? It's different for everyone, and neither is easy, yet both can be learned. What I think is important to acknowledge is that you CAN be good at both if you work hard enough.

Terry Wright said...

I've been saying this for years. I know brilliant writers who make their livings writing technical and non-fiction stuff who can't tell an engaging story around a campfire. Storytelling is an art, a learned craft, and a double-edged sword with grammar and spelling etc on the back side of the blade. Those who master both become published authors.

Anonymous said...

Re the trilogy-that-shall-not-be-named: I'm going to have to disagree here. The author isn't a brilliant prose stylist, but IMHO the writing is fine. There are some things I'd change (too much head cocking and smirking), but overall it's clear and effective. Good pacing, too.

I think there's often a difference between the writing writers like and the writing readers like. My own personal high-water mark for good writing is Nabokov, but I don't think he'd sell 20 million copies in 4 months.

(Disclaimer: I haven't looked at books 2 & 3 in the trilogy.)

Karen, I always enjoy your blog. Keep up the good work!

Sarah Raplee said...

If only more writers would understand this! So many great stories go unpublished or unread because the author hasn't mastered the craft.

Anonymous said...

I agree that having both great prose skills and storytelling is the goal. However, I have also heard many editors say that if the storytelling is great, they can fix the writing through editing. But if the writing is beautiful but not the storytelling, the reject it because it is too much work to fix.

As someone else said, readers are the final arbiters. I believe readers forgive writing for great stories. Not horrible writing, but certainly mediocre writing.

SO, I concentrate on the story first. Then go back to edit, edit, edit the prose.

Anonymous said...

Shakespear, Mark Twain, andHemmingway were all bad spellers yet they sold a lot of books because their stories were good, and the publisher had their own people do the necessary editing.