Friday, July 08, 2011

Aren't You the Crafty One: Writing vs Storytelling

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

"Writing" encompasses a lot of things. It can mean the technical skill, the overall topic, the style. Unless you know what someone means when they say "write" you might be thinking about different things. (and this has led to many a heated debate)

Can anybody learn to write?

It's a trick question.

I believe that anyone can learn the craft of writing. How to put sentences together, plot, write dialogue, structure scenes -- all the technical aspects of it. Writing is a skill like any other, and if someone puts in the effort they can learn it and eventually do it well.

Storytelling though, is another story.

I think this is where talent comes in, and I'm not so sure this can be learned the same way craft can. I do, however, think that you can develop this skill if you do have it (and improve it if you don't). You can discover what works and what doesn't, find your voice, explore the best ways for you to tell a tale. You can find the types of stories and characters that inspire you. Finding that passion can go a long way to telling a story others will be passionate about.

I'm guessing a bunch of you right now are thinking, "Do I have that storytelling spark?" I've asked myself that same question over the last ten or so years. Truth is, it's hard to say. If people read your work and say, "what a great story," chances are you do. If they read it and say, "you write beautifully," and never mention the story part, you might need to focus more on your storytelling skills. If they say, "I love this story, you write so beautifully" you're in great shape.

(Here's more on trusting your writer's compass)

I think craft vs story is a big reason there are a lot of frustrated writers out there (I was one of them once). We focus on on the words so much, that we often forget it's the story that matters to the reader. It's not about the number of adverbs you use, or the way you tag your dialogue. That's why you see articles where a best-selling author is ripped to shreds for being a "lousy writer." Their craft might not be perfect, but they nailed the storytelling. Like that author or not, they did something a book is supposed to do -- capture their reader. Readers haven't studied the craft of writing for years. They don't notice or care about they stuff writers notice and care about. Readers want a great story. Period.

(Here are ways to improve your storytelling skills)

Learning your skills is important, and to succeed in this business you have to be at the top of your game. But it isn't all about the words. The words are just the way we tell our stories. That's like saying NASCAR is all about the cars. Plop any old driver in the front seat and the car can still win. Not likely. It's the driver that makes the car. The story that makes the book.

(Here's more on what every story needs to do)

Don't ignore your stories, or ignore nourishing your inner storyteller. Finding a story and a voice that speaks to people will take you a lot further than cutting out your adverbs.

What do you think? Can storytellers be made or are they born?  How far can just craft (or just talent) take you?

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. I'm honestly not sure where I stand on the "made vs born" debate with regard to storytelling. I like to think I was born a good storyteller. It's certainly the aspect I concentrate on most when I write. If I don't feel I'm telling a good story, I can't write.

  2. To me, storytelling talent seems a lot like athletic talent - you can be born with it, but unless you practice and challenge yourself each day, you'll never maximize your abilities.

    However, I do think there's a mysterious, indefinable kernel of storytelling that can't really be taught. You just have to have it.

  3. To me, it seems humans are either born storytellers, or they pick it up quickly.

    A few years ago I listen to my little nieces relate a Scooby-Doo episode. The littler one, a 3-year-old, just tossed together whatever bits she thought were interesting. My five-year-old niece concentrated on plot even "and then this, and then this..." She even pause dramatically right before the big reveal.

    Everyone who's ever said, "Man, you won't believe what happened on the way to work today..." has told a story. We do it all day long, and if you look at paleolithic art, apparently we've been telling stories for a long, long time.

    I think the trick with fiction is learning how to tell an interesting story, and there's craft to that. I know your posts on conflict, stakes, and goals have helped me immensely!

    Maybe I don't like the whole "talent" thing because it seems so deterministic -- you have it or you don't. Doomed to failure or not. Enthusiasm or passion seems better. I'm not bad at knitting because I lack "talent," I'm bad because I'm not passionate about it and never spend time doing it.

  4. It's something your born with. If not you can learn it, but there will be a difference.

  5. Since I don't believe in born genius (see Malcolm Gladwell's The Outliers), I'd have to say storytellers are made - that said, it doesn't preclude opportunity makes the storyteller ala Gladwell again. Those who are born in the south have grown up in a storytelling discourse that is famous in the south. Wish I'd been born there instead of D-troit.

  6. As storytellers, I think we all start with a 'what if' question and build from there. We have to have the basic imagination to pose the question, but I think we can then learn how to flesh out the question into a good story. So many variables come into play--Were our imaginations nurtured in childhood? Did someone read to us and instill in us the love of reading? Are we energized by telling the story, or are we focused on producing a book?

    I guess for me, it's a 'both/and' issue. You have to posses some natural ability, but that ability can be developed and nurtured.

  7. I agree with your assessment.

  8. This is a fascinating question! I think people can learn to be a great storyteller, but it's subjective. I think that's why it's almost impossible to take a great class on this subject. It's much easier to learn rules and concrete ideas. But I agree with you both are essential.

  9. I think the two go hand in hand. If you have the spark for storytelling it tends to drive one towards learning about craft and studying craft improves our storytelling by teaching all the options that are available.
    The only way any of us can really know if we have storytelling capability is to tell stories, as you point out. So if you want to know...just write.

  10. Great comments, all! A lot of interesting things to think about.