26 October 2017

Writing vs storytelling

It should not have come as a surprise. After all, it had been ages since I'd had a similar epiphany about academic writing. Because my high school teachers and undergrad professors had almost only ever marked errors in style and mechanics (word choice, the use of "I", spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc.), I'd gotten the mistaken impression that a good paper was an error-free paper written in an academic style, but in reality my grades were based on the ideas I frequently failed to adequately develop. This made my undergraduate years as an English major incredibly confusing: despite being a strong writer, able to clearly communicate with few copy editing errors, my grades rarely rose above a B.

More than a decade later, I found myself once again confused. Despite having spent the better part of the last twenty years working on my writing, I had four self-published novels that weren't selling well. The reviews said the writing was good, but people weren't falling in love with my characters and world the way I had. Something was missing. Something was wrong.

It should not have come as a revelation, but it did. 

Being a good writer is not the same thing as being a good storyteller.

I was a strong writer. What I was not was a skilled storyteller.

Writing is about style (e.g. sentence construction, word choice) and mechanics (spelling, grammar, punctuation). Good writing is clear, flows well, and avoids distracting repetition of words or phrases. It speaks to a purpose - to entertain, to inform, or to persuade - and to a particular audience. But you can write clear sentences, entertaining sentences, even beautiful sentences, and not tell a story well.

Storytelling is about knowing where and how to begin a story to hook readers and set up expectations. It's about point of view, characterization, plot, conflict, narrative arc, structure, and world building. It's about knowing what the conventions of genre and age category are, why they exist, and how to effectively break them. It's about knowing how to integrate backstory and world building details into scenes that move the plot forward...and about being able to recognize when a scene, character, subplot, or plot point doesn't serve the story well. These are the skills I hadn't developed well enough when I wrote my first four novels, and the reason they didn't sell as well as I hoped they would. And these are the skills that I see many emerging novelists needing to develop. Which makes complete sense. We learn writing skills from first grade on up, and most of us use writing on a daily basis in many aspects of our lives. But how many of us were ever taught the craft of storytelling?

In order to write a book that's going to sell - to an agent, a publisher, or directly to readers - we need both skill sets. We need to be able to choose the right words to help our readers visualize the scene and we need to keep the plot moving. We need to know where we want to build tension and which words and sentence constructions will build it. We need to know how our characters' goals relate to the novel's structure and how to choose the vocabularies, expressions, and syntax that paint a picture of where they're from, how they view the world, and what experiences have shaped them.

Once we recognize that writing a novel requires two distinct (albeit related) skill sets, we can use this information to decide which skills we need to develop further, to frame our requests for feedback from critique partners, and to determine what kind of editing services we need.

Related posts:
Your novel's structure
Your first 5 pages
Your first 50 pages
Your book's Darkest Moment

What resources have you found helpful for developing your storytelling skills? I'd love to hear from you in the comments!

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