Thursday, March 19, 2009

Storytellers v. Writers

When I first started writing fiction, I fancied that it would be easy as I had always enjoyed spinning a good yarn around a campfire or during a long car ride. Truthfully, I tell stories quite often. My friends can testify that most of these tend to be painfully overdrawn, a habit I’ve been trying to rectify.

It got me to thinking about the difference between telling a story and writing a story. If asked, I could recount to you one of my backpacking adventures. It’d have a few interesting points, but I doubt whether it would captivate you for more than a few minutes. Why is that?

The plot: Dan and four friends hike a week in the wilderness, see wildlife, eat bland trail food, suffer numerous near death experiences, and return safely home.

Such a plot couldn’t support a novel on its own. No, it needs something more, and I believe one of the missing items to be conflict. I can’t just tell readers that I ate bland trail food. No, I must set it up by letting my audience know that I hiked 10 hours a day, all uphill. I burned ‘x’ thousand calories, and unless I could eat a good meal, I might not make it over the final pass, etc. Each element can be similarly embellished. The story sounds more interesting already.

I’ve pointed out half of the solution to transitioning from modest storyteller to crafty novelist. Would anyone like to venture to guess what might be the other aspect of missing magic? There’s likely several good answers, but I do have one in particular in mind that I’ll share tomorrow (full credit given, of course, to whoever guesses my answer).


  1. Characters :). I finished a fantasy YA novel last year based on a fairy tale. I had the plot already done for me, more conflict, twists and heart-tugging moments than you could shake a stick at, but I didn't have the WHY (funny how fairy tales never really explain WHY), and I didn't have anything but the bare bones of the characters and their motivations (the WHY again). That was how I was able to take a 12 page fairy tale from the Andrew Lang Collection and turn it into a 90,000 word novel. Characters.

  2. I was going to say the same thing as Michelle. Motivation.

  3. I don't think there's a fundamental difference between oral and written stories (though there tends to be more acting involved on the part of the oral storyteller). An off-the-cuff event you tell your friends about might not qualify as a real story is all. ;)

    Stories should have plots, themes, character growth, conflict, resolution, etc. and these can come in any format. Even a song can tell a story. :)

  4. Hi Michelle - I agree with you about the characters. Some pretty miserable plots have sold extremely well b/c of their excellent characters.

    Whether critics like TWILIGHT's plot or not, I think even the harshest critic would have to admit that Stephanie Meyer's characters are intriguing. And at the story's slowest points, the characters kept the suspense and drove the story onward.

  5. Good add on there, Edie, about the motivation. It makes me think of a synonym for it, desire.

    Would you agree that motivations/desires can be a form of conflicts? Conflicting motivations one character against another or even better within a character can certainly add to the story.

  6. Hi Lindsay - Maybe the difference between the two would be that the writer gets to spend all day in revisions whereas the storyteller goes on with life not worrying about a poorly told opening. :-)