Monday, September 06, 2010

Writing vs. Storytelling

Last month, Nathan Bransford had an interesting blog post on writing vs. storytelling. He asked his readers what they thought was more important to the success of a story, and many people voiced their opinions. Including me. 

I’ve had some time to think on this, and I’ve expanded my opinion a bit. I think the importance of writing vs. storytelling depends on your audience.

For a non-writer, I can see this depending on personal preference. Some people are more forgiving of adverbs or questionable grammar when the story has a break-neck pace with lots of conflict. Those people would probably say storytelling is more important. Others get lost in poor writing and it interferes with their enjoyment of the story. Those people would probably say that writing is more important. One could make a compelling case for each, depending on your personal preference.

But for writers, it’s different. I think writing and storytelling are equally important. A good writer needs the skills that find the best parts of a story and weave them together such that the reader can’t tear himself away. He also needs the skills to put it on the page such that the reader can connect to everything and everyone, and that requires good writing. I don't see how it's possible for one to be more important that the other.

That brings us to a similar topic: balance.

There is so much that goes into writing a book. Characters, story arc, subplots, tension, dialog, voice, transitions, pacing, description, setting, the list goes on. All of these pieces are equally important. You can’t have truly believable characters without great dialog, a great plot without tension, a vivid setting without appropriate description, a flowing story arc without smooth transitions, etc.

It stands to reason that storytelling and good writing are also equally important. Good writing means nothing if the story is all over the place, and a great story will fall flat if the writing is loaded with purple prose, adverbs, poor grammar, etc. It’s possible to have amazing storytelling and writing that is good enough, and that will likely be a success. It’s also possible to have fantastic writing and a story that’s good, though I think that’s less likely to be a success. But there is still a certain level of quality needed on both sides for your story to work.

I think the truly amazing stories are the ones that manage to balance everything—great storytelling, fantastic writing, life-like characters, gripping plot and pacing, vivid setting, etc—and still create a strong connection to the reader. This is really hard to do, and I always end up with a healthy respect for any author who can do this. :)


Laura Pauling said...

I totally agree with you. I'd only add that great writing doesn't necessarily mean literary writing. Clean, simple writing can be just as effective.

Karen Strong said...

I think you're right about the balance being there. Readers look for the good storytelling first but if the good writing isn't there, it can become a distraction for the reader who could lose interest.

And yes, definitely agree with Laura --- good writing doesn't equate to "literary" writing.

Anonymous said...

I am also in agreement. This is such a great post. This is exactly the way I read and how I try to write. Why can't you have both style and substance? why sacrifice one to have the other?

Tabitha said...

Laura - excellent point!! I so agree. I actually think clean, simple writing is often more effective than literary writing.

Karen - I think balance is one of the most important aspects of a good story. It's also the hardest thing to get right. :)

mestaton - so true. I think style and substance should go hand in hand. Those are my favorite kind of books. :)

Beth Fred said...

Tabitha I agree that both are important. But I can name a bestseller with a storyline much stronger than the writing. I think if the writing had been stronger but the storyline weaker the outcome wouldn't have been the same. Although, when I'm reading/writing I have to say I want both.

Tabitha said...

I can name more than one bestseller that has better storytelling than writing. :)

Those bestsellers still have a certain level of quality in their writing, though. It may or may not be up to the reader's standards, because that's subjective.

I do agree that stronger storytelling is more likely to result in success than stronger writing because, in the end, it all comes down to the reader. And a reader is more likely to care about the story than the writing.

As a writer, though, if we put importance on one over the other, then we're doing our story a disservice.

cleemckenzie said...

I'm having a "chicken or the egg" moment with this question about the importance of writing and storytelling. If I had to put one before the other, I'd have to choose storytelling. When I'm able to get the story down so it sings the writing follows. Laura Pauling captured that idea when she left her comment.
"I'd only add that great writing doesn't necessarily mean literary writing. Clean, simple writing can be just as effective."

Love your new blog look, Tabitha!

Tabitha said...

Thanks! I liked the old blog look better, but it was high maintenence...and I'm tired of editing xml. I'd rather be writing. :)

I think you're right that, when it comes down to it, storytelling is going to have slightly more importance because it's eventually all going to come down to the reader.

As a writer, I completely agree that storytelling needs to come first, and the writing will come second. It's how I work, because it makes the most sense--get the big pieces in place first, and then you can put in the smaller and more intricate stuff. We just have to remember to give the smaller and more intricate stuff due attention. :)

Mary Witzl said...

Me too. Managing to write a riveting story with believable characters, a fast pace, great dialog, etc. is like trying to juggle five balls all at once while riding a unicycle.

Me and the Professor said...

I'm always bewildered by the use of the adjective "literary" as a negative. When did "literary" become a bad word? And why? "Clean and simple" is not the opposite of "literary." And why is everyone down on adverbs? A well-placed adverb can be as illuminating as a well-placed adjective.

That said, I agree with your points!