The Difference Between Being a Good Writer and a Good Storyteller

We understand writing before we understand story, but it’s the latter that makes us memorable.

Being a Good Writer

In my younger days, I used to balk at the term “storyteller.” I didn’t want to be known as a
storyteller because anyone can tell a story. Around a campfire. At bedtime. A two-minute story.
A ten-minute story. No, no, no. I wanted to do more than that. I wanted to create deep
mythology. Scrawling epics. Tales that wounded and then healed.

I wanted to be a writer. Writers crafted beautiful things out of words. “Telling stories” was too
simple. It needed to be more than a story. It needed to be a fiction for the ages. A fable. A legend.
Stories were for children.

Surely you can see where my fault was in this.

With that mindset, I spent a good chunk of my early years focused on prose. I practiced sentence
composition and studied grammar. I worried more about my descriptions of the setting than the character’s place in it.

In my work as a book coach, I have found that this assumption isn’t unique to me. Many new
writers get hung up on the same thing—they want to write memorable words. Not stories. Words.

This is because words are what we remember most when we read impactful stories. It’s the
individual lines capable of making you gasp that stand out. The story experience as a whole is so complex, we’re less likely to retain singular details. But a great line is singular itself, so it sticks.

Many of us learn to write this way because it’s easier to learn words than it is story. And that’s
okay. You get into a project because of aspect of it you love. Only, writing is more than a project. It’s a lifestyle. Eventually, every one of us realizes that the words aren’t enough.

Full stories are multi-dimensional. Each piece needs to flow with the others so the whole thing makes sense. That’s why some people call it a “yarn.” Storytelling is more challenging than writing, as it is also more important.

Alas, my younger self did not understand this distinction. Being on the receiving end of a
story—a reader—stories seem deceptively simple. They are enormous and complicated things, but because they are conveyed through thin little lines of words strung together, we let ourselves think creating one is a straightforward, linear process.

Can you think of a novelist who is both a great writer and a great storyteller? Easily.

Can you think of a novelist who is a great storyteller but not a great writer? Yes, I’ll list a few.

Can you think of a novelist who is a great writer but not a great storyteller? Maybe, but none that
are going to leave a mark on the industry.

Being a Good Storyteller

There are names in the industry that are huge sellers due to their incredible storytelling abilities,
while their writing talent is mediocre.

J.K. Rowling. I finally got around to the Harry Potter as an adult and parent myself when I decided to read it out loud to my son. Wow, was I ever floored by the run-on, rambling, adverb-happy sentences.

Stephen King. Even though he’s widely read, his endings still get a bad rap and he’s known for being sloppy with his prose.

Colleen Hoover. Hoover really came crashing onto the writing scene and is now one of, if not
the, hottest selling romance author online. But it’s her tense, steamy situations that sell, not her writing.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not taking aim at these three clearly beloved authors; I’m not calling them bad authors. Their sales numbers prove that people love their books and they will each go down in literary history. I wish to point out that these authors were able to rise to the top on their storytelling abilities alone.

Each of them prioritized storytelling over writing. They knew that it was more important that readers got lost in their world, their plot, and their characters, than it was that they had every literary rule memorized or wrote flawless descriptions.

So, while column critics can call out their bad habits, and even be right about it, their work will continue to be gobbled up as quick as they can put it out.

Being Both

Most of us average humans take a long time to learn good storytelling. And we figure out good writing along the way. There isn’t anything wrong with that, but as the three authors above should prove, if you have to focus on one aspect at a time, choose storytelling. Lots of people are writers—journalists, academics, scientists. You are not just a writer. You are a storyteller. That’s a true honor.

In your quest to be a better storyteller:

  •  Be attentive to your characters first. Ask them what they want. Listen to what lengths they’ll go to get it. Understand their why.
  •  Realize that worldbuilding is not the be-all-end-all some sci-fi and fantasy authors make it out to be. It’s a critical component, yes, but it should not overshadow your character.
  •  Most of all, spend time with plot. This is the labyrinth of moving parts. The real battle. Every writer tackles this in a different way and it is the most concentration-intensive.

As you get more knowledgeable about how story works, the prose will come. There will be plenty of time to perfect that later. For this time, as you’re aspiring and practicing, don’t sacrifice storytelling for writing. All the pretty writing in the world won’t help if you never complete a manuscript.

But as a coach, I know how this goes. You’re thinking about all the times you did try to finish a
manuscript and it didn’t work out. Sometimes, a plot that unravels is due to the quality of the initial idea. Stay tuned for my next post and I’ll talk about how to know when an idea is ready to be written.

Yet still, other times, writers need one-on-one help. The most assured way to advance your skills is to be shown how by someone already versed in them. That’s where we come in. Our job is to take authors struggling with storytelling and bring them to a place where it makes sense and they can see a tale through to the end. If your stories refuse to be wrangled, book coaching might be just what you need. Contact us and tell us about your journey.


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