What Kind of Storyteller Are You, Anyhow?

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And now for today’s post…

Some people claim to be born storytellers.  Others study and wrestle with the basic craft of storytelling until they feel like one.

Born storytellers – and I do believe some are predisposed to the rendering of great stories; and also, that I am not one of them – who don’t take the time to learn the craft from the ground up, inside and out, can go their entire life as a writer succeeding at nothing more than spinning a good yarn around a bonfire.

Too often they are both shocked and outraged when their first novel or screenplay doesn’t sell.  You know, the one they wrote by the seat of their pants.  Because they can write, dammit!

All of which begs the question – what is the craft of storytelling, and how does this differ from the genetic gift of storytelling prowess?

The answer is surprisingly definable.  But only if you are willing to pry open the box within which craft comes neatly packaged – a body of storytelling expectations, checklists, criteria and structural paradigms… an entire discipline – can you hope to access and fully understand it.

Until you do, your stories stand little chance.  Because like heart surgery or flying an F-18, they’re too fragile and too complex to leave to an intuitive sensibility, no matter how gifted you believe you are.

And if you think the craft of storytelling cannot be delivered in a box, you are flat wrong.  It is the art of it that cannot be packaged or taught.

Those who immerse themselves in the craft of storytelling are prone to discovering the art of it as well.  I know my own overnight success in that regard took no less than 24 years of apprenticeship, which is pretty much par for this literary course.

Those who bring both to the work – a born storytelling acumen and a slave-like devotion to learning the nuts and bolts of it – wind up like Michael Connelly or Nora Roberts or a hundred other names you can reel off the top of your head.  A rare and genuinely gifted breed of writer.  None of whom, by the way, who will fully assign their success to genetics.

Other than shaking James Patterson’s hand at a signing at Powell’s (true story: he introduced himself to me as John Grisham), I’ve never personally met a writer who covers both of these bases.

Some folks spend their entire careers writing stories without ever fully understanding the power of story architecture.  Without really schooling themselves on the myriad machinations that empower a story to work.  Using their drafts to search for and experiment with story architecture, rather than applying a baseline working knowledge of it to the story right out of the gate.

This is like trying to sail an ocean without a lesson in seamanship.  Solo.

The issue isn’t about outlining, or not.  It’s about writing from an informed base of storytelling knowledge, or not.  If you get story architecture, then you can spin a yarn right out of your head that conforms to its complex set of criteria.

And make no mistake, that’s not a gift.  It’s a reward for hard work and study.

Is that you? What kind of storyteller are you, anyhow?

There are born doctors out there, born pilots, natural athletes, even natural preachers.  People who come to their avocation naturally, who learn it quickly and easily, and then practice it as if the hand of God himself handed them their license.

And guess what… their nuts and bolts came out of a box, too.  It’s called medical school, ground school, spring training and the seminary.  Not a single one of them stumbled their way through the forest of requisite learning on their own.

Yet this is precisely what some writers do.  All the time, in fact, without knowing what they’re missing or misunderstanding.  The majority of them are destined to remain unpublished.  I’ve never heard a published writer deny or belittle the value of story architecture, ever.

Writing is much like athletics.  There are two disciplines that must be put into play simultaneously and continuously: the discovery and understanding of the fundamentals of the game, and then all the practice and earnest participation in the game itself that applies what you’ve learned.

Practice and play.  Learning and doing.  Which leads to learning by doing.

This is true for born athletes and made athletes.  The professional ranks are full of both.

And so it is with writing, as well.


Filed under Featured posts, Write better (tips and techniques)

11 Responses to What Kind of Storyteller Are You, Anyhow?

  1. The hardest thing for anyone who believes they have a natural talent for storytelling is to admit that even they must work for it to become a success. I like your analogy of how even a person who has a natural ability at biology and healing must still go to medical school, it’s something I’ve seen trolling through alot of websites. My backround in photography helps me to moderate my artistic nature for the basic constructs of what I’m trying to do and it’s the melding of the two that creates the best images.

    Two thumbs up!

  2. Lori

    I loved this post!

    Your story embodies what I truly believe creates success. I am a great pianist, but took 12+ years of lessons when I was growing up to get there. I am a molecular biologist, which took ~12 years after high school to learn the tools and background.

    Now, as an aspiring novelist, I am prepared to spend the necessary time learning the craft and fundamentals before I get my feet wet. This site is a great place to build my tool box!

    Thank you!

  3. Stumbled across your blog today. Lots of great tips – minus the condescension. Very cool & way too rare.

  4. Thanks for all your comments on this post, much appreciated.

    And Dave, I like to think there’s a thin line between sarcasm and a condescending context. Seems like I nudged it with you… I’ll cop to sarcasm on occasion, but I never knowingly write condescendingly about anyone or anything. So I apologize if that’s how it came off.

    I’ll be on notice for that. Hope you’ll all come back again soon.


  5. I wandered over here from your post on Copyblogger.com
    Great site and I look forward to reading more from you.
    24 years? I hope I live that long LOL.

    p.s. your post didn’t strike me as condescending at all. But then again, maybe that’s because I have read a lot of THOSE type of writer/publishing blogs so I have thicker skin 🙂

  6. Hey! Yo! Wait A Minute! I said MINUS the condescension!! In other words – Zero – None – Nada. I read through some of your other posts – before making the comment & found that you were NOT CONDESCENDING. Sheesh. I better go back to square one – seems I caused some confusion with my response. NO criticism from me. I thought you made sense. I said it was rare THERE WAS NO ATTYTOOD. Wish I could underline in these comments. Well, CAPS will have to do. I shall return. DE

  7. Dave — thanks for clarifying. I feel better now. 🙂 It’s clear in the rear view. Glad you’ll be back. And, LOVE THE CAPS, too. L.

  8. Julie Wuthnow

    Dave – I understood you correctly the first time, and I’m sure others did too.

    And Larry, this is a great post! And oddly serendipitous for me. I’ve been busy for some weeks setting up a website, trying to get a freelance writing business going, and just this morning in a fit of mild grumpiness, I came to a clear awareness – I need to be WRITING. And your words really hit home with me. Quality, working hard at it over a period of time- yup, all very helpful to me at just this moment. So thanks.

    Glad you were on Copyblogger – not sure how I would have found you otherwise.

  9. The more I write, whether it be short stories, or non-fiction, the more I realize that writing, more than anything else, is simply a craft.

    If you can learn the craft well, you’re writing will fall into play. I’m continually striving to learn the craft. By reading books on it, by just reading books and by writing often. It works. And my game can only ascend higher as time well invested progresses.

  10. Hi Larry,
    Again, I’m reading as an interested learner, an observer. That happened when I read your first question and answered it with a resigned smile. I’m a rubbish storyteller, always have been. When I dress the concept in the word “storyteller”, that is. Yet I can make up stories that keep my kids enthralled; lay out screenplay plots to the family who go on to say “But where did you see that one, mum?” I can draw folk into a scene and co-create the sensation so that they feel like they’re there, living the details, but I’ve never attempted a novel. I know I haven’t enough years left to learn the craft and blend it with the art. I have characters and films in me, but no deftly woven plots. That means I’ve never had to put in the hard graft or maintain the stamina that’s totally necessary to pan in and out of a longer story, vary the pace, frame scenes, add back scenes and vistas, and mix up the tension and the emotional releases.

    Another enjoyable one, Larry. Thank you.
    PS Are you planning on adding the Subscribe to Comments plug in?

  11. Larry,

    Thank you so much for this site. It is exactly what I was looking for. I gave up on writing 15 years ago because there were bills to pay and the words weren’t quite keeping the lights on and the cat fed. Now that I am determined to get all the people out of my head and down on paper (makes me seem like I need heavy medication!!), I really feel I need a reintroduction to the structure beneath the art. Thank you so much for putting your energy into helping me get that much closer to the goal.