What Kind of Storyteller Are You, Anyhow?

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by Larry Brooks on July 20, 2009

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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.

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