1. aikoaiko
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    aikoaiko Contributing Member

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    Difference between a Writer and a Storyteller

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by aikoaiko, Mar 15, 2014.

    I have only recently come into creative writing, but since I've been doing a lot of reading (both here and on my own), I have noticed a large number of references to good 'Writers' and good 'Storytellers'. A good writer seems to fall into the Cerebral category---meaning that they dazzle us with their brilliance and ability to use words. I think about authors like David Foster Wallace in these cases, or even Pynchon and Nabakov. These authors (for me, at least) are incredibly talented and necessary to read in order to understand good writing---however---I find that I don't necessarily care what happens at the end of their books. Lol! While their prose blows me away and I admire it to no end, I have to force myself through their work because it is rarely---how can I say it----entertaining:(???

    But then there are other authors like Willa Cather or Mark Twain, for example, that I actually enjoy reading. In other words, the point of the book isn't necessarily word play (or brilliance, for that matter), but simply the relation of a good story. I guess the best---very best---books can do both, and I think about The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, or maybe The Road by Cormac McCarthy?

    Anyway, I just wondered what the opinion of other writers was on this. Do you think a delineation can truly be made between people who 'write' and those who tell 'stories'---or is it all just a lot of bunk, and a good writer is a good writer??
     
  2. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    This is, for me, largely a matter of how each individual defines the words. My definitions parallel yours pretty closely. To me, a good writer is one who is a master of prose style, imagery, symbol, character development, theme, even philosophical depth. In other words, the technical issues and all the highfalutin folderol. I think of Conrad, Joyce, Steinbeck, Nabokov, Hemingway, and most major prize winners. There are many others, but they're not very famous because they didn't (or don't) hit the bestseller lists often, and usually wind up having to take teaching jobs or other work to make ends meet.

    A good storyteller, to me, is one who is more focused on plot. That means grabbing the reader with a good hook in the beginning, pacing properly, constructing chapters that end with cliffhangers, throwing in some fun twists to keep readers guessing, managing an explosive climax, and winding things up with a satisfying denouement. Popcorn literature, in other words - tasty, little residue, no permanent value. I think of Dan Brown, Alistair MacLean, Stephen King at his worst, and it's not fair for me to name many others, because I don't read them - I only see the movies made from their works. These guys sell tons of books and make millions of dollars. They have fans around the world. But they are writing literary Hot Pockets, and the "good writers" I outlined above are writing literary fine-dining feasts.
     
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  3. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    There are writers I consider to be very good at writing but whose works I could never finish. Proust is one example. His prose is amazing. How entertaining a book is depends on taste, however. I know some people who couldn't finish The Great Gatsby because it bored them. Others thought Fitzgerald's writing was bad :confused:. So yes, we can make a distinction between "writers" and "storytellers," though I would say that there is a lot of subjectivity involved in both these classifications.
     
    Last edited: Mar 15, 2014
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  4. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    Well when you look at fiction writing, there are generally those two paradigms from which people tackled the challenge: writing and storytelling. In the best fiction, there is both, as they are not entirely separate. What writers must understand is that there are techniques to building a story and moving through it. This is the storytelling aspect. Moving through it is, coincidentally (not really lol), linked to conveying the story -- i.e. writing.

    Another way to look at it, perhaps one more accurate way is to look at the micro and macro of fiction writing. Writing, or language skills, are the micro-level motion of the story, whereas plot, story arc, character arc, and the like are the macro-level motion. To write good fiction a writer needs both elements.

    Generally speaking, people read to be entertained. While your prose may be good, it will not entertain today's readers without the elements of story. In the beginning, in the early days of novels, writing was highly philosophical. It was a sort of trope of all writing (prose and poetry alike) to be elevated and centered on public affairs (that is not private life). Writers wrote about things that mattered on a more social scale. The language was very author-centric because the novel was usually the author's thoughts on these questions. But as novels gained momentum, the story became the vehicle by which the big philosophical questions were raised among the academic public.

    As you move through literary periods, you'll notice a progression away from author intrusion and obvious speculation and an increased focus on characters and their story. The short story form was a major turning point, as the focus was more on the story than the meaning. You had to capture the meaning, the theme, and the questions, by telling an engaging, loaded story.

    Because of this writers had to learn "new" techniques over time. Prose was either really beautifully crafted, so that readers would enjoy it in that sense, or it was bare so as to be muted. Today we consider prose that doesn't call attention to itself to be better. Why? Because we want the story, not the author's self gratifying wordsmithery.

    These days, there are far, far, FAR more readers than solely contained within the academic sphere, and most people don't care much for big philosophical or social questions. That's what you learn in school. That's why most critical reading/analysis classes focus on older literary fiction. The modern focus of fiction is on telling a good story with muted language that allows readers to visualize and move through the story without noticing the writing. This is the new convention, and it was being challenged by writers like Nabokov, Wolfe, and others.

    Anyway, aside from my English history lesson, the important thing to note is that we as modern writers have to decide what kind of prose we want to use to best compliment the story we want to tell. The art of fiction today IS the art of storytelling, and to succeed in the trade, you must understand the elements of story as well as the elements of style.

    Hope this helps. :)
     
  5. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    @Andrae Smith, good points. I'd also like to add that writers way back in the day were writing for a small audience. Literacy levels were not as high, and given the high cost of printing, not many people could afford books. So good writers like Melville and Victor Hugo could afford to go on tangents that have nothing to do with the story itself.
     
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  6. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    Very true. "Novels" go pretty far back in history, to a time when the audience was small and competition was minimal. Today we face just the opposite: a huge (potential) audience and plenty of competition. If we want to stand out, we have to be on point with our language skills, which will act as our first impression and basic foundation, so we can devote more time to the storytelling element. Readers, today, don't really seem to like preachy or didactic literature. We are smarter, yet more impatient (for entertainment);thus we like being drawn into the story and left to draw our own conclusions about morals, themes, social issues, and the like.

    For example. On the first read, I'm sure most people in my age bracket didn't consider The Hunger Games as a social commentary on today's society or even a potential dark future, until seeing the movie and reading discussions. It was just an entertaining book. But now I've gone off on a tangent....
     
  7. TheApprentice
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    TheApprentice Contributing Member

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    The difference is actually much more simple. A person can be a writer without telling stories. You might write instructions for a living, and be a writer but because you tell no stories, you are not a story teller.

    Same thing vice versa. A person could tell a story vocally, without writing it.
     
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  8. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    Oh ha haaa, @TheApprentice... thank you for pointing that one out. I assumed that aikoaiko was talking about fiction. :p
     
  9. aikoaiko
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    aikoaiko Contributing Member

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    Yes, actually I was talking about fiction. But TheApprentice makes a good point. I guess I don't really mean 'writing' as in the Physical Act, but quality prose vs. stories that carry themselves, if that makes sense. And maybe that's a better way of putting it. I think of a story as something that carries itself and takes on a life of its own----vs. writing that simply awes you with its proficiency:).
     
  10. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    For me, a good writer knows the rules of grammar, knows how to turn a phrase, keeps the reader interested. A good storyteller gets them and keeps them involved, regardless of other possible deficiencies. I don't think it's the plot necessarily - a pedestrian plot can be overlooked because of the characters involved in it. But if one is really lucky, one finds a book written by both a good writer and a good storyteller. Those are gold.
     
  11. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Somebody will call it brilliant writing, another will call it wanking. Somebody will call it brilliant storytelling, another will call it cheap garbage. I see the former, technically impressive writing like very skilled musicians, such as John McLaughlin, Charlie Parker, Dream Theater, Chick Corea, Joe Satriani, Vinnie Colaiuta etc. I appreciate their chops, but with the exception of McLaughlin (his style just caters to my taste, but in general he's no better / worse than the others on that list), I don't listen to them all that much after listening through an album.
    Then there are the musical equivalents of great storytellers like the Beatles, AC/DC, the Rolling Stones, Metallica etc. who aren't that great as players, but can really make your head bob without you realizing you're bobbing your head. And then there are hybrids, folks like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Muse, Meshuggah, Primus, Children of Bodom etc. who are both technically great (if, perhaps, not as great as the less entertaining virtuosos mentioned above) and great songwriters (although maybe not quite as good as the aforementioned songwriter greats).

    Of course, since enjoying music is such a subjective thing, the above examples of good songwriters and the hybrids are just examples (I tried to cover a broad spectrum), so you can substitute them for your own favorites, but personally I prefer the hybrids: I don't need the author of my favorite book to be the greatest writer ever and I don't need them to be plain, but Earth-shattering storytellers either, because I do appreciate skill and hence enjoy some wankery with my art while I'm drawn into a great story that makes me forget that I've just spent the last six hours sitting absolutely still.

    The problem is, to be able to do both well, write and tell stories, you often end up being only decent at both, so it's kinda like... a jack of all trades, master of none- kinda deal (kinda like Les Claypool is an amazing musician, but technically he doesn't compare to John Patitucci and musically he doesn't compare to Paul McCartney) unless you're very talented (an innate knack for technically adept writing as well as storytelling), very skilled (the result of practice), and very lucky (to get the opportunity to get to do what you do, i.e. you are born into circumstances that allow you to blossom as a writer and someone who has the power to get your writing to big audiences notices your writing). Or you can specialize in one or the other. Or be another kind of a hybrid than 50/50. How about 25/75 or vice versa? Because we all appreciate different things, place different values on different things, and like different things, do what you like and screw the rest.
     
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  12. Bryan Romer
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    Bryan Romer Contributing Member Contributor

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    To an extent, I think the distinction is a bit artificial. Even a brilliant writer must have something to say, a story to tell, even if it is highly abstract and philosophical if the book is to be worth reading.

    A good storyteller can learn the technical aspects of writing and be great. But even a technically excellent writer who has nothing to say, no story to tell, will never be a great writer.
     
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  13. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I think a person's goal affects the path they choose to a large extent: do they want to create art? Entertain? Make money? Shock? Win the Nobel prize? Tell a story? Change the world? Something else? A combination of several things? You'll probably never win the Nobel prize if you're great at telling ghost stories that people will read around a campfire and you probably won't make your little kids smile and laugh by reading them The Old Man and The Sea.
     
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  14. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    The Force is strong with you, @T.Trian...
     
  15. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Sorry to nitpick, and this is not a challenge, but a question, you said Muse is technically great. You're not talking vocals, right?
     
  16. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    @Andrae Smith, aww shucks... :D

    @123456789, I'm not really that good at telling good vocalists apart from great ones, I just know he hits his notes, but I was thinking about his playing and compositional skills.
     
  17. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm sure you're better than me. He hits his notes but his breathing technique (especially on the old stuff) leaves a lot to be desired.
     
  18. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    As much as I love muse, I'll give you that one. Matt is good, and he can really hit some notes and blow away a performance, buuut... Technically speaking, he's not the smoothest. But that's alright. Muse is still awesome. :D
     
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  19. aikoaiko
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    aikoaiko Contributing Member

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  20. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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  21. aikoaiko
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    aikoaiko Contributing Member

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    Hahahaha!! Okay, got it.:D
     
  22. stevesh
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    stevesh Banned Contributor

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    I'll agree with the squirrel (I think). To me, there is a difference between a writer and a storyteller, and it's very difficult to come up with an author who is both. A writer uses words in ways that surprise and amaze me. A storyteller doesn't, but keeps me turning pages anyway. An contemporary example of the former: James Lee Burke; of the latter, Stephen King.
     
  23. vera2014
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    vera2014 Contributing Member

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    This topic reminds me of gymnastics. There are gymnasts who are strongest at floor and those who are strongest on the balance beam. Others are good on the bars, etc. Then there are a handful of gymnasts who are considered the best "all around" gymnasts. These athletes have mastered all the apparatuses. And so, I think some people are better at writing then story telling and vice versa. One author comes to mind for writing: Daphne DuMaurier did a superb job with the writing of "Rebecca" but the story is straightforward; it doesn't knock me out of my seat. Some people are excellent at both writing and story telling like Patrick Rothfuss. He did a brilliant job with the books "Name of the Wind" and "A Wise Man's Fear." I can't wait for his third book to come out. He's the full package--one of the best overall writers.
     
  24. aikoaiko
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    aikoaiko Contributing Member

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    I think----and I might be painting this with a broad stroke----that the 'Writers' are those typically rewarded in academic circles. Many of them receive awards that are considered 'academic' (like the MacArthur fellowship, etc.), and teach in universities, and some seem to populate the boards of foundations later on who then select future prizewinners (I guess I'm thinking about people like Junot Diaz). This pattern does not always hold, of course, but the more popular writers (maybe like Stephen King, etc.) rarely get those kinds of accolades, even though they tend to sell more books. Their 'awards' come mainly from the public, in other words.
     
  25. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    My grandma was a storyteller. She used to invent fairytales that would keep me absorbed for hours. I'd ask her to tell me a new one each night, sometimes a tale would have 'chapters' so it'd stretch throughout a week. But my grandma never wrote any of them down, so she wasn't a writer. That's the difference, in my mind, between a writer and a storyteller.
     

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