Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Writers vs. Storytellers

When I sat down to write the opening scene for my newest work-in-progress, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and pictured myself in a crowded locker room after an NFL game. Having an uncle who’s coached in the NFL for nearly 30 years, I’m lucky enough to have visited a few locker rooms and have first hand experience on which to draw on. I shut everything else out of my mind and spent nearly ten minutes concentrating on that experience, remembering the smell, recalling how loud it got with players giving interviews. I tried to remember everything I could.

I then put my characters in that locker room. The entire scene I was about to write played like a movie in my brain. It wasn't until after this exercise that I was able to put fingers to keyboard and type.

You see, I’m a storyteller. It wasn't until a few months ago while attending a workshop given by my fellow Austin RWA members, Tracy Wolff and Shellee Roberts, that I understood exactly what this meant. Their workshop on Storytellers versus Writers opened my eyes to a dichotomy in writing I didn't realize existed. I truly thought all writers “saw” their stories in their head before writing it. But that’s not so.

I learned that some authors, those who are more writers than storytellers, concentrate on constructing the perfect sentence, making sure the words fit. Jane Q. Storyteller, on the other hand, is more concerned with what makes her characters tick.

The presenters offered several strengths and weaknesses of storytellers and writers:

Storytellers are stronger at creating memorable characters, worldbuilding and looking at the big picture. But they can be weaker when it comes to the craft of writing (umm…check out my previous post on my craft book obsession. I guess this is the reason I’m so drawn to them).

Writers are great with language, complex plot lines, and hammering out those nitty gritty details, but when it comes to looking at the big picture or visualizing the long term arc for a series, they’re not as comfortable as storytellers.

Of course, there is a little of both in all of us. There comes a point when I toil over a sentence, making sure I get it just right. It just comes much later in my story creation process. For me, the most important thing is getting the images I see on the movie reel in my head down on paper. I’m a storyteller, through and through.

Tracy and Shellee’s workshop was fabulously presented, and, in my opinion, should be taken on the road. It was so interesting to have the differences spelled out and to hear other writers and storytellers discuss how they go about creating a story. My writing has benefitted from being aware of what both my strengths and weaknesses are as a storyteller, and focusing on honing those skills that come naturally to writers.

So, the obvious question is, are you a writer or a storyteller?


Phyllis Bourne said...

Coming from a journalism background, I thought I was a writer. However, all being a writer gets me is stuck.

To get anything done, I have to remind myself to just sit down and tell the story.

So I fall on the storyteller side.

Stefanie Worth said...

Can I walk a fine line? I know that I started committing my observations to paper as early as 10 years old. There were things I saw in the world that deserved to be remembered, ideas in my head that just had to be shared -- all on paper of course. Bitten by this bug, I spent my formative years learning how to get them out just-so. Now, I always start with a story idea, characters and their dilemmas. But how I tell their story is as vital to me as their story being told.

Anonymous said...

After almost three years of struggling with the art, science and craft of fiction writing, I came to realise this dichotomy all too clearly. Our definitions of Storyteller and Writer may differ slightly but I certainly agree that the polarisation exists. This is one of the key reasons why I no longer write fiction. The story-telling parts were good fun and I think I could do them well. It was the writing part that proved to be the issue. Getting the words onto the page was no problem but I just couldn't face the endless rewriting and editing that followed. It completely killed the joy for me, so I gave it up.

KeVin K. said...

Storyteller to the bone.

Shauna Roberts said...

If I have to choose just one camp, I'd peg myself as a writer. Learning to tell a story well has been hard work for me.

Charles Gramlich said...

I think I've kind of gone back and forth over this line. Right now I'm trying to focus on storytelling, but I also really love and appreciate fine prose. If I had to pigeonhole myself I think I'm more writerly than storytellerish.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Considering the multitude of complete stories floating around my head before one pen stroke is done, I would definitely put myself in the category of storyteller. But writers and storytellers are not mutually exclusive.

Genella deGrey said...

I'm a Storyteller.

I can picture myself as a bard of old sitting around a campfire telling stories. You see, they didn't have technical rules to follow.

Marissa Monteilh said...

This sparked great conversation between me and another writer today. I think I'm both, and they're a writer. Nice, thanks!

Liane Spicer said...

Both, I think. It would be hard for me to choose a side, but if I absolutely had to it would probably be writer.

The stories that blow me away are the ones where the writer excels at both: God of Small Things & Life of Pi, for example. I can enjoy a great story even if the writing is so-so, or savor inspired writing even where there isn't much of a story, but when they marry in one novel... Ah.

Rae Ann Parker said...

Farrah: This makes so much sense. I put myself in the storyteller category. Recently, my children were telling a gross joke and I told them to stop. My daughter told me it only bothered me because I visualize everything in my head. It was a lightbulb moment. I thought everyone did that. Your post also makes so much sense on why learning the craft of writing is a struggle. But I'm working on it. :)

Shauna Roberts said...

RAE ANN, your comment was a lightbulb moment for me. I could never figure out before why so many people are bothered by talking about things such as autopsies or gruesome accidents at the dinner table.