I’m doing a workshop on Storytelling this August — the idea for it came out of reading a lot of manuscripts where the writing was really good, but the story just didn’t work. Either the characters didn’t really make sense, or the story itself went off the rails about midway through and became a bunch of actions instead of a story arc that worked to really explore the characters and their relationships. This is something we all have to work on (constantly it seems). So what makes a good story compared with good writing?
1- Good writing can make you stop in awe. This is actually a problem in a story. A good story keeps you turning the pages, not stopping to admire the scenery. I find if the writing stops the reader for any reason, it’s a place the author needs to look at to see if the writing is just getting too “writerly” and getting in the way. Truman Capote said you want to be that voice by the fireside telling the story–invisible but compelling.
2- A good story sweeps you away. This means the reader doesn’t stumble over complicated sentences, or even more complicated plots–instead the reader is pulled into a fully developed world where the characters all make sense as people who work in that world. And the world all makes sense (things don’t just happen because the author thinks it would be cool or a great twist, but they happen within the rules of that world–and that takes a lot of development).
3- Good writing can be intellectually pleasing, but a good story catches your emotions. This is something I see a lot–the author has gotten carried away with a story that is just too much about the author being clever and not really enough about the author digging deep into both their own emotions and their characters’ emotions. This is where the story is just flat. You can overthink stories–and you can overwrite them, too.
4- Good writing is perfect; a good story may have flaws, but you just don’t care because it’s great as it is. This is where someone has edited out the emotion from the page–we all do this at times. We get so caught up in dotting every period and worrying over every comma that we forget that it’s the flawed characters and it’s the story that a reader wants. Ever come out of a movie and suddenly you realize there were a lot of plot holes, but you never noticed them during the movie? That’s a story that did it’s job–it engaged you on an emotional level. That’s a story teller’s job.
5- A good story needs great characters, and good enough writing that the writing comes second. This again is a place where I see less experienced writers struggling–their technical skills are weak enough that they have to focus too much attention on untangling sentences. The more I write, the more I tend to love simple, clean prose. The reason for this is that if I don’t have to fuss with craft, I can focus more on the characters and getting them on the page.
6- A good story has an arc–it goes somewhere. Good writing can wander–you can have beautiful prose that doesn’t really go anywhere. Story telling goes way, way back in the human psyche, and if when you break those rules we all love in stories (even without knowing what it is that makes a story work), the risk is that you’re creating a story that readers will put down.
7- A great story is one that must be told, but it’s rare that a writer really must produce great writing just for the sake of the writing. A great story is the one that burns in you, the one you can’t ignore, the one that you have to get on the page because the characters won’t leave you alone and you know that you’ll write this one even if only your mother reads it. You want to look for these stories.
You can be a good story teller and sell well–Edgar Rice Burroughs, to me, is a perfect example of this. Not a great writer, but it’s really hard to put down one of his books once you start reading. You just keep turning the page. There are other writers who are both great story tellers and really good writers–Stephen King is a good example of this (boy, can he write!). However, there really aren’t any great writers who are not great story tellers on any fiction best seller lists–and even the best non-fiction writers know how to spin a yarn.
So are you a great story teller–what stories are the ones you must tell?