Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Writing Vs. Storytelling

Okay, so I wish I could convey to you the difference between writing and storytelling. Heck, I wish I knew so I could be a great storyteller.

I do think storytelling is higher than writing. It's something I recognize in some of the books I've read. I'll do my best to say what I think.

Writing means the words are there, in the right order, spelling out the story. There are books that are written well. I read a lot of them.

But storytelling is a masterful skill, one that not only utilizes writing, but that makes the reader feel something. Something powerful. Like they're there in the story. Or that they're in the hands of someone who knows A) where they're going B) how to get there and C) which words to use to take the reader with them.

A storyteller uses words to do more than convey meaning. They use them to make the reader feel something. These are my favorite kinds of books. I read them and pause, close my eyes, and relish in the power of the writing.

Dude, I got it! Storytelling is powerful, meaningful writing.

And I can see it almost as soon as I start reading. Usually within 10 pages.

Here are some of my favorite storytelling novels:

1. The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson
2. Matched by Ally Condie
3. Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore
4. Ash by Melinda Lo
5. Firelight by Sophie Jordan

These novels feel powerful. They are told by storytellers, not writers. I also think they're "quieter" novels. Their power is in the quiet, beautiful writing.

What do you think? What's the difference between storytelling and writing? What are some of your powerful novels?

Oh! And go check out my journey toward publication on Adventures in Children's Publishing!

72 comments:

Jessica Bell said...

I agree with you totally. My faves are: The Handmaid's Tale, and The Robber Bride, both by Margaret Atwood. The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Rebecca Miller, practically everything by Marian Keyes and Marilynne Robinson :o)

Christina Lee said...

Yeah, I agree.

I also think there are good storytellers who need to get the hang of constructing better sentences(I am thinking of someone in my critique group)--do you know what I mean?

I will add The Sky is Everywhere to you list!

Theresa Milstein said...

I know what you mean. It is hard to define when a book just has it - what it is exactly. "Storytelling is powerful, meaningful writing." I agree!

Often, I call it quiet, powerful writing. It often doesn't have an over-the-top plot with action every second. I'm not on a roller coaster, but I'm not bored. And when it's over, I'm longing for more.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Yes, I think you're right. I have 3 of your books on my list to read. I'll have to look for what you mean.

Others might be Shiver and Linger by Maggie Stiefvater and The Shifter by Janice Hardy.

Laura Pauling said...

I love picking up a book and finding not only great writing but a great story! It's def. an art. I think it's knowing how to use pacing and structure and conflict to bring the story to life in a powerful way. Not easy, for sure.

Renae said...

Well said. I love to pick up a book and find myself pulled into another world. You already named one of my favorites...Firelight. From the first page I was pulled into the story and so upset when it came to an end.

The Golden Eagle said...

I agree that there is a difference between writing and storytelling--storytelling is so much more powerful because there's more than just words behind it.

Christine Danek said...

Totally agree. I have the books on your list on my to read list.
They are usually quieter--I see what you mean by this.
Thanks.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Eek! I haven't read any of those books, though I have pre-ordered Matched.

As Christina pointed out, you can be a great storyteller but suck at writing, so it's really the combo of the two that make a really great book.

For me, The Hungergames books (among many others) fits here, though many will disagree with me (some think her writing is okay). ;)

Jess said...

I agree that there's a difference--a gifted storyteller is also someone who we feel comfortable with and who has command of the page. I don't want to say "authority" because that's an ugly word to many of us (including my fifteen-year-old--tee-hee), but there's a certain safety in opening a book and being placed securely in the hands of a wonderful storyteller. Roald Dahl is that way for me--I always feel like he is perfectly in charge of the narrative, and I can just relax into the language and enjoy the tale.

Liza said...

This may be basic, but of course they are different. A research paper is writing. But pulling the reader along (compelling, to use a word we've seen a lot lately) takes a combination of good writing as well as timing and pace. Someone once told me that I can tell a good story. It made me feel great. Now I need to get the writing part down!

Heather Kelly said...

I think that in order to tell a great story, you have to have a great audience in mind. When you are writing for someone, everything comes together--you know, if you in fact have mad skills and imagination and know-how, of course. And voice. Great voice. So that's it. Simple, right?!

Em-Musing said...

Words are a paintbrush to the reader's imagination. How a writers uses the strokes, colors, layers, and textures is their voice. Novels vary, as does art, and I appreciate them all, just in a different way.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I've been thinking a lot about this difference lately. Cool you mention it.

Peace Like a River is up there for me. The Art of Racing in the Rain. Water for Elephants. The Poisonwood Bible.

I'll stop now.

Love this post and agree 100%.
~ Wendy

Creepy Query Girl said...

For me, great storytelling is when the writer builds real, believable characters- makes you care what happens to them, and really invest in the storyline of the book. But not just any storyline- one that brings us high and low, surprises us at some points, and really transports us out of our living room/kitchen/bus terminal and into their world. Great post!

salarsenッ said...

Storytelling has a connection to the reader--a personal one. Writing conveys info, to some degree. Just my food for thoughts.

Ishta Mercurio said...

I think good storytelling is a mixture of just the right words, perfect pacing, and also just the right details. Knowing exactly how much to tell, and how much to leave for the reader to figure out.

I know when I'm in the hands of a good storyteller when I am too caught up in reading the words to think about flipping pages. And it is HARD to get storytelling right. I feel like it's something you either have from the outset, or have to take years to develop.

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater is up there for me, as well as Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.

Kerri C at CK Farm said...

Excellent topic! I'm reading Graceling by Kristen Cashore and it is excellent storytelling. I need to finish it today to see how it ends.

Meredith said...

I love beautiful writing, but I'm always drawn into the story. When those two elements are combined, I inevitably love the book. I'll have to read your recommended examples (Firelight was awesome!).

mshatch said...

The Name of the Wind comes to mind - except I'm annoyed book two hasn't hit the shelves yet and it is a year past its due date!

or, the entire Prydain Chronicles which I got lost in when younger.

C. N. Nevets said...

I don't do this very often so I'm probably mistaken, but I think I totally disagree with how you cast these terms, Elana. lol

I think story-tellers are after a common, shared experience. They want to draw the reader into the story so that the reader actually experiences it.

Writers, on the other hand, are more interested in the craft of their words for the same of (a) themselves or (b) the writing itself, as its own end.

Kelly said...

Agreed.
And oh, man! I haven't read any of the five books listed. I need to. I really need to!!!

Jennee said...

Oh, great topic. I honestly never really thought much about the difference between the two but now that you've pointed it out.... I agree, storytelling is more magical than writing.

Liz Fichera said...

I think what you're saying here is that storytelling has "voice." I've read lots of well-written novels (words are in the right place) but there was no heart and soul. I didn't feel anything.

Patti said...

I think storytelling is when you don't notice whether the writing is good or bad, you're just engrossed in the story.

Laura Marcella said...

I agree! There are so many powerful novels that I love, but the two I thought of first are "Lonesome Dove" by Larry McMurtry and "The Thorn Birds" by Colleen McCullough. Both are amazing stories backed up by wonderful writing.

VR Barkowski said...

In part, I agree with Nevets. Storytelling has a strong oral tradition. Arranging words on the page - writing - is something else entirely. You can be a great storyteller and not be able to jot word one. Conversely, you can know how to write, how to put words together, but not be able to tell a story.

The ART of writing isn't the ability to tell a good story. It's the ability *create* a compelling story on the page. There's a difference.

Erinn said...

Donald Maas had a huge part of his book Fire in Fiction about being a writer verses a storyteller.

I personally think of myself as story teller. I'm not as focused on the art of writing as I am on the overall story.

To me it's the story that matters, not the lack of adverbs or proper grammar.

Jennifer Hoffine said...

I agree with the previous commenter who said that voice is the most important thing. It's that perfect blending of the story and the writing that sucks you in and won't let go. But maybe storytelling is another word for that.

WINTERGIRLS is my favorite example because the story (about anorexia) isn't something I would have wanted to read about, but the voice drew me in despite that.

Holly Ruggiero said...

Nothing beats storytelling. It's a book you can't put down and get lost in.

Deanna said...

Elana, I couldn't agree more, and I'm so glad to hear when someone else feels this way. I've had, well, "heated" discussions with writers who say there's no difference when there obviously IS, at least to me.

One of the finest examples of a masterful storyteller is Lee Smith - everything she writes, (and she's written a lot), but especially her short story anthologies. This is how I want to write, so I read her a lot, even the ones I've already read more than once.

Now, of course, I must add the books you've recommended to my ever-growing list. :) Thanks!

Quinn said...

I see people mentioning SHIVER, but ... I bought it last week and have been trying to read it for the past week. I think I'm on page 30 or something (maybe not even that far along). I think SHIVER is an example of good writing, not good storytelling -- at least not yet; I'm still trying.

FIRELIGHT is totally good storytelling. I was so absorbed in that book. I raced through it, didn't put it down and didn't notice that I wasn't putting it down. That's the key for me -- not noticing that I've been reading for hours.

The HARRY POTTER books would have to be at the top of the list for me.

lotusgirl said...

I enjoy Sarah Dessen for her quiet storytelling.

Carolyn V. said...

I totally agree. Storytelling is the way to go. If I could just get it right. I thought Hunger Games was so good. I was right in the story.

Julie Wright said...

And then there are some people who are both, thinking of the Poisonwood Bible and The Book Thief. I will NEVER in my life be able to write like THAT. Guess that makes me a storyteller. :)

Lisa_Gibson said...

I totally agree with you Elana! Storytelling is an art. And it's tough to explain the difference. I think you did a great job. :) I hope I one day reach that storyteller status. I don't know that I do at this point.
Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

Tina Lynn said...

OMG! I just read Firelight and I know EXACTLY what you mean. It was incredible. *sob* Incredible.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Yes! There IS a difference and you CAN feel it right away. I'll say it again - you MUST read THE UNDERNEATH by Kathi Appelt! It's masterful. :-)

Jackee said...

That's a great way to put it. I love how you've defined them both.

Also, I know a lot of people who can verbally tell a good story but would never attempt to write it down. And vice versa. Not every writer can tell a good tale out loud. That's another way to think of it.

Krispy said...

That's a great way of putting it. It's like how sometimes there are really popular books out that I wouldn't consider having the best writing, but their storytelling is compelling, which is why they're successful.

The Last Unicorn blew me away - beautiful writing and great storytelling.

Scott said...

Julie Wright is right: Poisonwood Bible is an amazing display of writing and using that gift to tell a story you sit and wonder at. I'm not sure about the difference either, but thanks for bringing it up because now I'll be thinking about it more!

Bish Denham said...

When I think of storytelling I also think of those talented people who tell oral stories. Who, with words and perhaps a few props carry you to some place else.

As for novels, the first one that comes to mind for me is The Lord of Rings. Whenever I read it I am so right there in Middle Earth and I so do not what to leave....

Colene Murphy said...

Umm..now I'm really confused. My crit. group I used to go to said I was an amazing storyteller but that that wasn't a good thing when writing a novel...??? And one guy has over 100 novels so I have been seriously confused since then.

Marsha Sigman said...

This is exactly the difference between writing and storytelling! For me it has to be anything Stephen King, that man makes me believe...and scares the crap out of me.lol I love him.

Susan R. Mills said...

Great distinction! I agree with all that you said. I also aspire to be a storyteller rather than just a writer.

Talli Roland said...

I think both are separate skills. As a former journalist, I thought I was a pretty good writer (I hoped I was) and getting a novel done would be no prob. HA! I quickly learned that being a good writer did not automatically mean I could tell a story! I needed to learn a whole load a things about constucting plots etc. And I'm still learning!

Dominique said...

I think you've said it perfectly. When I'm reading something truly great, I feel things in my chest. I don't just feel intellectually sad for a character, my chest hurts. My happiness for them isn't just a slight smile, it's a giddiness in my chest.

Shannon Whitney Messenger said...

For me, a great storyteller almost makes me forget that I'm reading words. I'm just so lost in the moment and the plot and the characters that I don't care if a metaphor isn't AS original or if the prose gets a little purple. Whereas a great writer is one where I drink up their words and am simultaneously excited by their brilliance and jealous of how they did it.

The best books are the ones where they have both. Matched by Ally Condie is an excellent example. As is Anna and the French Kiss. :)

Bill said...

I think Mark Twain is a good example of the difference between writing and storytelling. He's a great writer, yes. But he's also a great raconteur. With him, the voice (that obscure term) is what engages. The writing serves the voice. So when you read Twain, you always hear the voice. It could just as easily be aural -- a tape recording of someone telling a story. He's also very particular about how he tells his story. (Track down and read his "How to tell a story." You'll see he is very definite about how to tell them.)

Hannah Kincade said...

I agree with you 100%. Man oh man, do I wish I could be a great storyteller. Jonathan Carroll is a magnificent storyteller. Everything he writes is amazing. That's why I'm a little obsessed with his blog and books. Diane Setterfield who wrote THE THIRTEEN TALE is a great storyteller as well. I fell in love on page one.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I think Tolkien was a good storyteller. Probably almost too good.

Nicole Zoltack said...

There is a big difference between writing and storytelling. I mean, storytelling has been around long before the written words. Bards were the first storytellers, and they were singers not writers.

Sara B. Larson said...

This is so true. And I agree, Ally is a master storyteller. As well as Sophie and Mary. Magic Under Glass was great, too. All wonderful examples. I could think of more, but my brain has gone totally blank. Uh... yeah. I just want to be on someone's list someday of a masterfull storyteller/writer. That would be amazing. :)

Bethany Mattingly said...

I definitely think you hit this spot on! My favorite storyteller is Lois Lowry. I think storytellers also give you something to think about for a long time. They take an idea in their story and can bring it to your life. Wonderful, I hope I get there some day :)

Nicole L Rivera said...

Writing is the words, storytelling is everything else: plot, characters, voice -- the things that grab the reader by the heart and don't let go.

Sara McClung ♥ said...

I think writing is the body and the storytelling is the soul...

The most powerful book I've read in a while is The Marbury Lens, by Andrew Smith. It was dark and creepy, but I hung on every single word and the story stayed with me for a long time after I finished it.

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Gail said...

I agree!

Julie Musil said...

I appreciate fine storytellers so much. I admire their gift, and I hope that someone like me can actually learn a piece of what they do so beautifully. I definitely like more quiet books, and I haven't yet read those on your list. I'll have to check them out!

Your post over at ACP rocks!

Sandy Shin said...

Such a great post. There's has been debates about the differences between great writing and great storytelling, and I agree that while I might admire beautiful writing, it is the storytelling that makes or breaks the book for me. MATCHED is a great example of both. :)

Ishta Mercurio said...

OOH! Another great storyteller is Garrison Keillor. I love his work.

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

Awesome! I love how you defined the difference between storytelling and writing.

My goal is to someday get on your best storytellers list. :)

Amie B said...

thank you for putting it into words!

my favorite story telling? The Hunger Games Trilogy and The Forest of Hands and Teeth (and the companion - The Dead Tossed Waves)

L.T. Elliot said...

One of the stories I love for powerful storytelling is Meghan Whalen Turner's theif series.

I loved what you said about meaningful writing being good storytelling. I'm looking forward to matched.

Wicked-Sassy said...

I SOOOOOO agree. I've always explained the difference as to why I like Alexandre Dumas while going comatose while reading most other classics.

The man is a storyteller. And there are few things I love more than story tellers :)

Erica M. Chapman said...

Fantastic post. My favorite storytelling book is THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE by Jandy Nelson.

I was completely hooked by the first chapter. Unbelievable writing. It's hard to pinpoint what a storyteller is, but I know when I see it. It's that way they can guide you through the story. It doesn't seem contrived. It's just emotional and real.

I really want to read all those books on your list now ;o) Well a few I already had on mine!

Matthew Rush said...

I totally agree Elana. Storytelling is more important than writing, though both do matter. Storytelling is also subtle, and it's hard to nail down exactly what makes a story great, though it's one of those things where you know it when you see it.

gargimehra said...

Totally agree with this, and the best books combine both into one powerful piece of work.

Claire Dawn said...

I agree. When I finished FIRELIGHT, I cursed whoever it was that invented the trilogy. I want the next one NOW!!!

Karen Lange said...

I agree, there is a big difference. You can tell when you've read a book by a writer...and then one by a storyteller. Good post!
Happy Thursday,
Karen

Raquel Byrnes said...

I love reading a book and suddenly realizing that hours have passed. I blink at the room around me and know...I just got back from somewhere great.

Edge of Your Seat Romance

Nichole Giles said...

I like that analogy. A lot. And I agree. Thanks!

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