Good Writers, Bad Storytellers

315994_half_1.jpgI was reminded today that good writing isn’t everything. It was four in the afternoon and I was stuck at a turning point in one of my manuscripts, and it hit me that everything I’d done to improve my writing did not matter then and there. I could have just as easily messed up the entire project by tackling the scene the wrong way, even if I did write it beautifully. This wasn’t a matter of description or style or clarity of thought – it was something more. It was story.

Story is that extra something we writers don’t really understand. Take a stroll through any bookstore today and you’ll find writing titles jumping out at you: The Elements of Style, for instance. Or On Writing, that highly popular craft manual by Mr King. But pause for awhile and note that Mr King didn’t write a book called On Storytelling. Nobody has, in fact – I’m still looking for solid works on storytelling alone.

What I’ve realized is that writing is actually the easy part of the craft. The other part – the harder one – is the ability to create a mind-blowing good tale. And that isn’t something that can be captured in a book – I’ve yet to see manuals entitled How To Write Like Steinbeck, or Where To Find Story Ideas. Things like that fall from the sky, or they don’t fall at all.

I read an article last year by a writer turned editor complaining about how hard it was to filter short stories for a collection. She quickly identified two kinds of submissions – the first was by a good storyteller with bad writing (which she could work on), and the other was by the writer who could write beautifully but had nothing to say. The first needed a lot of polishing; the second, however, was impossible to work with. These 2nd category stories were beautiful on the outside, but in the end the aforementioned editor found them to be empty. Rotten apples. Hollow cores.

So I took a break from my manuscript today. I didn’t know how to go on from that turning point – the possibilities were just endless. But that’s not the point here. The point here is that I’m thankful for the storytelling department. For my storytelling department. There are people out there who can’t pull a good yarn even if it was staring them in the face, good writing or not. And I know my writing’s not perfect, but I’m working on it.

I’m just thankful I’ve got something to say.

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Category: Learning To Write · Writing
  • Lee

    I disagree utterly. It is impossible to separate a story from the way it’s told. Otherwise, all we need to do is write a synopsis.

  • Allan T Michaels

    Have you checked out “Story” by Robert McKee? It’s written with screenwriters in mind, but I think the advice is largely transferable to any writing.

  • Lee

    What I think of the McKee is unprintable on a public forum.

  • Lethe

    I’d be interested in knowing exactly why the first commentator disagrees. Any discussion of the components of a piece of fiction relies on abstraction. So yes, in reality, we cannot seperate “story” from “writing” but for discussion we can and do. Another distinction has been made between creativity and technical ability (ie well-written prose). But I agree with this article. The way I see it, ideas come before words.

    Master the stuff, the words will freely follow.

    Horace (qtd. in Montaigne)

    The things themselves carry the words along.

    Cicero (qtd. in Montaigne)

    We can substitute “story” for “the stuff” that Horace speaks of or “the things themselves” that Cicero remarks on. The problem with most writers is that they don’t know their subject matter well enough. They’re not immersed in the story enough to tell it. At that point, words aren’t going to matter.

  • Lee

    Hi Lethe, you have a fair question, and I’ll answer it at length soon, but over at my own blog in a separate post. I do a lot of thinking about this sort of thing, but essentially, I do not see the writing – the style, I suppose you mean – as a ‘component’ in any meaningful sense of the word. Style and content are as tightly bound as space and time: you can try to separate them as a theorist, but both for a working writer, and for a reader, they essentially create each other.

  • Lethe

    I’ve found another quotation that sums up my belief. I’ve posted it to my site of philsophical quotations, but I’ll paste it here as well.

    “You’ve hit it exactly!” said Dai-yu. “As a matter of fact even the language isn’t of primary importance. The really important things are the ideas that lie behind the words. If the ideas that lie behind it are genuine, there’s no need to embellish the language for the poem to be a good one. That’s what they mean when they talk about ‘not letting the words harm the meaning’.”

    Cao Xueqin

    From The Story of the Stone, Vol. II
    (translated by David Hawkes)

  • Eli James

    Sorry for the late reply, guys. Been traveling for the past 5 days.

    @Lee: I’m not talking about style here. Style is harder to generalize, seeing as everyone has different style anyway. What I’m talking about are the basics of writing – how clear you bring your story/ideas across.

    I suppose an analogy of an academic essay can be used here – I may have brilliant ideas but if my writing sucks it won’t do me any good, because you’d be cringing as you read the article. But if I write brilliantly about fluff no amount of work is going to help me.

    I understand style and writing are closely interrelated. But you’ve got to admit there are core elements of writing that every writer must adhere to, and can improve upon – avoiding purple prose, writing gripping dialogue, clever use of words. The hard bits would be character development and pacing and other things similar to that.

    @Allan: no, I haven’t heard of it, but I promise you I’ll check it out.


    As a matter of fact even the language isn’t of primary importance. The really important things are the ideas that lie behind the words.

    True. Writing without ‘ideas’ is useless. But ultimately if we’re going to have any impact both the ideas and the writing must be good. And that’s something I’m striving towards. I’ll get there. Someday.

    I believe the journey to be worth it.

  • Lee

    Eli, you and I are fated to disgree, cordially of course. Fiction is not an academic essay. And I’m very wary about formulaic ‘core elements’.

    May I quote a brilliant – yes, brilliant, and I use that epithet very rarely indeed – writer, thinker and teacher, Marilynne Robinson?

    ‘I feel there is a great deal of highly conventional thinking in almost every area of life that must be discarded in order for a writer to make something with integrity in terms of that writer’s understanding.’


    ‘I always tell my students that you can do anything you can get away with, that implausibility is a problem of style. If people bring issues of plausibility to bear on what you’re doing, you’re not doing it well enough.’

    She states the latter in the context of a question about her use of the omniscient first-person (!) in Housekeeping – an outstanding novel – but I think it applies to all aspects of writing.

    Here’s the link to the full interview with her:

  • Eli James

    Lee, I believe I’m starting to see your point. And I have been proven wrong by you before, but this one will take some time.

    I have to say, however, that this post was written in reflection of my quest to pursue good writing. And I’ve realized in the wake of all this that my constant ‘improvement’ is all for nothing if I can’t tell you a good tale.

    I also think we’re referring to two levels of style. I’m talking about basic writing competence, and you’re talking about the higher levels – narrative and the angles with which to tackle a story.

    I’m not quite there yet, Lee. But I’ll be pondering on the interview.

  • Lee

    And, Eli, to be fair to you, I agree that there are different kinds of fiction writing, and lots of room for differences. And of course readers read for all sorts of reasons, so that much you say could certainly apply under the right circumstances. The first stage is always competence – if only I were there yet!

  • troped

    Nice to see that someone is having a similar revelation as myself in recent days. A few days ago I realized that I was in the middle of a terrible editing session. I had finished the story and was just going through it with the word processor (I use Scrivener) and was just making all kinds of tiny adjustments here and there, and then re-making them. Finally, I got fet up, got out a piece of paper and wrote the whole story from scratch–in one go. The result was awesome, and much, much more terse. I think that sometimes, even once you know the story, you have to tackle writing it once you know it by heart. All the inessential details get brushed away like so much dust from an antique.

  • lethe

    Troped: I agree. When you have the inspiration to re-write, rewriting is by far the best method. It takes a lot of energy and a lot of courage but bar-none it is the way the greats work. Saul Bellow is said to have re-written his last novel nine times. I think the reason for why this process works so much better is that the manuscript is essentially an idea in the writer’s mind. In making a re-write, the writer reworks the prima materia of the fiction; there is a vast sum of capital for new ideas and inventions. Whereas the writer who revises (instead of rewrites) is confined to the limits of a former matrix. That being said, I do it all the time. Why? Because it takes a lot more energy and courage to rewrite. It’s easier to tinker. But in my experience my rewrites are always better than my revisions.

  • troped

    You put that very nicely: “the limits of a former matrix.” I tend, these days, to just ask myself the question, “Is this worth a re-write?” and if it’s not I move on. Of course, I’ve been writing a lot more flash fiction these days, so the decision is a little cheaper. Still though, I’ve had occasion to decide that even a single paragraph was not worth a re-write. It just didn’t have that thing that “falls from the sky,” as you put it.

  • troped

    My mistake, lethe, I mixed up your quote with Eli’s. That last sentence should have said, “It just didn’t have that thing that ‘falls from the sky’ as Eli put it.” This only goes to show that comments are never worth re-writing. :)

  • Theron Gibbons

    I think there are also two focuses within the mind, rather than the craft of writing. The choice of words is unrelated to the choice of story not because the words are unimportant, but because the story must come first. The story has no words. It’s that simple. The story tells itself in your head. It can play out with a passion that comes from so deep within the rattling mind that any choice of words seems to shame it. Its voice sits under the words chosen to describe it.

    Sometimes it has such passion behind it that it wants to be told so quickly that just to get the idea down, one must look past everything and pout the concept to the page.

    This I think is what separates bad writing from story. Bad writing from a person who wants to be a writer is rare, but without story, the best one can hope for is formula. Bad writing from a seasoned author usually occurs when the passion to tell the story, which is ultimately wordless, meets the intersection of time for word choice. That feeling and energy simply overrides all the discipline governing craft and word choice.

    Without story, words are useless.

  • Jane

    A good writer is a mixture of a story-teller, and a writer. Both are important, and both make up a good story. One can’t survive without the other. (Well, technically it could, but it would not be quality work.)The story,plot,and characters are important, but the prose is also important and when used properly can be extremely effective to the plot.

  • Toby

    I think good stories have foundations in the nature of suffering. The bookholder at one end is about animalistic patterns of survival and the bookholder at the other end is about ultimately about human spiritual transcendence (or realising the experience of ‘oneness’), which is a near impossible idea to portray! Every story is somewhere in between these two.