Keith Snyder
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The difference between writing and storytelling

GASTON: I would like a wine. The purpose of the wine is to get me drunk. A bad wine will get me as drunk as a good wine. I would like the good wine.
—Steve Martin, Picasso at the Lapin Agile
I finished the task I had scheduled today for my nonfiction proposal, and the boys are down for their naps (which doesn't mean they're sleeping), so now I'm allowed to write about writing.

Paul Guyot said recently:
See, there are great writers. And there are great storytellers. And every once in a very rare while, God looks down and hands the combo platter to someone. A great writer AND a great storyteller. You may think there's a lot of them out there, but guess what - you're wrong. And I know a few of you believe great storytelling is great writing and vice-versa... I used to think that, until I read each without the other.
Do you other writers remember that sudden dawn of understanding? I do, though I don't remember what book or story I'd just read (or written) that made it happen.

So when I read Guyot's comment, I thought, Yeah, that's something that isn't understood. It's also something experienced writers assume is obvious, and you're stupid (or just not cut out to be a writer) if you don't get it. Writers think all kinds of stupid crap about their profession, and regardless of how much insight they think they have into the human condition, they're just as myopic and blindly superstitious as anyone else about the difference between what you're born with and what you learn.

Since my lifelong dream is to be free of bullshit--not just yours, mine too, and I have little hope on either count--I thought this was a good topic for a blog post. What is writing, and what is storytelling? This is not something you need to be born with. This is something you can learn. So maybe this will learn somebody.

Point of confusion #1: The term "writing" is used when the speaker means the completed combination of "writing" and "storytelling."

So let's differentiate for the purpose of this explanation, with the understanding that the word actually has more than one meaning. (And with the further understanding that I can pick on as many things in this thesis as you can, but just go with me.)

Storytelling is what you show happening. Writing is how you say it.

He goes to the place and finds the thing? Storytelling.

The reader can't shake the image of the place? Writing.

The dialogue reveals where the thing is? Storytelling.

The dialogue hits the ear in a pleasurable way? Writing.

Storytelling is like making up a joke. Writing is like making up a poem. They have different goals; one's about the pleasure of the ending, the other's about the pleasure of the journey.

(Yeah, I know. I already said I could pick on as many things as you could. But this is pretty much what writers are getting at when we say, for example, "The story had problems, but the writing was tremendous." The things you're feeling the urge to argue with are fine points. Stay with me on the broad strokes.)

Which is more important? It depends on what you're trying to do. If you want to get to a hell of an ending, you'd better be good at storytelling. If you want to evoke atmosphere or character that stays with the reader, you'd better be good at writing.

And yes, they blur and blend. Sometimes a given sentence or paragraph serves both purposes; or--if you're really in need of a rewrite--neither.

Some books are great because of how great one of those things is, and the other... not so much great. The strength of that one aspect is so pronounced that it's the whole point of the book. In popular fiction, that's usually the storytelling.

I was going to provide a metaphor, but the problem with metaphors is how quickly they evaporate as soon as you try to extrapolate them. It was going to be something about bridges, about how a bridge may get you from here to there but be no pleasure to drive on, or it can be lovely to drive on but poorly constructed. I was going to provide three photos of bridges, maybe the Brooklyn Bridge, and some utilitarian cheap-but-functional thing, and maybe some surrealist painting where the bridge doesn't connect to the other shore, and say "Which of these is the best bridge?"

The Brooklyn Bridge. It gets you there and is a joy to look at. Part of what's so great about it is the beautiful curves of the cabling--and part of what's so great about it is the functional curves of the cabling. But the metaphor falls apart quickly when you start poking at it, and I'm too lazy to find the pictures.

I was also going to give examples of famous writers who are good at each of those things, but then I remembered that people strong at one thing don't like the implication that they're not good at the other. So I won't. What I'll say instead is that Guyot's absolutely right that most people don't get the Combo Platter.

My opinion is that you can work on whatever you're weak at. Great at evocative description and tuneful, oddball dialogue? You can learn how to make a plot. Great at misdirection and stakes and payoffs? You can learn to make a character live.

The catch is, you'd better be willing to take a lot of risks and do a lot of difficult and uncomfortable work. If you're not, you're stuck with what you already know.

Vaughan Williams was considered a sort of plodding composer through a large part of his life. Not one of the brilliant young musicians--not one of the anointed-by-God. He worked until sufficiently advanced. The Lark Ascending is indistinguishable from magic.

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