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Writing vs. story telling

Surprise! A post that's not about technology!

I talk a fair amount about the difference between writing as opposed to story telling. Plenty of story tellers don't write fiction at all. They might dance, or write music or poetry, or tell stories out loud. Or they might work in visual arts like painting. But all fiction writers have to also be story tellers, and some are better at one thing than the other.

This is how I explain the success of some books that I consider not all that well written, like THE DA VINCI CODE or TWILIGHT. Those folks told a good story, even if they didn't write Pulitzer Prize-winning prose (how that's for alliteration?).

I think a fair number of people are born story tellers, but I think people who are born writers (in that they can write well from the get-go) are rare. I also consider that choosing to tell stories as written fiction means you will probably need to learn some things; I know I have. For me, one of the most important things (and most difficult) to learn was "What needs to be on the page?" That's very different from what needs to be in the writer's head.

In my head, I need to know everything about a character— what his/her childhood was like, whether he/she has siblings, got along well with Mom and Dad, was disappointed in life, the works. Once I get that clear, and I'm into telling the story, I have to decide what does the reader need to know and what's the best way for him/her to learn it? It's true I have to be sure all the logistics are correct, that the character could do what I say he's doing, but that doesn't mean the reader needs endless detail explaining all that.

Over time, I have become fond of the "write long and cut like hell" technique. That way I can ensure the logical flow of events, and be sure I've accounted for how and when things happen. The trick is, I don't get so attached to my own prose that I refuse to cut a word because it's all so wonderful. Every sentence should either advance the plot or tell the reader something about the character. Telling the story in as few words as possible while maintaining voice and a rich characterization is the hard part. It took me a while to figure out that just because people routinely repeat themselves when they talk doesn't mean my dialog should do that.

It's the story that matters. Figure out what it needs, and make sure that stays, and cut the rest.

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( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 10th, 2009 07:12 pm (UTC)
"Write long and cut like hell" I like that. And it's a good way to describe my technique toward writing. It's also why I write few short stories as while I'm writing more scenes and story ideas pop up and instead of me throwing them away, I incorporate them into the current piece I'm writing.

Usually that means I end up with something easily two or three times as long as I intended. That's when I start whacking away the unnecessary extra appendages until I'm left with what the story is actually about and the parts I whacked off go into the recycle bin to be used in another story.
Jul. 10th, 2009 07:15 pm (UTC)
That's a good point! It's not a bad idea to save your files to another folder before making major revisions, so that you can a) change you mind easily and b) possibly reuse stuff.
Jul. 20th, 2009 06:51 pm (UTC)
writing vs. story-telling
Just the little I read of this was excellent (I flagged the rest to finish later). As I judge my first writers' contest much of what you have to say comes to mind. I also agree about the "Twightlight" saga--keeps you reading but not necessarily the best writing I've seen--I'd love that kind of return though!

Thanks for posting--so true!

Joanna Aislinn
The Wild Rose Press January 15, 2010
Jul. 20th, 2009 06:55 pm (UTC)
Re: writing vs. story-telling
Well, thanks for commenting, and good luck with your contest!

Edited at 2009-07-20 06:55 pm (UTC)
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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