Shannon Stacey

Storytelling vs. writing

Excuse me while I continue my recent descent into laziness and refer y’all to Alison’s discussion on storytelling and writing. (I don’t even know what trackbacks and pingbacks are, never mind whether I should be using them here. I do, though, know what a cornerback is.)

Ellen said:

I’m still confused about the difference between “writer” and “storyteller.” It never occurred to me there was a difference between the two terms until this discussion came up. Could someone please explain the difference to a sleep-deprived mommy in extremely simple terms, please??

I never really considered the difference until this conversation, either, so therefore had a little trouble grasping other responses. Just as with the wordsmithing conversation, I think it’s a matter of what one word implies to one individual (and once again it seems to mean something different to me *g*).

To me, storytelling and writing are two sides of one coin, but I’m having a hard time putting my finger on why or how. My initial response to the word “storytelling” (paging Dr. Freud…) is to think of oral traditions of storytelling. I picture Great-grandpa sitting in front of the fire, unable to read or write a single word but his name, yet able to spin a yarn of his childhood that enraptures his young audience. “Writing” is spinning that yarn on paper, a process of storytelling, followed by editing and revising and crafting that yarn until the story is the best it can be.

My husband is a storyteller. We sit on the front porch with the neighbors in the summer, and the man can tell a tale. Whether of good times or bad, those stories totally engage his audience. But give the man a sheet of paper, and he’d be totally lost. A writer he’s not.

I’m a writer. Put me in a group of people and I’ll get a laugh or two, but my storytelling attempts usually end with interruptions or people having to pee. I need the editing. I need the revision. Perhaps that free-roaming, just-get-it-down first draft is storytelling. I don’t know. But I need the process to spin a yarn. The process of writing.

11 comments to “Storytelling vs. writing”

  1. Alison
      · February 25th, 2005 at 12:30 pm · Link

    See? You’re explanation is EXACTLY my feeling! The oral ability to tell a story vs the ability only to do so on paper. That’s why I consider myself a writer. And my husband is like yours. He can yammer on and on and entertain orally, yuck yuck, but he struggles to write what he wants to say. So, imnsho, you’re spot on!

  2. Jaci
      · February 25th, 2005 at 3:24 pm · Link

    Thank you for clarifying this for someone too stupid to grasp the concept and respond earlier. *g*

    And I agree with both of you. My husband has stories that he can recite and entertain for hours on end. I could take one germ of an idea from one of his stories and ‘write’ an entire book about it. I’m a writer, pure and simple. I have an idea, and from that idea comes a plot. From that plot comes writing. And after the writing is done comes the icky part…revisions, editing, the usual torture.

    Okay, I feel better now and my brain doesn’t hurt as much. ;-)


  3. Diana
      · February 25th, 2005 at 7:23 pm · Link

    Grandpa around the fire is a storyteller. A movie director is a storyteller. The photographer creating an article of photojournalism about the regerneration of the American west is a storyteller. A novelist is a storyteller.

    Some novelists are more “storytellers who are writers” and some are “writers who are storytellers.” I don’t know if you can decide which one a particular writer is by asking how long they spend with a thesaurus. After all, a movie director might spend dozens of takes getting the light just right for the sake of the story. Words evoke mood, as Shannon said in a previous post.

    I think that, these days, most storytellers choose writing as their medium, and many writers, because of their love for the written word, are enamoured of books. SOmetimes they can be both, and sometimes they can tell an awesome story, but won’t ever have the same writing ability. There are also people who have excellent writing ability, but can’t tell a story.

    I’m one of those who think you can learn writing, but are born with story. You might not ever be Oscar Wilde, but you’ll learn writing enough to make your story shine.

  4. Shannon
      · February 25th, 2005 at 7:35 pm · Link

    Very well put, Diana.

    So here’s a thought I’ve been dwelling on because of this discussion. I’d put forth that Stephen King is a brilliant storyteller, but a mediocre writer.

    And how many people complain of the “rules” that Nora breaks in her books? Another case of natural storytelling ability overcoming craft?

    I think they’d both be “storytellers who express themselves in writing.”

    Steven Spielburg(h?) is a storyteller who expresses himself visually, I would think.

    I’m having some trouble making that go the other way, though. Somebody who’s a “writer who is a storyteller.”

  5. Shannon
      · February 25th, 2005 at 8:16 pm · Link

    As opposed to a writer who writes textbooks. Doh, Shannon.

    Anyway, can excellent writing abilities mask less than excellent storytelling abilities? Could one make a career of analyzing a line, it’s necessary story elements, and crafting the right words without an inate storytelling ability?

  6. Charlie
      · February 25th, 2005 at 9:18 pm · Link

    Did I ever tell you about the time my uncle took me to the bar with him so I could get my first piece? That’s storytelling. Writing is entirely different.

  7. Jaci
      · February 25th, 2005 at 9:41 pm · Link

    well you didn’t tell ME that story! *g*


  8. Holly Lisle
      · February 25th, 2005 at 10:30 pm · Link

    Generally when editors and agents refer to you as as storyteller, they mean you aren’t literary. Writers can be either, but storytellers don’t focus on the prose art so much as on getting on with the story.

  9. Diana
      · February 26th, 2005 at 1:15 am · Link

    I think I’d disagree with you there. I think Stephen King is an excellent writer. He very carefully chooses his words to instill a true sense of fear in you as your read. He pays a lot of attention to rhythm and description and names. He’s a storyteller who is also a writer, though, I think his love of the story is greater than his love of the written word. He’d be just as happy if he was getting the story across in movies. I’d say that Nabokov was a writer who was also a storyteller. The word “ecstatic” is most often used to describe his prose. That man had a phenomenal love for the English language, and it shows in everything he wrote, but he still told some pretty gripping stories — but it’s the language, foremost, that carries you along. So there are two examples of people who have both talents, but might be slightly more interested in one than the other.

    To compare it to artists, you’ve got Caravaggio, who can make a pretty gripping scene, and has an excellent sense of light and paint and how to use it, versus say, Van Gogh, who doesn’t give a crap about technique as long as the viewer feels what he’s trying to say (and, he couldn’t afford good paint). Now, the modern view in art is that technique and medium etc is not as important as message, as emotion, as story. I’m just waiting for the Warhol movement to sweep through literature.

    I think the problem is in trying to say that everyone is one or the other, or that one is better than the other, or more literary or whatnot. The successful people are both — they have to be. The other problem are those people who equate beautiful wordsmithing and not much else for good novel writing, who look at Nabokov and think, well, if I can string words together as cleverly as he does, I’ll have Pale Fire, no matter what crap happens in my story. And those people are called Cormac McCarthy. ;-) It’s decadent, like the people painting traditional oils as the Impressionists were cutting a swath through France.

    Okay, off to bed before I get delirious… ;-)

  10. Maili
      · February 26th, 2005 at 9:37 am · Link

    Hm, are you talking about the narrative style? That’s what it seems to me here [forgive me if I interpreted your response incorrectly].

    [FWIW, I’m one of those who don’t associate ‘narrative’ with ‘plot’. Plot is, IMO, narrative *structure*.]

    More I think about it, more I believe that a creative writer is the manipulator of a written language to create a story, and a storyteller is the manipulator of all five senses to create a story. Both work in fiction and non-fiction, and neither is better than the other. It’s just a different method or skill to tell a story. That’s what I think so far, anyway. :)

  11. Kris H
      · December 28th, 2006 at 5:49 pm · Link

    Hello! I just happened on your website as I do research for my master’s thesis on oral pre-rehearsal (oral story-telling) to get ready for writing a story (in a 2nd grade classroom). It looks like I’m 2 years too late with a response to these remarks, but want to remind everyone that writing stories comes directly from oral storytelling. Our roots as writers come out of the oral tradition, where it is still alive and well in many parts of the world. Actually WRITING stories is not a very old tradition. Thanks for letting me post. Onward!

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