Writing vs storytelling: what’s the difference and why does it matter?

Writing vs storytelling. If you’ve never considered the difference before, they may sound like two sides of the same coin. But, for the fiction author, considering this question often goes to the very heart of why they create.

Writing vs storytelling: definitions

But first let’s get some definitions squared away so we can make sure that we’re on the same page (pun sort of intended). For the fiction author, it might on the surface appear that ‘writer’ and ‘storyteller’ are just different words for the same thing. After all, you write stories. Both words are in there. How can you separate one from the other?

But let’s scratch that surface a little.

A writer writes, obviously. The best ones know just how to string together words, the right words, for clarity and effect. They understand the impact of rhythm, metaphor and other techniques of rhetoric.

But the words and sentences on the page needn’t form a story. This blog post, for example, does not. Plenty of nonfiction writers (not all, but that’s probably a topic for another post) have no real use for storytelling skills. Think academic texts. Technical guides. News reports.

Meanwhile, unsurprisingly, a storyteller tells stories. The best ones understand – intuitively or through study – how to tell effective (and affective) stories. They know what makes a compelling character or situation. How and when to reveal information. How to plot and pace and develop tension. And so on.

But not all storytellers use the written word as their medium. The film director, the dancer, the painter, not to mention the traditional oral storyteller. All may tell stories and do so without ever having learned to write.

Writing and storytelling, then, are two independent skill sets, albeit ones that can feed off and strengthen one another (more on that later).

Writer or storyteller?

Fiction authors, I find, are often drawn to one skill more than the other, and it’ll form the basis of what they do. It’s usually related to the thing that first drew them to the craft, but the emphasis could also have changed over time.

What about you?

Are you a writer-author, drawn to the words first and foremost? Do you love the sound and poetry of words, their ability to paint vivid pictures and generate a certain mood or emotion? Do you love fiddling with your prose and Getting It Right? Have you turned to storytelling mainly as a vehicle for all these wonderful words of yours, as something to give them more context and meaning?

Or are you a storyteller-author, more focused on the characters and events that inhabit your pages? Do you see writing as a tool more than as the thing that, by itself, draws you to what you do? Perhaps you chose writing as your medium because you do love the written word, but the story’s still the thing for you. Or perhaps you’ve chosen to write books because it’s far more accessible than, say, film-making or video game creation, especially since the indie author revolution.

You may also find yourself equally or similarly attracted to both skills and that is, of course, absolutely acceptable. Generally, though, I think authors lean one way or another.

My name is Luca and I’m a storyteller

Me, for example – I definitely consider myself a storyteller first and foremost. I love learning about storycraft and thinking about how and why stories work or don’t work. The outlining stage is my favourite, and it’s a lengthy and detailed one.

Comparatively, I don’t love the act of writing as much as I enjoy the feeling of having written.

I do have a great appreciation for how the written word can be used (this book and this book were eye-opening experiences), and it’s not for nothing that I’ve gone into editing and proofreading.

But, as a writer, is there a certain part of me that would forgo the drafting process altogether, and jump straight from outline to finished manuscript? Absolutely.

It’s not the overwhelming part of me. If nothing else, I would miss the satisfaction of looking at a completed piece and knowing that I created that. But it’s a part of me nonetheless, which is why I’m a storyteller first.

A friend of mine at university was the opposite. While I was focused on characters, on experiences and on connecting with readers, he was more concerned with the language, with evoking a certain mood, and he had little interest in writing for an audience.

He enjoyed writing for the sake of writing. I tend to need a reason, a focus. (Probably part of my Questioner nature.)

We also never quite seemed to “get” each other’s writing, and I think our different approaches had a lot to do with that.

It’s perfectly possible, I think, for two authors with such different approaches to produce similar work. But it’s my theory that differently aligned authors – especially at the more extreme ends and if allowed to run “unchecked” – tend to produce different types of work.

Which brings me to…

Okay, but what’s your point?

… the reasons any of this matters.

Well, first I admit that I find this sort of thing fascinating in and of itself, separate from how useful it is to know it. How stuff works, especially very human stuff (as opposed to, say, a toaster), is just innately interesting to me. Blame my Ravenclaw streak.

That said, I do think that there is some real practical value to be gained from looking at writing vs storytelling and considering which one calls to you more.

Knowledge is power. You know the old adage, and it’s no less true when it comes to self-knowledge. Knowing yourself – your strengths and weaknesses, your preferences, motives and aspirations – is going to help you guide your writing practice.

Let me use myself as an example.

Having identified myself as a storyteller, I can:

1. Embrace my creation process…

…whereby I spend a lot of time in outlining, gradually building the story, layer by layer. I have learned that the more I know about my story before I start drafting, the smoother the process tends to be. And I mean to the point where some sections are planned right down to each beat, with lots of dialogue written out already. I find that not having to think so much about what I’m saying frees up the brain space I need to figure out how to say it.

A writer-author might be more comfortable just sitting down and starting to write, seeing where the story takes them since the words-on-the-page part of it all is comparatively more effortless to them.

I also find that separating the storytelling and the writing like this means I produce very clean first drafts.

2. Probably disregard literary fiction as a genre I would write in…

…given that it tends to have a greater emphasis on ‘fine writing’. There’s lots to potentially unpack in that simple statement, but since this post isn’t about literary fiction, I’ll simply direct you to this excellent article, and say that though quality writing is important to me, at the end of the day my writing is probably more ‘workmanlike’ than ‘fine’. And I don’t particularly feel the need to change that.

3. Consider other mediums with which to express myself.

For example, years ago I used to make fan-videos (first for the band Travis, later the tv-series Glee), where I used video and music to create (or re-create) a narrative. Storytelling – no writing involved.

I’ve also taken university modules on writing for screen and radio. These obviously both involve words on the page in a way that video-editing doesn’t, but they’re very different ways of writing since the end product isn’t meant to be read but rather viewed and/or listened to.

These are all things I could, and might, explore further.

4. More accurately diagnose my strengths and weaknesses…

…and be mindful of how I decide how to address them. I can emphasise the things I most enjoy and am good at, making sure they truly shine. And I can decide to what level I need to address the things I’m less immediately proficient at.

And, sure, I could have done that without having identified myself as a storyteller. But because doing so separates my purpose (storytelling) from my tool (writing), I can perhaps do it with a bit more compassion and conviction.

Not that I don’t ever have doubts about my storytelling abilities or feel stuck with a story. But usually then it’s framed in my mind as an interesting challenge, a problem I can’t wait to find the solution to.

When I have writer struggles, on the other hand, it’s more to do with frustration at how generally slow I am at writing anything halfway decent, which is a problem I’ve yet to find a real solution to.

But knowing that I’m a storyteller first helps me accept this struggle as part of my process, rather than an indication that I shouldn’t be writing in the first place.

5. Seek out and commiserate with other storytellers…

…and have greater understanding of the ways in which writers operate differently, and know that that’s okay. Perhaps we can even learn from each other.

Don’t box yourself in

What about you? Are you a writer or a storyteller, and what lessons have you learned from knowing that?

Having said all of this, I’d urge you to not allow these labels to box you in. Like all labels, they’re here to serve us. To help us better understand ourselves and each other, not to limit us.

Are you primarily a storyteller but find yourself interested in exploring a complicated literary technique, or are you hoping to be the next Man Booker Prize winner? Go for it!

Are you a writer whose latest novel has led you into some complex plotting territory and you’re afraid you can’t make it all come together coherently? Don’t despair!

Remember that these skills are not at the opposite ends of a spectrum, but are independent of one another: improving one does not mean losing proficiency in another. It’s not actually an either or situation.

As fiction authors, our focus may be one or the other, but we need both storytelling and writing skills. Storytellers need prose that, at minimum, isn’t distractingly bad (and what that means may depend on your audience). Writers need to ensure that their words form a narrative strong enough to interest their readers.

The good news is that, though the skills are separate, they do feed into one another. Good writing strengthens a good story, making the experience more real and enjoyable. A good story strengthens good writing, imbuing it with meaning and context.

I’ll leave you now with an example of a piece of art that I think brilliantly demonstrates this concept. Here shadow theatre act Attraction combine their dancing and shadow play skills with storytelling. The story is a fairly simple one (I won’t spoil it), but the performance would not have been half as effective without it.

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