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Is there a difference when it comes to fiction?

Storyteller or Writer?

By Damon Nomad

I recently read back through some writing advice from John Grisham, I enjoy reading his books. He said it was important to focus your effort on your writing goal. For example, if you are trying to write for suspense with a page-turning thriller don't spend too much effort on the setting and deep dives into the character's thoughts and feelings. He was clear that you could not ignore the other elements, but you should decide what you want to emphasize.

That got me looking at some reviews of Dan Brown's work, he has been hit hard by literary critics in the past. I found some interesting statements by some of his critics. In admitting his commercial success, one critic admitted Brown's books were entertaining and fun reads. Another said Brown was a good storyteller but not a good writer. His opinion of good writing was heavily influenced by the mechanics and quality of the prose. This may make sense in elite literary circles but not with the vast majority of people looking for their next novel. I also know that many critics have called Grisham a master storyteller.

This got me thinking. Is there a difference between being judged as a storyteller as opposed to a writer, when it comes to fiction? I am sure that writing good fiction is more about storytelling than the quality of written prose or technical skill as a writer. But that begs the question, what is good storytelling in fiction?

The experts break different directions in answering this question. Generally, split along the plot versus character conundrum. One camp measures the quality of a story by how successful the writer is at moving the reader through an emotional journey using the story arcs of the main characters. The other group judge quality by how successfully the plot line moves the reader along Freytag's pyramid. Exposition, inciting event, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Some crusaders take extreme views in this debate, most consider both measures emphasizing one over the other.

What do readers want in a story? Well put a hundred readers in a room, and you will get dozens of different answers. For fiction, I think you will find two large group preferences along the lines of the experts. Those who want the central focus on the emotional experience of the characters and those who want a fast-paced storyline with surprising twists. In either case, the writer cannot ignore the other dimensions, but they should know their intended audience. Right back to Mr. Grisham's advice and that does not mean that you should not work on the mechanics of writing.

Circling back around, I think you can be a good writer by becoming a good storyteller, even with only adequate mechanics. I don't think you can be a good fiction writer if you aren't a good storyteller, regardless of your mastery of the mechanics of prose and grammar. In the world of fiction, I suggest that the terms good writer and good storyteller should be considered interchangeable synonyms. You have to decide what kind of storyteller you want to be.

My focus instinctively is developing plot lines that move the reader on a journey through Freytag's pyramid. I am still learning that I need to devote more time to character development and the other elements of the story. I hope I can become a good storyteller, even with the frailties of my grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure. I may be too old to fix some of those old habits but I will not give up on trying to improve the mechanics as well.

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