What's The Difference Between Writing And Storytelling?

Are You a Writer or a Storyteller?

What's The Difference Between Writing And Storytelling?“I am a writer!”

This is one of the most important and freeing statements any of us ever makes. It’s almost a rite of passage. The moment you can look your banker/hairdresser/pastor/aunt in the eye and tell them (without mumbling) that you are writer, hear you type—well, then, congratulations, you’ve crossed an important threshold in claiming your power as an artist.

However, not to complicate your victory or anything, but what you may really be trying to tell Pastor John and Aunt Lucy is that you’re a storyteller. Or maybe you’re a storytelling writer. Or is it a writing storyteller?

Or maybe I’m just nitpicking, because aren’t they basically the same thing? Aren’t “writer” and “storyteller” pretty much interchangeable?

Yes and no.

Yes, we pretty much assume that if someone is a fiction writer, then they’re also a storyteller. And vice versa: if they’re a storyteller, then, more than likely, they’re writing those stories down.

But also, no: because “writing” and “storytelling” are, in fact, totally separate skill sets. One does not automatically come as a BOGO with the other. Even though we are all interested in both, most of us still gravitate more strongly to one or the other. One of them was the reason we started creating novels, and the other was something we learned along the way.

Understanding whether you are more naturally a writer or a storyteller can help you take better advantage of your strengths and address your weaknesses in the most holistic way possible.

What Is Writing?

Definitions first, please. If there’s such a big difference between writing and storytelling, then what is it?

Writing is, well, writing. It’s the art of putting words on the page in a pleasing way that accurately, efficiently, and sometimes artfully conveys information. It’s what I’m doing right in creating this blog post. What I’m not doing is telling a story.

Writers come in all stripes and sizes. Some of us do indeed tell stories. Others report facts, offer inspiration and encouragement, or create technical guidance. However, for our purposes, we are, of course, interested in those who create stories—specifically, fiction.

The moment you put words on the page to evoke a story, you’re a writer. But just because you’re telling a rip-roaring old yarn doesn’t mean your writing is, perforce, equally riproaring. You can be a fabulous storyteller and a downright awful writer.

Writing is the skill of evoking the reader’s imagination. It’s wordcraft. It’s the mastery of narrative technique. Following is a sample listing of skills that fall under the heading of writing:

What Is Storytelling?

Storytelling, on the other hand, has no inherent connection to writing. Storytelling is the tradition of discovering and portraying the dramatic patterns of life—and if you’re a good storyteller, sharing them with enough suspenseful emotion and resonant truth to steal the hearts of your audience.

Storytelling happens across media. We find it not only in novels, but in movies, television, poetry, song, painting, photography, even dance. Humans, by nature, are storytellers. We seek to translate our experiences into cohesive snapshots—both to capture them as memories and to discover any deeper meaning they might offer.

Storytelling is the skill of finding the universal truths of human experience and translating them into cohesive drama. When we talk about any of the following, we’re actually referring less to writing and more to storytelling:

How to Develop These Two Different Skill Sets

Story, by itself, is little more than raw emotion and imagination. Transforming it into a medium others can appreciate and understand requires a skillful translation technique. By the same token, writing alone is nothing more than sensible, and possibly pretty, words strung across the page. To tell truly great stories, we must master both skills.

So which is your strength—writing or storytelling?

One clue may be your preferred approach to your books. Do you prefer to discover your stories in an outline before writing the first draft? Or do you prefer to discover your stories while actually writing the first draft?

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, all successful writers must use a mix of writing techniques: plotting and pantsing, logic and creativity, storytelling and writing. Each of us organizes these processes differently within our own approaches.

My experience in teaching outlining to thousands of writers over the years has shown me that much of the resistance to outlining is simply due to writers not having yet understood outlining for what it really is—brainstorming—and/or not having yet found a flexible system of outlining that works for their creativity and lifestyle.

However, something I realized about myself recently helped me see this from an even better perspective. I realized what I love most about the craft is not actually writing but rather storytelling. In turn, this is one of the main reasons I love outlining so much.

Outlining allows me to separate and further focus my two necessary skill sets. In outlining, I get to focus on the storytelling without having to simultaneously worry about creating a perfect narrative technique that will convey that story to my readers. Once the outline has afforded me a complete and solid story, I can then focus on using my writing stills to bring that story to life for readers in the most evocative way possible.

This isn’t to say this is the only way, or even the best way, to balance these two very different skills. But it’s important to at least be aware they are different. If you’re struggling with trying to tell your story from scratch in the first draft, or wondering why you always end up with messy first drafts that require a lot of revising, it may well be because you’re trying to do two things at once: discover the story while telling it to readers.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter at all whether you were first drawn to fiction out of your love of story or your love of wordcraft. What matters is that you learn to perfect both.

3 Ways to Become a Better Storyteller

1. Learn to View Story From Both the Inside and the Outside

The psychology and technique of story is vast and complex. It’s like a massive diamond. You hold it in your hand and turn it every which way, trying to see all the different ways the light catches its facets. And even then, you still don’t see all there is to see; you have put it close to your eye, maybe get out your magnifying glass, and look deeper, all the way to its glistening heart.

Storytelling is like that. To truly understand and master it, you can’t look at it from just one perspective. You must move back and forth, looking at it from afar to see the big picture of how all its pieces fit together, then closing in to consider the beat-by-beat cause and effect of how it develops paragraph by paragraph.

Arguably, a good story’s most important qualification is cohesion. The halves must align. The questions asked in the first half must find their answers in the second half.

This is where outlining can prove a valuable aid (and why I’m so excited about our brand-new Outlining Your Novel Workbook computer program!).

By stepping back from the story and first considering its big picture, you’re able to make sure its questions are finding the right answers, and that its answers are paired to the right questions. Outlining allows you to address the throughline of your story’s structure, so you can make sure the big pieces are all in their proper places before you start sorting through the little pieces and trying to figure out where they go.

2. Look for the Story Beneath the Story

What is story? It’s many things, of course. But if we strip it down to its beating heart, what we find is theme. A story (no matter how casual or puerile) is a statement about the world.

When you start out by looking for that statement, you will be able to immediately identify what your story is about. This, in turn, allows you to choose the right plots and characters to best support that story.

You can then use this knowledge to see your story clearly. You can strip away the pieces that don’t belong or that are resulting in dead ends, and focus on creating a story that resonates thematically in the most powerful way possible.

3. Study Story Theory

Ultimately, storytelling is really all about story theory. If you start studying and perfecting any of the subjects we mentioned above (plot, character, theme, etc.), you are learning how to be a better storyteller.

Storytelling is a creative art form that wells up, instinctively, from the human psyche. As a result, perfecting its conscious mastery is, in fact, a pursuit of human psychology. It is a perfecting of our veneration and respect for life itself. It is a study in awe and humility. It is a search for Truth.

You can’t be an excellent storyteller without first being a devoted student of life.

3 Ways to Become a Better Writer

1. Learn How to “Show”

If storytelling is about gathering and organizing metaphoric interpretations of life, then writing, in its turn, is about more than just sharing these gleanings. Rather, it is about bringing them to life.

Writing fiction is the art of dramatizing. We don’t just want to tell readers about our story; we want them to live it.

This is why perhaps the most fundamental tool of narrative writing is “show versus tell.” This is the technique of dramatizing, rather than summarizing events. It is the skill of choosing vivid nouns and verbs and parsing them in active and immediate sentence constructions.

It is also, arguably, the single most challenging aspect of writing excellence. That’s as it should be, though, since if you can master the balance of showing and telling, you will have mastered the ability to go all Inception on your readers and bring your visions to life in their own imaginations.

2. Practice the Art of Information Dissemination

What are you doing when you’re telling a story? You’re sharing information, right? But anybody can do that. The trick to good writing is disseminating that information in the most aware and artful manner possible.

This, too, ties back into an awareness of psychology. Basically, what you’re wanting to do is create an intricate dance that mesmerizes readers into allowing you to temporarily control their minds. You give them just the right bit of info at just the right time to help them visualize the scene, to nudge their emotional reaction to a character, to inspire them to ask the right questions.

This technique works hand in hand with that of “showing,” and like showing, we might say it is the whole art of writing all to itself. Although certain of its principles can be taught (e.g., “scatter descriptive details throughout a scene” or “share backstory only as it becomes necessary” or “use action beats to ground your setting during dialogue“), this is ultimately a skill that must be developed through personal experience.

Which is why it is so important to…

3. Practice

The art of storytelling can largely be learned without practicing. All you have to do is study stories and study life. (There are many excellent students of story theory who are not, in fact, particularly skillful conveyers of those stories.) Writing, however, you must practice.

The rhythm and flow of good prose, the ability to choose evocative details that “show” readers, and the instinctive understanding of what info to share and when—these are all largely skills that cannot be taught. Rather, writers learn to perfect them through, first, a conscious observation of the techniques of other writers, but then, most importantly, by actually getting down and dirty with the words on the page and learning how to control them.

This is yet another reason, I prefer to separate the storytelling and writing processes, via outlining. If I can get the largest of the vital storytelling questions out of the way before I start writing, this frees my focus in the first draft so I can concentrate on the intricate task of narrative wordcraft.

Perhaps, like me, you were a storyteller from your earliest memory, and it was this love that led you to the companion love of words and writing. Or perhaps you have always been a logophile, addicted to the rhythm and grace of words on paper—and this love gave you the further cathartic and enlightening gift of storytelling. Either way, both gifts are ours to explore, to expand upon, and to use in writing amazing stories. Recognizing the differences in these two skill sets can help you improve upon both, as you optimize your writing process to best suit your creative needs.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Were you drawn to fiction first as a writer or a storyteller? How do you think this propensity has shaped your personal process? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Garrett says:

    First off, to answer the question posed: I was drawn to fiction first as the idea of a writer, I think. My interests in the subject started in photography, then in to cinematography down the rabbit hole to stories and finally storytelling. You know, that second question is great. I’d say I relate to the process of coming to stories the same way you do. The part that I love most about the whole process is the *storytelling.* The part that allows me to spend most of my time under the surface in the subconscious, really just playing around. That’s the most fun for me. I can think of a solution to something that’s bothering me, and then instantaneously change my mind and do something else (it’s really the like the mind’s giant white board)! It’s more of a pure process than writing ideas down on paper then scribbling them out (not that I don’t write them down).
    The writing is a separate process for me in which after I’ve figured out the story I want to tell, the words need to take shape that gets the lovely intent across. So, I guess I’m more in love with the storytelling process and theory than I am with the actual writing. However, the more time I spend writing (words on paper), the more I am smitten with the difficulty in saying what I mean, in the least amount of words, in the best way possible.
    On a separate note, I just wanted to say this article has really shown your maturity and growing process maybe more than any (besides maybe the personal post you wrote about if writing matters) other since following your blog. I can tell that you’ve really come to a new place in writing, where you are seeing the possibilities no longer as an impossibility, but as a challenge to overcome with the knowledge you have. It’s really amazing to see that! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’re a photographer? I didn’t know that. Very cool!

      I do feel like these past twelve months have been a watershed year for me in my evolution as a writer. I’m in a different paradigm now, which is very cool–particularly, since I wasn’t expecting it, having no clear notion there *was* another paradigm to be discovered. :p It makes me even more eager to discover what the future holds.

  2. Alas, I haven’t been able to comment much lately as work and life have become quite demanding. But I have been keeping up with the posts. So I’m just popping in to say I found this breakdown was both helpful and useful. I enjoy how you’ve lately been re-examining the essentials of what it means to be a writer. Keep the good stuff a’comin!

  3. In Dramatica terms, I think I’ve figured out that storytelling is best learned from the outside in, and done from the inside out. Let me explain.

    The first thing they ever teach you in language classes is perspective, represented by pronouns. I, you, we, they. That’s pretty easy to master, and has probably been around since languages were devised.

    Then, you have plot, which, in a very basic sense, Aristotle figured out as having the beginning, middle, end that schools and whoever else preach today, but it’s not as fundamental as perspective.

    Thirdly, Variation (or Theme), which is more complicated than plot and is a kind of nuance beneath it. This is harder to define, but should progress naturally while remaining consistent (there’s a paradox for you).

    Character is the ultimate goal. Character has been invented and reinvented a kabillion times, as the theoretical possibilities are complex and practice is complicated. This is the point where stories become art (or, in some circles, entertainment). The conflict is, we expect character first and foremost if nothing else, (an ideology that dominates works by William Faulkner or Chuck Jones). From there, we expect variation, theme, plot, and finally perspective, which are often cut away to certain degrees when writing shorter works. A skilled storyteller can start off with only characters and make something great of it.

    However, if you start off with character, ideas can be left out of the story, so you have the option to tweak your characters after you decide your themes, tweak your characters and themes after you decide your plot, and so on.

  4. I think I came to storytelling through writing. Literacy and language have always been strengths for me, and as a child and teenager I devoured books day and night. My teachers always praised me for being able to write excellent descriptions, and in academia I excelled at essays and analyses.

    Until one day, my freshman composition professor nailed me on a problem that I didn’t even know I’d had. While I could put thoughts and words together beautifully and come up with something that had dazzled my high school teachers, he wasn’t buying it. “Your paper has no theme,” he told me, and from that moment on, I began my search for what was missing from my writing.

    Enter learning about storytelling, which forced me to align my thoughts around a central theme and keep them there, instead of wandering through beautiful rabbit holes. It improved both my academic and my creative writing, and was the catalyst for doing the work and the studying it took to finally finish a novel and publish it.

    I also have you and your blog/books to thank, Katie. Without learning about story structure and the wonders of outlining, I wouldn’t have learned that valuable lesson nearly as well or as quickly as I did. 🙂

  5. When I first started writing stories, I would just pants my way through and invariably get stuck. These days I have a planning process and what surprised me is that I developed a different awareness of my story telling. For example, when I write a scene I have an almost instinctual awareness of what the implications are for scenes I have not even worked on yet.

    My process, these days, factors in enough flexibility that I can discover as I write but I know the overall fate of the characters. I write more, writer (I hope) better stories, and I finish more too. Overall, I’d say I have more fun by doing the hard part first.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! I know precisely what you mean. I always feel like Luke when Obi-Wan says: “Congratulations, you’ve just taken your first step into a larger world.”

  6. I think I am naturally a storyteller, though I love beautiful prose as well. But for me the beautiful prose is important not because it is beautiful, but because it adds to the story, to the depth of emotion and character I can convey myself or experience in another writer’s work. It also helps to make the world of the story come alive, which is one of the reasons I read and write, to explore other places and times through a character’s eyes. So I guess what I’m saying is that for me, writing is the hammer and anvil with which I forge stories. The trouble is I often feel like a swordsmith who has an image in her mind of the most beautiful blade, how it will cut and handle, but can’t get the hammer to strike true nor the metal to bend as it should. It doesn’t help when I go back and read old writings that at the time I thought were brilliantly conveying emotion and character, and find now to be heavy-handed and melodramatic. *sigh* All part of the journey, I guess. At least I can see the melodrama; now I just have to figure out how to avoid it. 😛

  7. Writer here, married to a storyteller and reminded often how envious I am of that innate ability lol. I particularly liked your point about outlining – how you like to outline because it’s the story itself that grips you. I’m the opposite. My inspiration isn’t in the outline but usually in the character and the need to tell their story and step into their world and explore it. While I recognized a lot of basic requirements for a narrative arc instinctively, I had to force myself to step back and take a more holistic view of the world my character inhabited. I’m still learning but I’m much better now, I think, at giving each character a role and meaning and at identifying the core theme(s) and how to knit everything together to reinforce it. Definitely still a work in progress there though.

  8. Is it possible to be a mix of both? I`m an avid reader and I read for the sake of the story. I will always write to tell a story, but I care a great deal about the prose. I happen to love rewrites and I strive to touch a reader with the prose as well as the actual story.

  9. What I’m? Probably a quack, a dabbler.

    I started as an avid reader, quickly turning to the original, untranslated material. Not only because I hated waiting for one doing the translation, but much more I found that much got lost due to translation.
    As part of my hobby and later work, I wrote much non-fiction. Telling (and showing) how to achieve objectives, and much more important, how to overcome mistakes or required diversions. I wonder how glorified my high school teacher would be, if they would know how much I fell in love with the English language, yes, even its grammar and historical idioms. I would almost (!) dare to consider me as a wr… But no.

    Much later, while listening to an audio book, on a long ride, I started wondering. As stretching my imagination to the limits, is part of my daily job, it was nothing new. But this time I wondered about all possible left-out details, parallel and new story lines. Monts later, back at home, I wrote them down. Made a page with character characteristics, a rough skeleton of events that could have happened. Each idea, plot, dialogue, carefully inserted into the rough schedule.

    The first pages, simply made me smile, cry, or caused goosebumps.
    Now, 350K words written, writing and reading back cause the same sensation.
    Am I a writer? considering the pile of errors I still make, I have a bumpy road still ahead.
    Do I consider my self a story teller? Far from that, so much still to learn. But I have a story to tell, and according to some beta-readers, they are longing for it.
    While writing/plotting, I learn. Some lessons are hard and bitter. That’s the price of naivity.
    Perhaps, one day in time, I’m forgiven for my mistakes, shallow lines, obscure pointers ahead, double meanings, intended offences. Only then, I would dare to consider myself as a writer and story teller.
    Until then, just a word bungler.

  10. I love this article! After reading it, I feel like your soul sister. You wrote so compellingly about two things I feel strongly about, and though I feel at heart I’m a storyteller, I also love writing the words to tell the story. Your outlining method sounds just like mine–I love crafting the story first, then writing it. I love story so much that I write my own blog on the power of story. I admire the way you identify yourself on your blog, and hope we’ll meet someday. Thanks so much for posting this excellent article!

  11. Wonderful article! Never thought about it in such a depth. My stories were always in my head and I was reshaping them until I was satisfied with all the twists and turns. So I am a storyteller that actually never told them to anyone. 🙂 One day I felt I need something new in my life and I had just the story in my mind, so for the first time it goes on paper/screen. It is a whole new universe! Thanks, Katie, for all the tips and masses of information on your site!
    I like also to put the right words together to convey the image and the feeling that I first have in my mind, but its more work than storytelling which just happens naturally.
    “A story (no matter how casual or puerile) is a statement about the world.” I like that. A one small part of the world you want readers to focus on.

  12. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    That’s great! Up through my teens, my stories were very private as well. I told them for myself, not for others. I only started writing them down because *I* didn’t want to forget them. Sharing with others and learning the art of writing was a gradual outgrowth from there.

Trackbacks

  1. […] via Are You a Writer or a Storyteller? — Helping Writers Become Authors […]

  2. […] “Are you a writer or a storyteller?”, author KM Weiland does a pretty good job of explaining the difference between writing and […]

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  4. […] book is comprised of two very different, but equally important aspects: story and execution. For a book to work, both must be brilliant. You can have an excellent story, […]

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