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Storytelling as a Fine Art Part 2

David Farland begins to identify the secrets writers have sought throughout history that make up a fine story.
Many writers don’t consider “storytelling” to be a fine art. In fact, the most popular storytellers often get jeers from their colleagues. When Stephen King first began hitting high on the New York Times Bestseller list, I often heard literary writers condemning his work. When John Grisham became the most popular writer in America, critics complained about his “terrible style.” When J.K. Rowling struck it big, I heard one award-winning children’s writer go so far as to call her a “fraud.” When Stephenie Meyer sold some 15% of all the novels in the English language in 2009, Stephen King complained about her prose.

One might be tempted to conclude that this is just “jealousy” talking. It isn’t. To some degree it’s a difference in tastes between consumers of fiction.

After long study, Ernest Hemingway concluded that when you look at all great writing, “it’s just poetry.” That’s only partly right. In order to have a great style you do need to have a deep sensitivity to the use of language and rhythm. In short, you need to master poetry. But most of the world isn’t so attuned to poetry that they really care.

The bestselling writers of our time—of any time—aren’t necessarily great poets, they’re powerful storytellers. They recognize a vast audience, create tales for that audience, and relate stories that people love. Each of the authors that I mentioned above shows a genius for storytelling. Stephen King is a great storyteller, and so is Stephenie Meyer. Why didn’t he like her? Is her prose truly unreadable?

I was Stephenie’s writing instructor in college. I remember considering her final grade in class and thinking, “This young woman has a very interesting and unique voice. If she ever really gets consumed by a tale, she could go very, very far.”

She’s quite readable, and she’s a far better stylist than King gives her credit for. But she wasn’t writing for Stephen King. The truth is that she was writing to young women, not to older men. Stephen King was so far outside her audience demographic that he just couldn’t quite connect with her, and since he didn’t connect to her tale, he had to blame the storyteller.

That of course is the problem with storytellers. If you’re not part of their intended audience, you won’t be captivated by their tale. You’ll end up outside the crowd, wondering what in the world everyone is so excited about.

Not all great writers are great storytellers. Have you ever read the work of a consummate stylist that left you cold, someone who wrote reams and reams of prose in a gorgeous voice, but whose work ended up having an anesthetic quality? I’ve read entire tomes where nothing of interest happened to anyone, where the writer seemed to work harder and harder to write more prettily about nothing at all. I recently read a novel where the author’s breathtaking prose described a porch on a lonely ranch house in tremendous detail—some twenty pages. I could see it, feel it, taste it. Big deal. I’m sure that I could have found a ranch house just like that within five minutes of my house.

So I look for writers who have a balance of skills, ones who can engineer stories that enthrall me while delivering them in acceptable prose. I love John Grisham, Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, and dozens of other big-name authors. I recognize that none of them write the most gorgeous prose that I’ve ever read.

In fact, I know that if they tried, their prose might only become a barrier to my enjoyment of their stories. Elegant prose I like. But too often the work of stylists is written for style alone. It becomes overwrought.

Over the ages, storytelling as an art form has come under attack by many writers and critics. One can point at romance novels or Westerns or science fiction and point out their similarities. It often seems that authors are repeating the same story over and over with just the slightest variations. Thus fiction that has a strong form is derided as “formula” fiction.

It’s true. When a powerful and original storyteller comes along (I call them “genre builders”), they often inspire imitation. Thus, when Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island, he told a great yarn, one that inspired thousands of followers. Most of those people couldn’t write at a publishable level, and their manuscripts never saw the light of day, but thousands of “Pirate Stories” were published, enough so that entire novel lines and magazines were devoted to them for fifty years after Treasure Island was written. Stevenson built a genre.

In the same way, we saw imitators of Stephen King in horror, Terry Brooks in fantasy, John Grisham in thrillers, Rowling in children’s literature, or Stephenie Meyer with paranormal teen romance. Some of the imitators were far better stylists than their predecessors, but lacked the genre-builder’s facility for storytelling. Consequently, their works are eventually forgotten.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that style isn’t important. I’m just saying that the import of telling a riveting story shouldn’t be ignored. An author must stand on two legs—style and story.

Yet as a young man, I found when looking for books on storytelling that it had been ignored. Many teachers on college campuses in the US even today refuse to discuss genre literatures (which are considered to be formulaic), claiming that they’re not “real literature.”

In an effort to divest themselves of formula, many writers sought to create “stories” that had no form. Hemingway, for example, truncated his stories, cutting off the beginnings and endings. Others, like Wolfe, sought to write “slice of life” pieces that included some loving character portraits along with bits of fine description. Such experiments failed far more often than not, though much can be learned even from the failures.

Artists at that time in the mediums of poetry, music, and painting were also trying to discover new ways to express themselves, so that we had various experiments cropping up—poetry that was un-metered or un-rhymed, music that was cacophonic or avoided self-resonance, and paintings that sought to draw out the viewer’s emotions by the use of color and texture rather than by portraying any realistic images, and so on.

If you look at literary critics of that day, it’s not hard to find statements that don’t just denigrate formulaic fiction, but that attack all formed fiction at once. Some critics believed that life is random and purposeless, and that the human mind simply tries to “make sense” of life through storytelling. They concluded that “all stories are therefore dishonest in nature.” Stories happen rarely, if ever.

They’re right in some ways. Stories don’t often happen to us in the way that we relate. Even when a story does happen in real life, we sometimes don’t recognize it for months or years, because there is so much “unimportant garbage” that happens in-between the relevant incidents.

Yet stories are vital because something in stories is strongly tied to how we learn and how we create communities. I’ll talk more about that later.

So as I approach this book on storytelling, please don’t believe that I’m saying that story is “all important.” It’s only part of the equation. Storytelling is a complex art, one that requires that creator to have a deep understanding of how to create a world and characters, how to deal with conflicts and resolutions, and how to integrate the new insights that come from this into a successful tale.


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