Thursday, September 13, 2012

You're a Storyteller, Not (Just) a Writer

Titles lack nuance. But they work, if you're reading this now. :)

Susan Kaye Quinn, Young Adult Author
I'm using my website banner, because it speaks to the topic at hand.

Some people are natural-born storytellers. But even if you're devastatingly funny at the dinner table and can regale your friends with the hilarity of your trip to the grocery store, you're still going to have to learn the craft of storytelling if you want to write an entire novel full of story.

Many writers become so in love with their written words that they forget that a story isn't made from them. No more than it's made from the spoken words you use or from images on the screen. It's the imagination behind these words, something that exists in a snapping of neurons inside our heads, that creates story.

This was brought into full relief to me a few months ago when award-winning producer Beth Spitalny asked what I had in mind for the live-action trailer we would be making for my Mindjack series. I've never written a screenplay before, even a short one, but I pitched my idea to her anyway. It boiled down the essence of the story, the basic conflict of the characters told in a moving image format, with a beginning, middle, and end, just as any story should have. The final script that Beth wrote was very close to the images that were playing in my mind. It was a direct transference from one media to another, going through two brains in the process, but keeping the story intact. (I can't wait to see how it looks on the screen!)

Story isn't just plot. It isn't just images one after the other. It lives in the feelings it evokes. The laughter and tears that it causes. The brain-tingling possibilities it conjures. This is what readers respond to.

This is all very romantic, but how does one go about becoming a storyteller, not (just) a writer?

I tend to think of writers and story as being like the Blind Men and the Elephant: viewed one way, we can use structure to understand story; viewed another, we see the emotional journey of a character compelling the story forward; yet another, we see the deeper lessons that a story is embedding in the readers' minds.

All of this work is right and good (and necessary) to becoming a good storyteller. But first we have to pay more than lip service to the fact that story is important. As writers, it is too easy to fall in love with a character or a world and forget that delivering a satisfying story to readers is what is most important.

Right now I'm working on the second draft of my current WiP, Free Souls. This is my most heavily plotted novel to date, because I have to make sure I get the story right. Getting the story right is crucial in every novel, but a wee more complicated (and in some ways, more important) in the last novel in a series. It's like getting the ending right in a regular book. Readers will forgive a lot of things, but not an ending that leaves them dissatisfied. So I wrote and re-wrote the chapter-by-chapter outline for this novel a couple times, making sure the story would hold together, before I ever wrote a single scene. When I finally wrote the first draft, things shifted around and I made some new discoveries, but for the most part, the story held together.

Only during the second draft am I worrying about things like complete sentences and pretty metaphors and tight action sequences and witty dialogue. I'm diving deeper into setting and the emotional arcs of secondary characters. Those are things that a writer does, before she lets that work go out into the wild. Because she takes pride in her work and because it's just not readable without it!

But the story is already, essentially, there.

I'm not saying you have to plot a novel to make the story work (although I do think it helps, even if you're a natural storyteller). Your process may involve discovering your story by pantsing your way through it. I make no judgments there. I do think that you should focus on story first, however you get there, and words second, in order to make your story the best that it can be.

How do you make yourself a better storyteller?
Susan Kaye Quinn is the author of the bestselling Mindjack series. Her most recent releases are the short novellas The Handler and The Scribe. You can find all her books on Amazon, Barnes&Noble, and iTunes. Susan's business card says "Author and Rocket Scientist," but she spends most of her time writing, because she loves it even more than shiny tech gadgets. When she's not writing, you can find her wasting time playing on TwitterFacebook, and her blog.


  1. Wow, Sue, thanks so much for that brilliant post! I'm really excited to see your book trailer. Even more excited to read the last book in your series. I'm on your beta-reader list, right?

    How do I make myself a better storyteller? I seek out story. Most people I meet are glad to tell me a story or two. When I hear about great stories in whatever media they be in, I go check them out. I especially love folk tales, and have several collections that I just love to read through.

    I've read books, taken workshop classes, and read internet sites about various methods of story structure, but I think when it comes right down to it, we don't know what makes a story great any more than we know why a symphony is beautiful. Sure, I can learn about chord progressions and melodic lines, but to compose something really amazing? That can't be taught. You just have to do it, try it, work it, tweak it, try again, until you get something wow.

    1. Yes, of course you're on my list! :)

      And you make an excellent point about crafting being something you have to DO, not just STUDY. We are lucky in a way to be immersed in a story-filled culture, so we don't have to go far to soak up great stories. But to create them ourselves? Only the hard work of practice can make that happen.

      Another enlightening tidbit came to me over the summer when I was writing two short novellas back-to-back. I love both of the stories, but found the one with the more internally-conflicted character was easier to write, and more loved by readers. The story flowed easier, almost like it was already written, just waiting for me to discover it. When you stumble on something like that, that's when I start to believe there's something just a bit magical in the creative process.

  2. Thanks for this fantastic insights!

  3. Ooh, excited to see that live-action trailer! I like how you've described your method for developing your current WIP. I need to outline my next book and I believe it's going to need to be done chapter by chapter.

    1. I encourage everyone to try outlining, especially if they haven't done it before. You'll be surprised what you learn about your process! Good luck!

  4. Susan, I'm excited to see your new trailer! What a fascinating adventure to create a story, share it with someone else, and see them bring it to life on the screen. You also bring out some excellent points. I love what you said about storytelling, and evoking emotions, which takes practice and more practice. All my favorite books aren't the author's first. I shudder to think what I'd have missed if they gave up early, or didn't continue to improve their storytelling skills. Thanks for a great post!

    1. The trailer is certainly an adventure all to its own!

      You are so right about our favorite authors not becoming our fav's on their first book (necessarily). Rick Riordan wrote in an entirely different genre (adult mystery) before he became one of my fav children's writers. Thanks for the wonderful comment. :)

    2. Oh, wow, Jonene, what a fantastic point. I know I've thought more than once, "Dang, why does my first book have to be my first book?" Suzanne Collins wrote a whole series before she started "Hunger Games," and I've heard more than one reader say that "Host" is better than "Twilight."

  5. Excellent post. I always need the reminder that perfection doesn't happen on the first try or in the first draft. I really like the idea to focus on story and emotional arcs. Thanks for that. :)

  6. Great advice! Thank you for the reminder. :)

  7. And I always know when I read a story, the first page, the sample, whether the emotion behind the story is there. Those are the stories that stay with me. But a big part of me are the words that represent the emotion. The sentence structure, the words used, the paragraphing...all that plays into whether I buy a book.

    Can't wait to see the trailer.


What be on yer mind?