There are hundreds (possibly thousands) of essays and articles online attempting to differentiate between writers who tell stories and storytellers who write books. Many people will say that it doesn’t matter; that it’s all semantics. Which led me to wonder…. is it?
As polarising controversies go, it’s not a very big one. I mean, it doesn’t rate up there with “Pantser vs. Plotter” or “Literature vs. Genre” or “Self Pub vs. Trad. Pub” or whatever the cool kids are arguing about these days. Nonetheless, it’s a topic that comes up from time to time.
What are writers and storytellers?
Chances are, when you read the title of this essay, one of those terms resonated with you. Maybe you consider yourself a writer. Maybe you consider yourself a storyteller. Maybe you consider yourself both. Or neither. But before we start talking about the difference between them, what do the terms even mean?
Let’s move past the simple definition of “a writer writes” and look at what the title of writer actually means. Without going all dictionary-phile on you, let’s define a writer as someone whose purpose is to write books, poems, stories, or articles. A writer is someone for whom the art of writing is paramount — grammar, word use, punctuation, etc — and knowledge of that craft is used to record stories, be they fact or fiction, through the media of written words.
We can define a storyteller as someone whose purpose is to tell stories, whether they be fact or fiction, for the purpose of entertainment and/or illumination. A storyteller is someone for whom the art of storytelling is paramount — character, tension, climax, personal growth, etc. — and knowledge of that craft is used to tell stories through whatever medium will best reach their intended audience. Which, in the modern day, is often writing.
But it’s not that simple…
I would wager that most people here have learned to be both writers and storytellers. To be successful, writers must learn the skills of storytelling and storytellers must learn the skills of writing. So, why does it even matter?
Well, it doesn’t.
Understanding your own natural way of approaching this complex, challenging, exciting, soul-destroyingly wonderful writing-thing can be very helpful to understanding your process. And it can help overcome those most terrible of ailments: Writer’s Block and Imposter Syndrome. Self-awareness, my friends. It’s not just for devotees of Dr. Phil.
Let us cast a romantic eye backwards a few hundred years; back to when the difference between being a writer and being a storyteller was more pronounced. In a world where your average person didn’t know how to read and write — and didn’t have the time or inclination to learn something that was of no practical use in the day-to-day business of survival.
A writer would likely be found amongst the clergy and the wealthy elite. The ancient 1%, as it were. While there were undoubtedly exceptions, the written works of past ages were either written for posterity or for the consumption of others of their own ilk. Philosophers, generals, priests, rulers, and pre-sociology-sociologists recorded their world and their wisdom through the media of words — and many of them are still recognised as great thinkers even today. Eventually, you ended up with writers such as Snorri Sturluson and the Grimm Brothers, who recorded stories that had been related amongst the common folk for generation upon generation, and thus ensured their continued survival.
Storytellers, meanwhile, were those common folk. You would find the around campfires and hearth fires, telling tales they’d learned from their parents, and others they’d invented themselves. Storytellers existed to amuse and inform; to sing songs or tell stories of love and mystery and horror and heroism. They told tales of what happens to villagers who wander into the dark woods alone under a full moon, and how excessive pride will fell even the greatest of men.
These days, reading and writing are accessible to (almost) everyone. Writers are no longer writing for the cultural elite, and storytellers can reach a bigger audience by putting their stories into written words. The distinction between the two literary traditions has been eroded by progress.
But when you look at the writers you love (and hate) it’s still possible to see that distinction.
There are modern writers who clearly cleave more strongly to the writing tradition. When you read their books, you are transported by the language as much (or more) than by the story. They have a way with words that can leave you breathless. They record the world — any world — and the people within it in a prism of language that is a thing of beauty, and make us care about the story in the process.
There are modern writers who seem to have no idea how to write well (from an undefined “objective” perspective), and yet reach hundreds of thousands of readers with the power of their characters and stories. These are the authors about whom people say, “The writing is terrible, but I couldn’t put it down. I just love this book.”
And then, of course, there are the people who can do both. But I would argue that they started in one tradition, and learned the art of the other.
But how does that help me?
Good question. See how these ideas float your boat.
- You will be more naturally adept at the skills that belong to your more natural tradition. If you’re a writer, crafting beautiful sentences and flowing narrative will be easier to learn. If you’re a storyteller, the distinction between adverbs and adjectives might be muddy in your head, but you’ll find it easy to craft authentic characters and a satisfying narrative structure. Revel in your natural talents. Keep learning about the things that come naturally, obviously, but be aware that you will need to put more effort into learning the skills of the craft you are less comfortable with.
Note: This is note a Literature vs. Genre thing. I know plenty of storytellers who write literary fiction, and there are some amazing writers who write genre fiction. This is simply about knowing your own natural strengths and weaknesses, and working to improve your abilities.
- Writer’s Block. We all know it. We all hate it. But, chances are, when writer’s block rears its ugly head, it’s because you’re struggling to operate in a way outside your comfort zone.
- If you’re a writer at heart, stop trying to force the story and just write some beautiful prose. Give yourself a break and just write what you want to write without worrying about how it fits into the story. There’s always revision.
- If you’re a storyteller, let go of wanting the perfect sentence, and just tell the story. Tell it out loud if it’s easier. And then just write down what happens without worrying about how the words sound. There’s always revision.
- Imposter Syndrome. You know how it feels — you’re sure that at any moment, everyone is going to figure out that you’re a fraud. Well, here’s the thing: you are. But, then again, you’re not. Instead of getting caught up in the angst of feeling like an imposter in a world in which you don’t belong, remind yourself of what you are.
“I’m a writer.”
“I’m a storyteller.”
Take it from me, acknowledging your own specific path does wonders to reduce the fear that you’ll be found out not to be a real part of the other group.
Whether you’re a writer, a storyteller, or someone who has managed to read this entire essay while secretly thinking that everything I wrote is complete bollocks, we’re all in this together. So go forth, writing storytellers and storytelling writers alike, and create words and worlds of wonder.
Do you think of yourself as a writer or a storyteller? Do you think there’s a difference, or do you think I’m lost in semantics?
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