Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Must writers be natural storytellers?


While I've always loved escaping deep into the pages of a great story, and I've enjoyed writing since I was a child, I've never fancied myself a natural storyteller. I envy the writers whose stories gush from their minds faster than they can type. For me, each plot point, character, and scene must be pried from my brain.

Thankfully, I don't believe The Big Lie--that writers are born, and if you don't have what it takes, you'll never get it. Storytelling can be learned. Here are some ways we can become storytellers, and improve our skills:


Critique partners: my writing buddies are so talented, and I learn something new from them each time I read their work. Yes, we help our partners when we critique, but we also gain knowledge.

Writer's days or conferences: I've only been to one-day conferences, but each time I've left the event feeling energized and ready to roll. If you're on a tight budget, like me, mark your calendars for the awesome WriteOnCon, taking place August 16-18. It's free!

Writer's and agent's blogs: the amount of information floating around the blogosphere blows my mind. Elizabeth S. Craig created the Writer's Knowledge Base (also linked on my sidebar). Type in the subject you need help with, and a long list of related blog posts appears. The Bookshelf Muse is an amazing tool for writers who need help with descriptions for characters, emotions, weather, and so much more.

Read great books: thanks to D. U. Okonkwo's smart comment, I'm adding this to the list. Thanks!

Lisa Green (one of my talented critique partners) wrote a great post about The Secret Formula to writing great books. And Justine Dell wrote this interesting post--I'm a storyteller, not a writer. Check 'em out!

Are you a natural storyteller? #jealous
What has helped you improve your storytelling skills?


53 comments:

  1. If you have that trouble crafting stories you might want to switch to nonfiction. But even the most natural storytellers still need to hone their craft.

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  2. Love this post! My Mom actually went to a Storyteller's Festival in Tennessee not too long ago, and it's so interesting to hear about the skills going into telling stories verbally. They have just as many criteria for success, with the added pressure of performing live. Both methods take creativity, practice, and lots of hard work. Thanks for listing the ways we can improve our skills!

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  3. The storytelling part comes easily, but it's the structure that sometimes feels a little more forced, making sure the style matches the tone and I'm setting the right mood...But plots, characters and scenes are the tools I use to put stories together. It's "how" to arrange them that sometimes escapes me.

    I'm starting to see that it's sometimes trial and error, and that an extra set of eyes always helps. :)

    Thanks for the book recommendations, Julie, and have a great day!

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  4. Not a natural storyteller by far, but imaginative, yes.

    I think there's a difference between being creative, and the ability to employ the necessary structure in writing fiction.

    Great post.

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  5. I come from a long line of natural vocal storytellers. The stories weren't written in a book somewhere...they existed in the minds of my dad, my uncle, my grandmother, great grandparents...and so on. There were stories of wars, living in the mountains of Austria/Czechoslovakia, coming to America, depressions, childhood deaths, etc...late 1800's to mid 1900's.

    Their stories I grew up with were true and told as if they were reading it from a great classic to me. Truth is often stranger than fiction, and my dad's side of the family had some real amazing stories to tell.

    I had to learn the craft along with the craft of writing. I've put the two together and am hoping I have something that works.

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  6. I'm probably a better storyteller than writer, but wouldn't say I excel at either!

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  7. Thanks for the links Julie, very useful! I'm a better writer than story teller, but I overcome that by structuring my story very carefully before I start writing, ironing out as many problems as possible from the start, before putting the flesh on the bones.

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  8. I agree with you, I don't think writers are born, I think they're developed. Writing is a craft that can be learned and perfected. The best writers, tend to be great readers, and that's usually because they've subconsciously been learning while reading from the best. When it cmes to writing their own stories they know exactly how to do it because they've seen the best do it on numerous occasions.

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  9. Julie, I'm not a natural storyteller, either. But isn't writing just storytelling on paper? I'm okay on paper, LOL. Great post!

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  10. I absolutely believe storytelling can be learned, because I have personally learned a lot more than I knew through talent/intuition/whatever you call it! One of the biggest helps for me was Larry Brooks' Story Engineering. I've never had a craft book more clearly explain the process of storytelling. It completely changed my writing, and I recommend it to everybody now!

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  11. Awwww, thanks! For the link and the critique partner stuff. :D That should have been number one on my list. I'm ashamed to think I take you guys for granted. You mean so much to me. :D AWESOME links btw (not talking about mine, silly)

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  12. I actually think it's a different skill--someone could be a great storyteller "in person" and not be great at writing it down. And vice versa. I feel like my writing skills are much stronger than my "performance" skills. Great post.

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  13. I think both can be learned but I also thing people have varying degrees of natural talent in both storytelling and writing. And I think reading is the biggest way to grow in both.

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  14. Yes, you can learn but I don't believe the work can ever be truly great if you don't have... the gift. You know? I mean that's why most people start writing in the first place -- because they 1)feel compelled to, and 2) see they're somewhat good at it. I have read books by people who thought they learned the craft, but don't have that certain something. I don't like those books. Sorry if I'm being harsh but that's just my opinion. Thanks for the post, Julie! :)

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  15. Some books flow right out of me as if by magic but those are rare. Most of them have to be coaxed chapter by chapter. I do believe that some have a natural born talent for writing but I also believe it can be learned to a point. Anything can be learned. But if one learns something they don't have a natural aptitude for then it will always be missing that extra something.

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  16. I'm the opposite. I am a natural story teller, my ideas and imagination flows well, but I need to learn the mechanics. It's all a learning process, whether you're a natural or not.

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  17. Plot comes very naturally to me, but I think all aspects of the craft can be learned. To me, talent is the least important -- the most important to me is passion and persistence.

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  18. Karen, your comment rings so true. Yes, talent matters, but passion and persistence can make the difference between published and unpublished. Thanks!

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  19. I'm not sure I'm a natural storyteller, but it's definitely a skill I'm trying to develop. Not just for writing, either -- masterful storytelling is really useful in social situations!

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  20. I'm so relieved to hear you say this. I've never thought of myself as a storyteller. In fact I STILL see myself more as a puzzlemaster. I like the broad plot and some odd details, and then letting them sort of stew in my mind until I have the makings of a story. I think maybe SHORT story writers might excel at story telling... I can never cohesively get a story out in that amount of time.

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  21. I think all people have a creative core. They just need to learn the skill set of an artistic discipline and that creativity blossoms. I saw it over and over when I taught at UCLA Theatre. The best actors would produce a beautiful scenic design in class once they learned the specific tools of expression.

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  22. Well, I used to think I was a really good storyteller--always was the one to sit in a group and tell the stories, but writing them down and making them good is something else.

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  23. This is kind of hot button for me. My mom is supportive of my writing, but she always brags about how my daughter's the storyteller because she comes up with so many creative things. Of course she does-she's only five, lol.

    I've never been one to sit around the group and tell stories. I was too shy and I've never gave great face time. Writing is what brings my stories out. I do agree all people have a creative core, we just need a way to channel it.

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  24. I was partier, with an ego, leading me to believe I was too cool to read… and far to cool to write, writing was the furthest thing from my mind.

    But luckily for me that all changed. I was 35 the first time I attempted to write (the longest thing I have ever written was a one page letter to a friend in the army) the story just came like a flood, encompassing me in this wonderful world filled with characters and every little detail. It was the first time I felt like I was born to do something… it felt magical.

    The sad part was I finished 30 pages in no time at all. I stood back and read what I had accomplished, and it was weak sauce—filled with horrible prose and even worse grammar (I still struggle with that) it was a joke… really.

    But the one thing I got from it all was the feeling of effortless story imagination, and the sense I was born to write. I have spent two and a half years studying and writing—and most importantly of all—I never gave up or stop believing in myself (even though there were times I felt like the world was ending)

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to ramble on, but you hit my writing nerve—I guess.

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  25. You've named some wonderful books on writing and different ways for a writer to hone his/her craft. I especially love the writing community.

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  26. Great post, Julie, and it's nice to hear you debunk the myth that writers have to be born. I think we can come to writing from different paths. Mine was not as a writer or storyteller from a young age, but rather as someone with a lifelong obsession with making sense of it all.

    Does that make sense?

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  27. Dear God, I hope not because I am NOT a natural storyteller.In fact because of my learning disability, I have a difficult time formulating my thoughts while speaking so I'm relatively quiet in person and have a tendency to sit back and be the observer so I hope you can be a good writer without that.
    good thoughts Julie!

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  28. I stink at making up oral stories - but if you give me a pen or keyboard, it's much easier!

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  29. A natural? i don't know, but I think of my writing as a stew. A little bit of everything I've learned mixed with what spills from every corner of my imagination. I stir, simmer, and see what happens.

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  30. I think good writing is the harmony of a great story concept and fine craft. It's said that voice can't be learned, but I agree, we can improve our writing skills and technique with practice. The more I learn the more I realize it's about doing the work -- and I have been neglecting mine.

    Thank you for the wonderful resources, Julie. I'll have to look for these.

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  31. I'm not sure whether I'm a natural storyteller, but I love plotting and getting to know my characters, and just writing. So, even if the storytelling takes work, it's a fun ride. And reading helps to hone these skills. There just aren't enough hours in the day for reading.

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  32. I subscribe to the Stephen King school of Writing: 90% effort, 10% talent.

    I think this post here is an excellent prescription to success, Great breakdown, woman!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

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  33. That's truly a great recipe for writing and I have used all but the conference. I didn't even start to write until last year at the age of 46, so there's no way anyone can say I was born a writer. But the story for my novel did come to me nearly whole and I had trouble keeping up with the voice whispering in my ear. Having said that, my story would be nowhere were it not for an army of critique partners. The next big story is knocking around in my head. It's not coming to me like the first. I'm using James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure to help me along.

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  34. I love telling stories and jokes but whether that does my writing any good I don't know. I think you can become whatever you want by enough enthusiasm, study and courage, regardless of talent. Although I think long legs is definitely an advantage for a high jumper lol and you wouldn't become an accountant if you were bad at math. So a bit of both.

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  35. I don't know how to answer this question. I've had good ideas, but had much to learn about the craft of writing. All the things above you mention helped me. But the thing that improved me the most was writing. Again and again. And again. And. Again.

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  36. I definitely think a person can learn to write well. However, it takes a lot more work for the same person to write a book than it does a natural storyteller. Case in point: my CP is a natural storyteller and is quite good at it. I've had to learn by her example (I'm not a nattie). But I think ANYONE can write a phenomenal book if they have the desire and the perseverance.

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  37. I'm with you, that I believe that writing can be learned. My goal is to be a good story teller and a good writer.

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  38. I am definitely jealous of people who claim that stories just come to them. I have to spend hours brainstorming to com up with a single good idea!

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  39. I took a drawing class once and couldn't draw for beans. The artist teacher told me anyone could draw. It's just a matter of training your eye to see details. I've never forgotten that. Great post Julie. thanks.

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  40. I think some elements of storytelling come naturally and others I've had to learn. I love that there are so many resources out there for writers. I'm really excited for WriteOnCon!

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  41. Certainly, most of my stories come naturally to me, as part of daily living. But I don't know whether that qualifies me as a "natural story teller." :)

    Have a great day. ...Marsha

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  42. Natural storyteller? Me? No.

    Tight Budget? Me? Yes!

    I'm so with you on this list. I use the same techniques to hone my own writing--it can be learned!

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  43. Oh my gosh, I wish. I just mentioned a few days ago to Angela that I was a better writer than storyteller. She tried to slap me from a million miles away, but it's true. Everything on your list is great. for me, Talking to other writers helps a ton--hearing stories like these that confirm I'm not alone, that lots of people struggle where I'm struggling, that writers like me do land agents, sell books, and achieve their writing goals. So thanks for sharing!

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

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  44. At first, when I got the first rejections for my first MS, I though, "I don't have what it takes." But then little by little I realized that I WAS learning. So yeah, I'm 100% with you on this one. ;)

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  45. I used to think you had to be born a writer to be one. Fortunately I eventually realized it's hard work and determination that makes one a writer. Creativity and imagination are what it takes to be a storyteller. ;)

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  46. Not all story tellers have what it takes to be writers and vice versa, they are different arts that sometimes intersect. I am a great story teller but struggle with my writing. Don't let having to work at your writing be a stumbling block it is part of the science of writing, you will do well, in fact your blog told an excellent story so you are also a story teller as well as a writer. Kismet!

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  47. The only way in which I believe writers are born, not made, is that I think we have be born with the potential to WANT to write. i.e. to dedicate all that time to it!

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  48. I saved this post to favorites. I haven't read any craft books yet and desperately need to. I'll be back to jot these titles down! christy

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  49. Julie..while writing short stories I am a natural storyteller. The words and ideas just flow from me. But, while crafting books, I tend to worry about every small detail.

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  50. I was hoping for another great post to comment on, but I thought I'd leave a new message here since I'm kind of "required" to. I left a little something for you on my blog. It doesn't look like you've participated in it yet, at least as far as I can tell, so you have my nomination. Hope you don't mind, but I LOVE your blog!

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  51. I think I might be a natural story teller. Been telling stories before I could write. ^_^

    All of the things you mentioned improve my writing. But there's an understated one that people forget: Critting other people's books.

    You see things easier when you're not biased, so you learn from other people's "mistakes" it's amazing how much of that actually carries to your own work again.

    :-)

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  52. I'm with Angela. It's 90% hard work for me too. When my kids were little people would say, 'I bet you make up fantastic stories for the kids at bedtime'. But I couldn't do that. I read them stories written by others instead.

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