April 30, 2013

Why Is Storytelling Ability So Important?

Footbridge heading into woods with text: Tell Me a Story...

What makes some poorly written books fall flat on their face while others succeed despite their flaws? One common answer is “storytelling ability.”

But what is storytelling? The concept can seem vague and immeasurable—rather like “voice.” A recent experience with two poorly written books gave me insight into how a deeply flawed story can still hold our interest and be enjoyable.

For the first time, I’m judging a couple of published books for a contest. Most contests for unpublished work are judged on a portion of the full story, often the first so-many words or pages.

In contrast, this contest requires judges to read the entire story, and I’m learning that seeing the whole story makes me focus more on the big picture. In other words, that vague “storytelling ability” we hear about becomes more important.

A Narrow View Forces Us to Focus on the Superficial

When we read a partial, whether as a contest judge, critique partner, or beta reader, we see only a small bit of the story. We see a portion of the character arc (usually the beginning) but not the full arc to understand how the characters change. We see hints of the story question but don’t get the full schematic of intersecting plots and subplots.  We see some stakes but not how they escalate over the course of the plot.

That narrow vision of the story limits our ability to score or give feedback. The score sheets of unpublished contests tend to focus on mechanics (grammar rules), characters seeming believable, clear settings, smooth flow, realistic dialogue, etc.

All of those elements—mechanics, description, dialogue—are important to the quality of writing. Yet they can also be somewhat superficial aspects. They don’t get to the heart of storytelling.

Good Writing Doesn’t Equal Good Storytelling—and Vice Versa

As writers, we’re trained to see writing mistakes: too much telling, bad grammar, cheesy dialogue, etc. It can be hard to see past those to understand how storytelling ability could make those mistakes less important—or in some cases, completely irrelevant.

In a sample, we can’t see how themes develop. We can’t see whether there’s a successful resolution to issues. We can’t know if tension is held and increased throughout the story. With full stories, we can, and that lends a greater depth to our impression of the story.

Unlike a partial, full stories allow character arcs to show change, subplots to make plots more interesting, and escalating stakes to up the tension. All of those elements are ingredients of “good storytelling.”

The Tale of Two Stories

Two stories I read for this contest were poorly written. They both lacked voice, were too telling, had no subtlety or subtext, and had one-dimensional characters.

Yet I enjoyed one, regardless, and not the other. Why?

The differences—as minimal as they were—add up to storytelling ability. The story I enjoyed felt “bigger.”


  • The characters seemed slightly more dimensional (one-and-a-half dimensions?) by being vulnerable (such as the stakes having real consequences for them), and therefore more likable and relatable.
  • Stronger connections to the likable/relatable characters made me care more.
  • The characters learned and grew (barely, but just enough).
  • Changes to the characters, due to their (tiny) arc, provided a framework for a vague theme.


  • The story structure was sound; turning points, Black Moment, and Climax were evident (that is, the story always felt like it was going somewhere).
  • Subplots enriched the main plot rather than distracted from it.
  • The plot was filled with real conflict rather than contrivances and conveniences.
  • The premise was more unique.

Conflict and Stakes:

  • Conflict organically flowed with the story rather than seeming disjointed and episodic.
  • Goals mattered to the story and characters (and thus to the reader), giving strong motivations.
  • The plot arc ramped up the tension with bigger conflicts and stakes as the story progressed.
  • Conflict needed real solutions rather than solving with coincidences.

So What Is Storytelling Ability?

The unsuccessful story’s conflicts and subplots seemed disconnected, never adding up to a bigger story or an interesting premise. The characters never grew, and the hero and heroine didn’t “complete” each other (as is typical in romance stories).

The lack of any growth prevented a sense of a theme. Themes require change. What a character learns over the course of the story is at the heart of a story’s theme. If a character doesn’t learn anything, neither can a reader. (Unless the character not learning is the point of the story.)

At the end of this story, I was left with no sense of why the author wanted to tell this story other than to make money. The formulaic story had nothing to say to readers. It had no purpose.

The more successful story had characters that grew and that I cared about and had arcs that made each conflict and subplot part of a bigger whole in a unique premise. In short…

The story’s arcs and themes made it feel like it had a purpose.

What Difference Does Storytelling Make?

Because I had to read both of these stories in full for the contest, I can tell you how I would rate them on Amazon or Goodreads. (I won’t actually review them in either location, as judges have to remain anonymous.)

The story I didn’t enjoy would end up around 1.5 or 2 stars. The grammar mechanics weren’t bad, or else I’d give it a solid 1 star.

The story I did enjoy would end up around 3.5 stars. Yes, the characters were all Mary Sue/Gary Stu’s and the voiceless writing style was too telling and head-hopping, but the story itself— how the characters, plot, conflicts, goals, motivations, obstacles, and themes worked together to create a unique, purposeful premise—was quite good. This story had something to say.

The storytelling added two stars to my rating. Fix the writing issues, and I’d probably have given it a 4.5 star review.

As writers, we have to learn and focus on many things. However, we shouldn’t let the skill of writing overpower the art of writing. Write stories you’re passionate about because they have something to say, and readers will be more likely to listen. *smile*

Have you ever enjoyed a story despite its writing faults? What made the story enjoyable for you? What do you think goes into storytelling ability? How would you define “storytelling”?

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Buffy Armstrong

It is hard sometimes to pinpoint just why you love one story over another, but I think you are right. It does come down to the story telling. I can give you a tale of two books – one beautifully written by an academic who knows her way around the English language and another not so well written by a woman who has no writing background whatsoever. Now the first book was hailed as a smart woman’s paranormal romance. (Like only dumb women read paranormal romances. I should have realized the problem right there.) I couldn’t wait to read it. I ended up not finishing to stupid thing. Though everything was beautiful written (or at least correctly), I couldn’t stand the two characters. The pace was agonizingly slow and frankly, I just didn’t give a damn. Every time I pass the stupid book in a bookstore, my ire flares. It’s been two years and I’m still offended by this book. The second book wasn’t so well written, but the author was able to write a story that grabbed the reader. I devoured that book and went on to read the other three books in the series in like a week. I can step back now and acknowledge the problems with the story and the writing, but I still defend the writer when someone criticizes her. She may not be a great writer, but she is one hell of a storyteller. I think the crux of good story telling is the…  — Read More »


Thanks for another great post!

I just finished a book (YA historical fiction) that I thought was poorly written, but I read it in one day! The characters were flat, the dialogue clunky, and the history too obvious, but I still enjoyed it. I suppose it was the storytelling aspect of it. It was a good story despite the flaws.

I think the whole pantheon of the Great Authors is filled with well-written, but dull novels. I rarely want to go back and re-read anything I read as an English major in college. Sad, really. It’s as if college professors deem storytelling less important than fancy writing. In fact, I’ve even heard people say, apologetically about something they are reading, “It’s JUST a good story.” To me, storytelling is everything!

This also helps me to clarify why my son and I are not getting into Battlestar Gallactica. The story isn’t moving. Stuff happens in the episodes, but nothing seems to be happening to move the story forward or to flesh out the characters. I’m about to give it up.

This is something I definitely need to keep in mind when I write my own stuff! 🙂

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Interesting point about a good story having a purpose, where characters grow and learn, which creates change, which leads to themes, a premise, and a message or something to tell. I do myself like stories better when the characters (or at least the protagonist) grow or even transform in some way. Character transformations and how he/she becomes so different from before, when you look at them now and how they were like in the past, feel quite magical to me, if that makes any sense. Yet I always thought that stories with character change were the norm—and only really really rebellious stories have no character change at all, e.g. the Samuel Beckett plays. William Faulkner’s stories (at least, the ones I read: “A Rose for Emily”, “Barn Burning”, “Light in August”, “Sanctuary”, and “The Sound and the Fury”–yes, I’m a Faulkner fan, lol) don’t seem to have any character growths either, yet I still really love them. Maybe because there are plots, even if they are from the past. Something actually happens, even if it’s told in retrospect or only hinted at. (The Sound and the Fury was particularly baffling as you just don’t know what happened, but you know something happened; you just have to try to figure it out from the clues scattered everywhere, without any order, in the novel.) Apart from the disturbing plot underlying his stories, the main reason why I like them is because they are so unsettling, and he makes such strange associations with…  — Read More »


Very interesting post with a lot of inspiring and helpful information. Having completed my first draft I’m now in the process of re-writing and this is where the serious learning curve begins! Right now I am juggling both elements and trying to balance one with the other. Hard as it is, and oh how frustrating it can get, I still love it! Maybe because it’s my first but a learning curve is a good place to be! 🙂 xxx

Tamara leBlanc
Tamara leBlanc

Buffy, I’m still trying to understand why the publisher or the author would have thought saying “the smart woman’s paranormal” was an efective way to snag reader interest…seriously? What morons! Jami, I feel you on the contest thing. It’s very hard to get the overall gist of a story when you’re only reading the first three chapters. it’s even worse when the contest doesn’t include synopsis. Grrr, how on Earth can a judge get any sense of the arc, romance, story in such a short word count? It’s tough. I’ve judged many, many, many contests, and I’ve read some…crap, and also some truly brilliant work. I can think of one in particular that was INCREDIBLY enjoyable. The story telling was superb and I devoured every page, made a note at the end for the author that I wanted to buy the book the second it was published. But the darn thing had loads of grammar issues, I was constantly stopping to correct them and having to stall my enjoyment. I had to give it a lower score for that reason and it killed me to send it back that way, but…PROOF READ BEFORE YOU SUBMIT, PEOPLE 🙂 Now, that one was not published (not then at least) but I’ve read many published novels over the years that I couldn’t believe had been picked up by one of the big six houses. Who’s reading these novels and thinking they’re good enough to slap on a shelf? It boggles my mind that…  — Read More »


Actually, a book I just read by someone who’s otherwise a “favorite” author of mine fell into this category. The author wrote a trilogy, then years later, went back and wrote two sequels. The first sequel is the one I just read.

And if the book had been by an author or in a series I wasn’t already invested in, I don’t think I’d ever pick up book #5. As it is, I’m reluctant. Book #4 contained a lot more blatant theology…and it’s doctrine that I disagree with. Strongly.

But that disagreement isn’t exactly what bothers me. What bothers me is that the story has a particular focus…while denying and ignoring the implications of that focus. (It’s comparable to having a character who’s always after the next dollar to the detriment of everything else, but ignoring or overlooking that she’s greedy.)

To be fair, the specific focus involved is fairly common, in some denominations, though the author takes it to an extreme I’ve not seen before. But still…the dissonance between what’s stated in the text and what’s actually being implied bothers me.

Renee A. Schuls- Jacobson

You realize I’m shaking in my shoes right now, right? Because I’m certain I’m the sucky storyteller. I’m trying to believe you are not talking about me. Gah! *insert choking noises*

Lana Williams

What a great topic! The ability to tell stories seems so difficult to really pinpoint sometimes, but I totally agree with your thoughts. I especially like this comment: “Themes require change. What a character learns over the course of the story is at the heart of a story’s theme.”

Characters learning and growing over the course of a story (or a movie for that matter) is what really draws me into a story. Well said!

Linda Adams

I’m one of the people who read The Da Vinci Code and enjoyed the story. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one because when a group of writers gets together to talk about it, they hit all the flaws. I didn’t even see the flaws because it was a good story.

Curiously, my critique group was discussing Harry Potter last week, and one member said it fell apart for her because the world building didn’t hold up. I didn’t even notice. It was a good story.

But I also ran across a story, self-published, about a woman Naval officer who would later in the story end up on a submarine. Fantastic writing, and yet, I only got 50 pages in and had to stop. The story wasn’t there.

Matthew Jude Brown
Matthew Jude Brown

I was going to mention Dan Browne as well; the literary world spends a lot of time sneering at certain “hack” writers who have “inexplicable” success, and I think what the critics are often missing is that, despite all their glaring flaws, said writers know how to tell a story and keep the reader reading.

Yet one so rarely sees anyone trying to seriously analyze their success. Often, there are many superficial, sneering analyses that are more an exercise in feeling superior to said author and their readers than trying to work out why they were successful for-real.


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Taurean Watkins

Jami, while as a reader I agree there’s endless truth to what you said in this post, and Serena’s various replies in the comments before me, the writer in me just can’t embrace this as easily, which doesn’t mean I think you or Serena is wrong, but writers have to face this in ways lay readers who don’t write just don’t.

That’s not put away what you’re saying, Jami, it’s just fact as I see it.
I had to write my own blog post on the matter-


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