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 Most contests for unpublished work are judged on a portion of the full story, often the first so-many words or pages.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 The score sheets of unpublished contests tend to focus on mechanics (grammar rules), characters seeming believable, clear settings, smooth flow, realistic dialogue, etc.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”?Pin It