The Storyteller and the Wordsmith


This week, something a little different, a dichotomy Kate Wilhelm mentioned in her book Storyteller. It has been mentioned on at least one other podcast. It’s not so much a dichotomy as two story dimensions. As Kate Wilhelm points out, both are important. I want to explore both, and I want to take this lesson and apply it to other story forms.

Two dimensions, both important

Being a storyteller or a wordsmith, these are two different ways to approach writing a story. They’re not mutually exclusive. They’re more like two aspects to any writer’s personality.

I once worked for a larger employer than I do now. One of the things you get with a larger company is that you can sometimes attend on-site seminars for personal and professional development. I was able to take a seminar on communication techniques. Part of this seminar was a “communication styles” evaluation, with which each of us could determine which communication styles he preferred. Some of us were more abstract, some more concrete; some of us were more logical, some more emotional. I fully expected that I would learn which ones I preferred and that then I would be able understand potential conflicts between my style and that of others. That’s not what it was about, though. Because the person who learns to use all four communication styles, each when the situation calls for it, he’ll go further, faster, and be able to accomplish more.

It’s the same way with the storyteller and the wordsmith. Both of these are necessary, and if you can master both, you’ll be able to write much better than if you only master one.

Here’s what Kate Wilhelm said about the wordsmith on one side and the storyteller on the other:

I think of it as surface and depth, with the full understanding that it is much more complex than that. But it was a starting point…

A good story is one in which the surface and depth are fused into one inseparable whole. Beautiful language, unique imagery, subtle symbolism over nothing is not a good story. Neither is a story obscured by bad word choices, awkward phrases that conceal meaning rather than reveal it, inappropriate symbolism or metaphors.

The Wordsmith

“The Dark Country” by Dennis Etchison is a horror-genre short story, something you would not usually associate with literary fiction. But read this, the beginning of the story:

Martin sat by the pool, the wind drying his hair.

A fleshy, airborne spider appeared on the edge of the book which he had been reading there. From this angle it cast a long, pointed needle across the yellowing page. The sun was hot and clean; it went straight for his nose. Overweight American children practiced their volleyball on the bird-of-paradise plants. Weathered rattan furniture gathered dust beyond the peeling diving board.

Traffic passed on the road. Trucks, campers, bikes.

The pool that would not be scraped till summer. The wooden chairs that had been ordered up from the States. Banana leaves. Olive trees. A tennis court that might be done next year. A single color TV antenna above the palms. By the slanted cement patio heliotrope daisies, speckled climbing vines. The morning a net of light on the water. Boats fishing in Todos Santos Bay.

A smell like shrimps Veracruz blowing off the silvered waves.

And a strangely familiar island, like a hazy floating giant, where the humpback whales play. Yesterday in Ensenada, the car horns talking and a crab taco in his hand, he had wanted to buy a pair of huaraches and a Mexican shirt. The best tequila in the world for three-and-a-half a liter. Noche Buena beer, foil labels that always peel before you can read them. Delicados con Filtros cigarettes.

Bottles of agua mineral. Tehuacan con gas. No retornable.

He smiled as he thought of churros at the Blow Hole, the maid who even washed his dishes, the Tivoli Night Club with Reno cocktail napkins, mescal flavored with worm, eggs fresh from the nest, chorizo grease in the pan, bar girls with rhinestone-studded Aztec headbands, psychoactive liqueurs, seagulls like the tops of valentines, grilled corvina with lemon, the endless plumes of surf…

And would you get to the point already?!

The storyteller

On the other side of the spectrum, we have The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, the novel by Ann Brashares. It’s a popular, compelling story, but with a mediocre rendering. Here’s a snippet from early in the story:

The first thing was the front door. It was painted the most brilliant, egg-yolk-over-easy shade of yellow. Surrounding it, the house front was painted the brightest possible blue. Who could even imagine such a blue? Lena tipped her face upward to the cloudless afternoon sky. Oh.

In Bethesda, if you painted your house those colors, they’d call you a drug addict. Your neighbors would sue you. They’d arrive with sprayers at nightfall and repaint it beige. Here was color bursting out everywhere against the whitewashed walls.

“Lena, go!” Effie whined, shoving Lena’s suitcase forward with her foot.

“Velcome, girls. Velcome home!” Grandma said, clapping her hands. Their grandfather fit the key into the lock and swung open the sun-colored door.

The combination of jet lag, sun, and these strange old people made Lena feel as if she were tripping—hypothetically, of course. She’d never actually tripped on anything, except maybe a bad shrimp from Peking Garden once.

If Lena was glazed and stupefied, Effie without sleep was just plain cranky. Lena always counted on her younger sister to do the blabbering, but Effie was too cranky even for that. So the drive from the tiny island airport had been mostly quiet. Grandma kept turning around in the front seat of their old Fiat saying, “Look at you girls! Oh, Lena, you are a beauty!”

Lena seriously wished she would stop saying that, because it was irritating, and besides, how was cranky Effie supposed to feel?

We get to know the characters. We see how Lena reacts to the scenery, which is very important once we learn that she’s an artist. We also learn about Lena’s grandmother and her thoughts, which also become important later in the story. For now, it’s enough to know Lena’s thoughts, Lena’s reaction to these things. All these things are setting up a story arc. And even though there’s a fair amount of description, it’s not boring.

However, even though there’s a fair amount of description, look at what we don’t know. We don’t know how the air smells. We don’t know how the sun or air feels. We can’t hear any of the background noises. We know nothing, in fact, except what we can glean from the sense of sight. All the other senses are missing. All of these things Lena could be experiencing, and we could be experiencing them with her and further sympathizing with her, except that they’re missing from the narrative.

The storyteller and the wordsmith, together again

But you don’t have to choose one or the other. One of the best novels I’ve read is A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb, which I spotlighted a couple Thursdays ago.

Here’s how the novel starts:

Someone was looking at me, a disturbing sensation if you’re dead. I was with my teacher, Mr. Brown. As usual, we were in our classroom, that safe and wooden-walled box—the windows opening onto the grassy field to the west, the fading flag standing in the chalk dust corner, the television mounted above the bulletin board like a sleeping eye, and Mr. Brown’s princely table keeping watch over a regiment of student desks. At that moment I Was scribbling invisible comments in the margins of a paper left in Mr. Brown’s tray, though my words were never read by the students. Sometimes Mr. Brown quoted me, all the same, while writing his own comments. Perhaps I couldn’t tickle the inside of his ear, but I could reach the mysterious curves of his mind.

Although I could not feel paper between my fingers, smell ink, or taste the tip of a pencil, I could see and hear the world with all the clarity of the Living. They, on the other hand, did not see me as a shadow or a floating vapor. To the Quick, I was empty air.

Or so I thought. As an apathetic girl read aloud from Nicholas Nickleby, as Mr. Brown began to daydream about how he had kept his wife awake the night before, as my spectral pen hovered over a misspelled word, I felt someone watching me. Not even my beloved Mr. Brown could see me with his eyes. I had been dead so long, hovering at the side of my hosts, seeing and hearing the world but never being heard by anyone and never, in all these long years, never being seen by human eyes. I held stone still while the room folded in around me like a closing hand. When I looked up, it was not in fear but in wonder. My vision telescoped so that there was only a small hole in the darkness to see through. And that’s where I found it, the face that was turned up to me.

Wow. That gives me a little shiver.

What is story?

Can we do anything with these two components besides writing short stories and novels? Yes. In any media, we can compare the story to the way the story is expressed.

Story is an abstraction. A novel, for example, is only a representation of the story told within. The story isn’t the words of the novel, either. Story is a concept, something represented by the words, behind the words. I like to say, story is where the writer meets his audience. It’s that part that connects with the audience, where the words disappear and all that’s left is immersive communication.

You must pay attention to the story, or you won’t have that channel of communication. By the same token, you must give that story an effective physical medium through which to be expressed, calling on every means at your disposal to accomplish this.

The storyteller and the cinematographer

Filmmakers, for example, tend to focus on the media of film, sometimes neglecting the story, just as writers tend to focus on the words, sometimes forgetting the story.

March of the Penguins tried very hard to bring us into the plight of the emperor penguins, but at the end of the day, it was just a bunch of penguins, and I don’t care about a bunch of penguins? They tried very hard to heighten the tension, to get me involved, by saying, “But this is not the worst they will face,” or words to that effect. Still, it was just a bunch of penguins, and I don’t care about a bunch of penguins. So a few of them died. Aw. Am I supposed to cry?

Now, if they had followed the plight of two particular penguins, Harry and Harriet, as they fall in love, have a baby penguin chick, and overcome the dangers that are claiming the lives of their friends and their friends’ families… That I would have cared about.

If you want both the storyteller and the cinematographer, check out Citizen Kane, The Godfather, or Smilla’s Sense of Snow. For the last, see my spotlight earlier this week. The plot starts to get weird near the end, but Siskel and Ebert gave the film “two thumbs up,” because even though things get preposterous, you don’t care! You’ve already been drawn into the story, into the life of this character, and even a ridiculous plot twist can’t pull you out.

The storyteller and the programmer

I remember an old adventure game called Zero Critical, by Istvan Pely. This game had an incredible story, but the game itself has bugs and weaknesses. The game was overall rated not-great, but I enjoyed it a lot.

On the other side of the spectrum, you have pure gameplay-games like Tetris, without any story. They can be fun, but they don’t inspire me.

Check out Psychonauts (and my review of it) for a game with strong gameplay integrated with a strong story.

The storyteller and the designer

Can we generalize even further? What about to story design aspects in general. The design elements in a story, if they serve the story, you won’t even notice them.

Plot devices, for example, are story design elements. But unless those plot devices are used to tell a story, they’re just plot devices. They can’t work in isolation. Still, if you use creative, original ideas, you’ll end up with a best story you can have.



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