Thursday, March 20, 2014

How to Write a Novel, Part Nine

Are you a writer or a storyteller? It’s a legitimate question and also one of the great mysteries surrounding successful authors. I know a number of fantastic writers who are not bestsellers. I know a few great storytellers who are not particularly good writers. When you find a combination of a good storyteller and a good writer, you have the potential for a bestseller. (I'm not going to go into the huge number of variables that could also affect sales. Some have to do with the publisher, some have to do with timing, most have to do with wild, blind luck.)

I listened to a talk by the late Michael Palmer a few years ago. The best-selling author and medical doctor was telling the story of his first novel and how the agency he gave it to told him he wasn't a good writer technically, but he understood the stuff that couldn't be taught, like emphasizing the drama. The agent told him not to worry because they could teach him the rest. And it is things like that which distinguish a good storyteller.

The examples I always use are the late Tom Clancy and my friend, WEB Griffin. Clancy’s novels, from beginning to end, told a story of conflict, often between two entire nations, which somehow encompassed politics, the military, national sentiment and occasionally a nuclear weapon. It's one of the reasons so many of his novels have been made into movies. They were great stories. He was a very good writer. But mostly he was known as a great storyteller.

WEB Griffin tells more personal stories, usually centered around a few characters, that are no less compelling. Sometimes he'll take several books to tell the arc of one character.
His series The Corps, which featured a Marine Corps private named Ken McCoy in pre World War II China, is one of the best series ever written. That's a bold statement, but I'll stand by it. I can recall picking one up in 1988 and reading it from cover to cover almost without a break. It compelled me to check several stores (remember this is pre-Amazon) until I found the sequel. Eventually, I followed Ken McCoy's odyssey through all of World War II into the Korean War. If that's not the result of a great storyteller I don't know what is. But Griffin is also known, rightfully so, as a great writer. He’s worked in every genre and supported a family as a writer for longer than many of us have been alive. That is a real accomplishment.

So ask yourself if you’re a storyteller or a writer. Does a story flow out of you or do you have to fight piece by piece to put it together?  Are your books grammatically and technically correct, but no one wants to read them? Think of what would compel you to finish watching a movie. Is it action? Is it comedy? Is it high-stakes? All of that can apply to your own novel.

It's great to be a good writer, but I think it might be better to be a good storyteller.

The quote today is from one of my heroes:


  1. This article resonated with me because great storytelling and great writing works for me. I learn that novels I love reading again and again have both of these factors.

    Thank you for sharing,

  2. Story teller or writer? Great question. The only time a story of mine took flight and soared from beginning to end was with a screenplay idea I had. Once I started writing it (with a collaborator), the compromises I had to make to incorporate my partner's ideas changed the story for me. We wrote the outline and then gave up due to colliding concepts. With my books, I generally have a sketchy idea of the story but after that I have to fight to get the logic and flow. I'm better at character arc than story. Maybe I'm neither?

  3. You've surely nailed a distinction in the craft. James A. Michener was one of the best storytellers of all time. But as a writer, his words hit the page flat-footed. Still, storytelling will out. With notable exceptions, the bestseller list is made up of books written by wonderful storytellers, not necessarily great writers.

  4. Glad to know others are big fans of W.E.B. Griffin. I love his books, for the same reasons you listed. He's a great storyteller and his characters are so real that you feel like you know them and their families. And Tom Clancy - what a terrific ride his books are. So sad that there will be no more. I read constantly and always look for writing that sucks you in and characters that I either like or dislike so much that I have to see what happens to them.
    Bev Fontaine

  5. Jim, as you know, Griffin also writes with his son William Butterworth IV. Bill is going to be our guest speaker at the inaugural Mystery Writers Key West Fest. Check it out and if you want to be a panelist, let me know. Bill is leading the bar stroll. He & I also share an Intel guy for our writing.