Storyteller or Wordsmith?

Novelists tend to fall into two broad groups: storytellers and wordsmiths.

Storytellers are all about the story. Most writers of thrillers and adventure stories, such as Frederick Forsyth, Ken Follett, Alexander Dumas, and Dan Brown fall into the storytelling category. Brown is a prime example with The da Vinci Code. Readers remember the plot and, to a lesser degree, the characters far more than any of the writing. Most science fiction and fantasy stories are also better remembered for their stories and characters than for any poetical writing. Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke are best known for their imaginative stories than their actual words. Can you even remember more than one or two of their characters? Yet, if you are into science fiction, you can probably remember many of their plots or stories. The tradition of storytellers as novelists goes far back and is not limited to thrillers, science fiction and fantasy. Jane Austen’s novels are known far more for their plots and characters than for their divine writing.

Wordsmiths are all about honing each paragraph, each sentence, each word to perfection. Ernest Hemingway said, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” His quest for a perfect sentence led him to revise to the point of obsession. He wrote 47 endings for A Farewell to Arms. He probably wrote at least one “true” sentence; the first sentence of The Old Man and the Sea; “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” In one brief sentence it tells who, what, where, and when (time frame) the story is set. Other wordsmiths include Shakespeare, Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde. Because of their fabulous way with words, they are as known for quotes from their work as they are for the plots of their stories. Shakespeare, in fact, borrowed almost all his plots from older works. Pat Conroy, especially in The Prince of Tides, is another lyrical writer, although some of his other works, such as The Great Santini tend more toward storytelling.

Are you a storyteller or a wordsmith?

Do you labor over every sentence, yet have difficulty plotting? Or are you bursting with story ideas, yet have trouble remembering basic grammar? Knowing which type of writer you are can influence how you write and what you should practice.

Jack Nicklaus once said that unlike most golfers who, after a round practice the shots they hit well, he practiced the shots he hit the worst. Taking a lesson from the Golden Bear, focus on what you do worst to improve. If you are a wordsmith, then you should practice plotting, developing characters and the arc of your story. If you are a storyteller, then focus on grammar, sentence and chapter structure, and the actual telling of your story. Know thyself and you will know what to practice, and therefore how to improve the fastest.

Which is better?

The finest writers in history, of course, are both gifted storytellers and masters of selecting the perfect words to construct each and every sentence. Although they may tend more to one or the other, Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain and Tolstoy could tell a wonderful story stocked with memorable characters, yet with words that sang. But, if you need to focus on one or other, is it better to be a storyteller or a wordsmith? 

A storyteller is best.

If you have a wonderful story, it can be told in pedestrian language and still find a vast audience. The Harry Potter series, Clive Cussler’s many novels, Isaac Asimov’s science fiction novels and Nora Roberts, while well able to write, are far from filled with perfect, lyrical prose. They are all extremely popular, however, because of their characters and stories.

If you have a bland, boring story, no amount of wordsmithing and poetic language will turn it into a bestseller, let alone a masterpiece for the ages. Many of Shakespeare’s lesser works still have his trademark imagery and style, yet are rarely performed because the stories are weak, so make sure you are telling a compelling story—then revise it until every sentence sings.

As Somerset Maugham argued in Ten Novels and their Authors, first and foremost, a novel must entertain. And, to entertain, a novel must tell a story.

K. Scot Macdonald is the author of The Shakespeare Drug, Injustice Found and Mouse’s Dream.