Wordsmith or Storyteller?

I have a buddy who is a lawyer who I’ve known since 5th grade. The guy has always had a gift for words that I envy. I mean, even the guy’s texts are funny and clever in a way that makes me jealous. He’s a great writer, public speaker, and conversationalist. He never stumbles to find the right wording when in a heated debate. It’s almost like he’s an essayist at all times. He conveys information concisely and breaks up boring stuff with carefully placed humor.

I’m not that way at all. I’m a mush mouth when I speak. I often repeat myself in conversation. I stammer a lot. Sometimes words come out of my mouth that weren’t supposed to come out until later in the sentence. Sometimes I combine several synonyms into a single, unintelligible mash-up. But get me in front of a group of people at a dinner table or classroom, and I can keep them entertained for hours. Some have said I have a gift for vocal narrative. If my buddy is a wordsmith, I guess I’m a storyteller. As I work on this novel, I realize that I wish I was a little more wordsmith. Let me see if I can break down the difference (in my opinion) in terms of long form fiction writing…

Wordsmith writers are great with description. They create worlds and characters that you can really sink into. They’re also good with dialog. The characters say all the right things at the right times and their inner monologues give a deeper understanding of what makes them tick. Their books are packed with information. When I read a Neal Stephenson book, I can perfectly picture the pattern on the couch in the room and the hairstyles on everyone speaking. Sometimes I’m in the mood for that many words. Sometimes I enjoy hanging out in the world of the novel more than the plot taking place in that world. But SOMETIMES, I wish they’d just get on with the damn story already!

Storytellers, to me, are acutely aware of the reader’s attention span. They build tension and pay it off in carefully constructed cycles. You know how some family members tell stories and they go on and on with way too much side information and never get to the point without noticing they’re losing their listeners? I never really had that. My whole family is great at telling a story. Mom can’t tell a joke to save her life. She invariably either mixes the punchline into the setup or forgets the punchline altogether. “Why did the long faced horse walk into a bar? No, wait.” But when recounting the events of the day, or something funny that Dad did, or something from our childhood, she nails it! It’s gripping! I think the more you hear a good narrative orated, the better you get at pacing. The problem becomes the lean use of words. You don’t add description of the environment unless it’s part of the story. You don’t quote the characters unless it’s part of the story. And you don’t mention someone’s internal thoughts unless it directly relates to the story.

Do you see what’s this kind of vocal storytelling feels like? A screenplay! In screenwriting, everything is about structure and integration. You don’t put anything into the story unless it directly applies to the plot or the theme. You don’t drag a scene out because you know your audience is sitting in a seat somewhere waiting for your story to unfold. And they won’t wait forever. I’ve mentioned in other posts that I’m finding the long form narrative challenging because I feel like I need to get to the next part of the story. I’m no wordsmith, and if this book is going to be readable, and not just a screenplay with a different font.

How do I solve the problem? I’m reading a lot. China Melville, Henning Mankell, Cormac McCarthy, Dan Simmons, Lee Child… they all use words differently, but seem to be able to balance their love of words and environment with forward movement of the story. McCarthy is laughably minimal with words, but uses enough so you get the idea. The others I’ve mentioned are great about description without clogging your mind. Mankell will say stuff like, “Wallender woke up. It was snowing again.” Love that! The one thing I’ve noticed about all these guys (there are many others, too) is that they don’t use much in the way of character description. They don’t talk about hats or skin color or favorite shoes. Pellecanos likes to mention the musical selections of his main character, Derek Strange, and while I like his books overall, I can’t stand those little side note details. Distracting!

So this weekend, I’m going to finish The City & The City by China Melville instead of writing. Trying to get that rhythm down where I use more words, but don’t stall out the story. I want to build moments carefully and pay them off in a satisfying way instead of dragging them out or rushing through them. Forging ahead, with patience.

P.S. My lawyer buddy would have done a much better job writing this post.

4 thoughts on “Wordsmith or Storyteller?

  1. Good stuff, Co. And nicely written, too – imaginary lawyer-buddy’s better version or not.

    I’ve been considering similar communications issues recently myself, as narrator and reader both. A certain member of my family has taken it upon herself to prey hawk-like upon the extraneous verbiage and happy diversions in my storytelling, which alas make up a rather fattening diet. Despite my protests and excuses – the luxurious lengths of straight, flat interstate before us, for example, and ever larger midwestern states to cross – I am grateful because in her incisiveness she is doing me a service. For, as you may recall, I tend toward far better description than narrative rhythm in speaking, a tendency likely linked to the way my brain works. A bit like your mother apparently, I mangle joke delivery, and worse, I usually forget punchlines and jokes whole. Yet I remember the most intricate and minute details of a story and its scene, very precisely. And I can recount them in ways that delight me but only occasionally have the same effect on my listeners. So the particular family critic in question happens to be the hard test here. Fortunately, I think this manner of speaking is a tendency and not a fixed trait. And adapting it to communicate more effectively to audiences is a worthwhile challenge for me to work on a bit.

    I have also been reading a good bit of fiction this summer – Ian McEwan, Jennifer Egan, Alan Furst, Willa Cather, Arturo Perez-Reverte. More to say on some of those in relation to the storytelling versus scene-setting trade-off that I think you are identifying.

    Best luck on the book. Keep it up! Matt

    • Great reply, Matt! Thanks for checking out the blog. I’ve read some Perez-Reverte and own a McEwan book I haven’t read, but thanks for the tips. Have you checked out Goodreads.com? It’s like Facebook for readers.

      I’ve been told, by my lawyer buddy no less, to take a stand-up comedy class to work on my public speaking. I do well in a classroom, but my mind blanks out when I need to “say a few words” in front of a theater full of people. Anyway, here’s to the mush mouths!

      Hope you are well.

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