What Does it Mean to Be a Storyteller?

Brand-Storyteller“If you’re going to have a story, have a big story, or none at all.” -Joseph Campbell

“Come then, and let us pass a leisure hour in storytelling, and our story shall be the education of our heroes.” -Plato

We have been reading Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit as our group selection for the craft of writing portion of our weekly meeting. What has struck me most profoundly in the book so far, is the small section in Chapter 5 when Block makes the case that the most important skill a novelist can possess is to be a good “storyteller.”

Being a good storyteller, according to Block, is far more important than being a good stylist. The largeness of the plot structure will buoy up a novel with lackluster style. On one level, this seems utterly true to me. On another, I am shocked by it. I hadn’t really thought about it in these terms.

I came to Agile Writers above all to get help with crafting a plot. I was familiar with the work of Joseph Campbell, and recognized that in his study of the “Hero’s Journey” he had distilled the human story. I wanted to somehow use this template to write a novel. Enter, Greg Smith, who—to my total astonishment—had made the leap from Campbell to novel already.

But even after the rigorous process of Storyboarding and planning my novel, a first draft and half of a second draft, I find that what I think of as good writing still leans heavily on good style. My fiction is pretty stylized and I admire writers and books that have a definitive voice.

The other element, the element of plot—storytelling, theater—still seems foreign to me. I am so grateful for the help I have received at Agile Writers to structure my plot. But, I find myself often scratching my head, not knowing if what I am writing is compelling on that larger level. Is it exciting enough? Dramatic enough? Compelling enough? Not just my usual question: is it beautiful enough?

But, is it going somewhere?

This may just be the middle/muddle talking (I am 150 pages into the rewrite. . . ), but that is the hardest question for me to answer. Am I telling an important and interesting story? If not, all of the style points in the world don’t rack up to anything. They are hollow.

The only way I can feel confident in my plot, in my story, is that it is written in the spirit of the Hero’s Journey—the oldest and most compelling human story. I can trust that, with the help of the Agile Writing Method, I am reaching toward telling a true hero’s tale. My readers will recognize the story deeply, in their bones. And they will feel drawn along by it. At least, I hope so.

Agile Writers, what does it mean to you to be a storyteller?

2 thoughts on “What Does it Mean to Be a Storyteller?

  1. Inspiring insights, Whitney. They will help me in my quest to tell a story of an unlikely hero in a strange land, the prison of Jim Crow in rural mid-century Alabama. I want to guide the reader to slow down and see what is there. How one young person survived this. Thank you! Ursula

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  2. It occurs to me after reading your entry, that while I agree with your Joseph Campbell quote, “If you’re going to have a story, have a big story…”, I have to confess I don’t really understand what he means. Does a story become “big” when it follows the Hero’s Journey pattern because it is then, by definition, heroic? Perhaps it does. Consider Watership Down, a heroic journey story that follows the pattern to a T. It’s brilliant, and has one of the most moving endings I have ever seen. However, when I read the book it never occurred to me that, objectively, it was about a half dozen rodents migrating a total of about a mile, not exactly what I might have thought of as a “big” story. But “big” it was, no doubt about it.

    On the other hand, there are delightful stories that rely more on style and colorful characters than having a big plot, moral lessons or gripping drama. I feast on the stories of P.G. Wodehouse, even though I can’t think of one of them in which the protagonist is at all heroic in the Campbellian sense. Their attraction is in the humorous caricatures and the unique wordplay. I compare them to Marx Brothers movies, where every one is the same movie, and every one is genius.

    When I wrote my first novel, I plotted it using the Agile Writer structure, which was invaluable in making the story coherent. But there’s lots more to a good story than the pattern. I liken the structure to a fossil skeleton. When the archaeologist dug it up, i.e., when I started with my 8 stages, it looked like a wolf, with ribs, four legs, a tail and a skull full of teeth. But it wasn’t until I had spackled on the meat and the fur, i.e., when I told the story, that I realized it was a leopard.

    I think what I am saying is not to discount the contribution of style, characters, description, etc. If having a classic storyline were sufficient, every novel would be indistinguishable from every other. The heroic journey may be a necessary starting point, but it won’t get YOUR story out until you trowel on your own blood, sweat, tears, laughter, frustrations and triumphs.

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