Writing vs. Storytelling

I loved word lists in elementary school. Each day we were given a list of five words to study at home. The next morning, students took turns reciting the words at the teacher’s desk. You would either advance to a new list with more challenging words or go home and practice the same list again. My genuine excitement at learning new words, and the thrill that came with realizing I often knew how to pronounce words I had never heard before, were the first signs I had tapped into a skill I was meant to use for the rest of my life. In junior high, I remember the day my teacher set a graded paper down in front of me, leaned over my shoulder, and whispered, “Never stop writing.” She doesn’t know it, but she lit the fuse that, despite being put on the backburner while I did the opposite of what I was good at and pursued degrees in science, one day I knew I’d come back to writing.

Graduate school refined my writing style. I learned the Hemingway method of stripping down the animal to leave the marrow. Scientific writing is succinct. Nothing else. One of the “thrills” I experienced at this juncture came when I got a paper back from my professor with portions of sentences scratched out in thick, red pen. I read what was left of each sentence and discovered how fewer words not only conveyed the same information as my initial efforts, but did so more clearly. I saw in black and white how superfluous words actually rob a sentence of its impact on the reader.

And I’ve realized over the last few months that all of that can mean nothing for someone trying to write fiction.

No, writing and storytelling aren’t mutually exclusive, but being able to put down a string of grammatically correct sentences does not equal good fiction. Working on nonfiction, I write down the main points and build sentences around them. Then I remove unnecessary words, and I work until my sentences have the “beat” I want. Questions I ask myself as I’m editing nonfiction are:

  • Do I communicate the main point(s) clearly?
  • Do I have high-quality supporting arguments?
  • Do the sentences flow smoothly?

Before trying to write fiction, I never gave any thought to how the process might be different, but now that it’s something I do often, I’m realizing how very different it is. Beyond sentence structure and clarity of message, questions I ask myself are ones like:

  • Does this sentence add to the story, or detract from it?
  • How does this one building block fit into the rest of the piece?

Fiction writers have the added responsibility of crafting a subtle purpose behind each sentence. Compare it to Pointillism, a painting technique that consists of tiny, individual dots of color that combine to create a complete picture. The purpose of each color dot in the painting, or the sentence in a novel, may not be easily identified or even matter on an individual level, but it is essential in the context of the work as a whole. In fiction writing, each sentence carries a paragraph, which carries a chapter, which carries the novel. The sentence should add value to the story, with the given that it is written well mechanically.

Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte


Georges Seurat, 1884-1886

Moving blindly through the world of fiction writing, I’ve tried different approaches. I started out spending six hours on an opening paragraph; playing with words, shuffling them around, adding, deleting. It wasn’t so good for morale to look up at the screen after a day’s work and only see three hundred words. Over time I’ve grown more comfortable focusing on getting the word count up and letting a shape emerge, any shape. I’ll tear it apart and put it back together later, but at least I know what the thing is that I’m working with – I can’t edit a story that doesn’t exist on paper. It took months to settle on the approach that felt most natural to me.

Fiction writing has opened up a huge can of unknowns in my abilities as a writer, but also exposed new opportunities to grow.

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