David Farland’s “Storytelling as a Fine Art, Part 2”

Posted: October 16, 2011 in Uncategorized

Have you read this “Daily Kick” from David Farland? You should! Because this is FANTASTIC insight from a New York Times Bestselling author!


David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants—Storytelling as a
Fine Art, Part 2Many writers don’t consider “storytelling” to be a fine art. In fact, the
most popular storytellers often get jeers from their colleagues. When Stephen
King first began hitting high on the New York Times Bestseller list, I often
heard literary writers condemning his work. When John Grisham became the most
popular writer in America, critics complained about his “terrible style.” When
J.K. Rowling struck it big, I heard one award-winning children’s writer go so
far as to call her a “fraud.” When Stephenie Meyer sold some 15% of all the
novels in the English language in 2009, Stephen King complained about her prose.

One might be tempted to conclude that this is just “jealousy” talking. It
isn’t. To some degree it’s a difference in tastes between consumers of fiction.

After long study, Ernest Hemingway concluded that when you look at all great
writing, “it’s just poetry.” That’s only partly right. In order to have a great
style you do need to have a deep sensitivity to the use of language and rhythm.
In short, you need to master poetry. But most of the world isn’t so attuned to
poetry that they really care.

The bestselling writers of our time—of any time—aren’t necessarily great
poets, they’re powerful storytellers. They recognize a vast audience, create
tales for that audience, and relate stories that people love. Each of the
authors that I mentioned above shows a genius for storytelling. Stephen King is
a great storyteller, and so is Stephenie Meyer. Why didn’t he like her? Is her
prose truly unreadable?

I was Stephenie’s writing instructor in college. I remember considering her
final grade in class and thinking, “This young woman has a very interesting and
unique voice. If she ever really gets consumed by a tale, she could go very,
very far.”

She’s quite readable, and she’s a far better stylist than King gives her
credit for. But she wasn’t writing for Stephen King. The truth is that she was
writing to young women, not to older men. Stephen King was so far outside her
audience demographic that he just couldn’t quite connect with her, and since he
didn’t connect to her tale, he had to blame the storyteller.

That of course is the problem with storytellers. If you’re not part of their
intended audience, you won’t be captivated by their tale. You’ll end up outside
the crowd, wondering what in the world everyone is so excited about.

Not all great writers are great storytellers. Have you ever read the work of
a consummate stylist that left you cold, someone who wrote reams and reams of
prose in a gorgeous voice, but whose work ended up having an anesthetic quality?
I’ve read entire tomes where nothing of interest happened to anyone, where the
writer seemed to work harder and harder to write more prettily about nothing at
all. I recently read a novel where the author’s breathtaking prose described a
porch on a lonely ranch house in tremendous detail—some twenty pages. I could
see it, feel it, taste it. Big deal. I’m sure that I could have found a ranch
house just like that within five minutes of my house.

So I look for writers who have a balance of skills, ones who can engineer
stories that enthrall me while delivering them in acceptable prose. I love John
Grisham, Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, and dozens of other big-name authors. I
recognize that none of them write the most gorgeous prose that I’ve ever read.

In fact, I know that if they tried, their prose might only become a barrier
to my enjoyment of their stories. Elegant prose I like. But too often the work
of stylists is written for style alone. It becomes overwrought.

Over the ages, storytelling as an art form has come under attack by many
writers and critics. One can point at romance novels or Westerns or science
fiction and point out their similarities. It often seems that authors are
repeating the same story over and over with just the slightest variations. Thus
fiction that has a strong form is derided as “formula” fiction.

It’s true. When a powerful and original storyteller comes along (I call them
“genre builders”), they often inspire imitation. Thus, when Robert Louis
Stevenson wrote Treasure Island, he told a great yarn, one that inspired
thousands of followers. Most of those people couldn’t write at a publishable
level, and their manuscripts never saw the light of day, but thousands of
“Pirate Stories” were published, enough so that entire novel lines and magazines
were devoted to them for fifty years after Treasure Island was written.
Stevenson built a genre.

In the same way, we saw imitators of Stephen King in horror, Terry Brooks in
fantasy, John Grisham in thrillers, Rowling in children’s literature, or
Stephenie Meyer with paranormal teen romance. Some of the imitators were far
better stylists than their predecessors, but lacked the genre-builder’s facility
for storytelling. Consequently, their works are eventually forgotten.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that style isn’t important. I’m just
saying that the import of telling a riveting story shouldn’t be ignored. An
author must stand on two legs—style and story.

Yet as a young man, I found when looking for books on storytelling that it
had been ignored. Many teachers on college campuses in the US even today refuse
to discuss genre literatures (which are considered to be formulaic), claiming
that they’re not “real literature.”

In an effort to divest themselves of formula, many writers sought to create
“stories” that had no form. Hemingway, for example, truncated his stories,
cutting off the beginnings and endings. Others, like Wolfe, sought to write
“slice of life” pieces that included some loving character portraits along with
bits of fine description. Such experiments failed far more often than not,
though much can be learned even from the failures.

Artists at that time in the mediums of poetry, music, and painting were also
trying to discover new ways to express themselves, so that we had various
experiments cropping up—poetry that was un-metered or un-rhymed, music that was
cacophonic or avoided self-resonance, and paintings that sought to draw out the
viewer’s emotions by the use of color and texture rather than by portraying any
realistic images, and so on.

If you look at literary critics of that day, it’s not hard to find statements
that don’t just denigrate formulaic fiction, but that attack all formed fiction
at once. Some critics believed that life is random and purposeless, and that the
human mind simply tries to “make sense” of life through storytelling. They
concluded that “all stories are therefore dishonest in nature.” Stories happen
rarely, if ever.

They’re right in some ways. Stories don’t often happen to us in the way that
we relate. Even when a story does happen in real life, we sometimes don’t
recognize it for months or years, because there is so much “unimportant garbage”
that happens in-between the relevant incidents.

Yet stories are vital because something in stories is strongly tied to how we
learn and how we create communities. I’ll talk more about that later.

So as I approach this book on storytelling, please don’t believe that I’m
saying that story is “all important.” It’s only part of the equation.
Storytelling is a complex art, one that requires that creator to have a deep
understanding of how to create a world and characters, how to deal with
conflicts and resolutions, and how to integrate the new insights that come from
this into a successful tale.


Deadline October 23rd.

There are only 10 days remaining before the Writer’s Death Camp is closed for
registration and I believe there are only six seats remaining. Don’t miss out.
To find out more about the Death Camp go to http://www.davidfarland.com/writingworkshops/death_camp/.


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