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Writing vs. Storytelling

December 24, 2009

This is a discussion I have had, often regarding writers who are very good at either telling stories or writing well. Some examples: J.K. Rowling is a good storyteller, but not a fantastic writer. Michael Ondaatje is an excellent writer but not a very good storyteller. Storytelling and writing are separate skillsets, and I don’t believe an author requires both characteristics to be considered a good writer.

So what makes J.K. Rowling a good storyteller?

Harry Potter Collection

Seven books that don't take long to get through

Have you ever read any of the Harry Potter books (I’ve read all seven)? Did you manage to finish each book in the series in about three days despite the 600-700 page length (or “extent” if you want to use cool publishing industry terms)? I know I did. Storytelling is just that: Rowling gets her readers very involved in the events of each Harry Potter novel and doesn’t drag individual episodes on too long. The seventh book is a bit of an exception to this rule — it just took too long for the action to pick up and was anticlimactic.

But on the way to the end, if you’re like me, you probably stumbled on a few (or more) sentences. You probably thought “Huh?” and had to reread the sentence to get the full meaning. That’s part of writing. So if I ever tell you that I love Harry Potter but think that J.K. Rowling is not the greatest writer, you’ll know what I mean (and hopefully won’t be too insulted).

Why is Michael Ondaatje not a great storyteller?

The book I’m mainly talking about here is In the Skin of a Lion, a book about lots of things I barely remember from reading it. The one thing I do remember about the book is that each sentence was a pleasure to read. One of my instructors at school is fond of saying that readers don’t often notice when punctuation is used properly, but that it makes for a pleasurable and easy reading experience.

Unlike with Harry Potter books, I find that I don’t stumble or reread phrases in Michael Ondaatje’s work (unless I forgot what was going on in the story and had to go back a paragraph or two). The difference between Ondaatje and Rowling is a little bit like that between copyediting (fixing grammar and awkward phrasing) and substantive editing (improving the story and plot on a larger scale).

So now you know.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 25, 2009 6:00 am

    While I do understand the distinction that you make between good writing and good storytelling, I would say Ondaatje’s work is a paradigm of both. In the Skin of a Lion was a delight to me not just because of his wonderfully lyrical prose, but also because it gave me more glimpses into the lives of characters from The English Patient.

    • December 25, 2009 10:36 am

      I understand. I don’t know a lot of people who share my opinion of In the Skin of a Lion. There is one Ondaatje book that I really enjoyed though: Running in the Family (though my edition had the last page missing, which was a tad irritating).

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting, and happy holidays, meg.

  2. December 27, 2009 1:58 am

    Thank you, Andrew; season’s greetings to you as well! I can scan the last page of the book for you, if you like.

    • December 27, 2009 11:39 am

      That won’t be necessary — the teacher in the course provided the last page. Thanks for the offer though!

  3. Sarah permalink
    February 1, 2010 5:21 pm

    You’re definitely right, Andrew, to see the difference between terrific writing and terrific storytelling. And sometimes the narrative technique can even get in the way of the story. Sticking with the Ondaatje theme, even in The English Patient–a far better story than Skin of a Lion–the fragmented plot and experimental writing bog down the narrative. Ondaatje should have kept his lovely prose but stuck to a simpler story line (erm, like the movie).

    But then I guess that’s not his agenda. For all those postmodernists (Ondaatje, Pynchon, Yuri Olesha of Envy fame), the technique seems to be what matters.

    • February 1, 2010 6:28 pm

      Envy is such a weird book. What got me most about it was the soccer game at the end, which I thought was going to be a big metaphor for Russia v. Germany, but ended up being mostly just a soccer game, as I remember it.

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