Writing vs Storytelling

I will freely admit that I’m little more than a storyteller. I have characters roaming around my head, waiting for me to tell their tales. I have settings I dearly love and plot ideas looking for a place to call home. What I don’t have is a colorful way with words.

I’m more of a See Dick run and trip kind of writer. I might describe Dick at some point as a brown-eyed handsome man and the hill he’s running up as a dark and dangerous wood, but I’m more interested in what happens when Dick meets the monster at the top. I don’t spend a whole lot of time elevating the spooky level with spirits spiraling out of the bushes and devils taunting from the tree limbs unless they’re more important than the monster. And while I might point out that Dick is a coward and getting more cowardly by the minute, I’m not likely to break into odes to cowardice.

This point has been made painfully clear as I work my way through a few decades of backlist to create e-books. Just cleaning up the old-fashioned padding and clarifying sentences that wandered on far too long has me wincing and longing for a long deep drink of beautiful writing.

But oddly enough, when I went in search of quotes from books I’ve enjoyed recently and in the past, the books and authors I chose are also storytellers, except they have a much more clever way with words than I do. And they frame their characters and their stories in delightful turns of phrase that make me chuckle or think or both.

One of my all time favorite authors, the only one whose entire collection I own—and in hardcover yet—is Terry Pratchett. Start your day off right by checking his quote page:

Here’s an example of his colorful phrasing:

God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of his own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players, to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time. from GOOD OMENS

Now doesn’t that give you a delicious feel for the story? It sure beats my “God doesn’t play fair.”

Or how about: Gravity is a habit that is hard to shake off from SMALL GODS.  How can I ever write: “He fell off the cliff!” again?

How about a few bits from our own BVC authors? Brenda Clough, REVISE THE WORLD, gives us this gem through the eyes of a fourth-grader:

They said the Pledge at the start of every day. In keeping with her policy of doing as little as possible Ellie didn’t even move her lips, though she did put her hand on her chest like everyone else. She was surprised to see Linda suddenly glowing like a furnace with a fierce wanting. She had not looked like that yesterday. The light, of a color Ellie couldn’t name, hovered in the air like the light from a movie projector. With the right angle, at the right distance, the picture would come into focus. Then the Pledge was over and Miss Robertson was passing out mimeographed arithmetic worksheets. The moment was gone.

Brenda could have simply said “Linda glowed like a furnace.” But doesn’t that movie projector image really pinpoint the scene in the reader’s mind, bring it to life?

And if we’re going to bring characters to life, who better than Sue Lange, who makes robots come to life in WE, ROBOTS:

“Please also forgive any upcoming long-winded metaphors. I’m new at this, and like a child wandering about a sunny new world finally awake to the lilacs and pine sap and honey blossoms and gentle breezes and dog turds, I dig the world.”

The robot not only explains that he’s new to metaphors and life, but he shows it by adding the stink of dog turds to the pleasant scents of flowers because he hasn’t learned the difference between good and bad smells. In a few simple sentences, she encapsulates her character without saying something as pedestrian as “I’ve never smelled a lilac before.”

Here’s KING OF HEARTS by Jennifer Stevenson:

“I didn’t have much choice about joining the Local. But I wouldn’t have picked anything else. For those of us in it, it’s a noble calling. Show business doesn’t happen without us. We’re the guts, the dirty underbelly, the grease on the transmission under all the chrome and shiny headlights.”

We’re not only getting the hero’s take on why he ended up as a union stage hand, but can’t you just see this tough guy in grease working the gears that make the pretty shows go ‘round?

Okay, one more, because this is fun and I have to see if I can find anything in one of my books. Not sure this counts, but here’s a line from my EVIL GENIUS:
Her books were old hardcovers with faded writing that I’d probably have to explore to make certain none of them said something like Sorcery Made Easy.” I guess that’s better than calling the kid a little witch!

Really, writing can be fun, even if limited to See Dick trip on his dick (and if you can say that three times fast you can probably tie cherry stems with your tongue). It’s just that these wonderful descriptions don’t come easily. Not to me, leastways. My first drafts are pretty much “The kid’s a little witch” until I really get into the swing of the story, and the characters start speaking for themselves. Hmm, which may be why I wrote EVIL GENIUS in first person and dug into Ana’s character right out of the box. Will have to talk about point of view sometime…
Anyone else have some favorite quotes? And really, if you haven’t read Pratchett, do yourself a favor and look at that website. The man’s mind is awesome!




Writing vs Storytelling — 8 Comments

  1. My theory (propounded here at BVC and everywhere else) is that some of us are visual writers. The upside? We see a movie in our head, we hear the characters. Some of us just need the right piece of music and the movie even gets a soundtrack to give the emotions extra oomph. But when it comes to writing it all down . . . we write the blandest, plainest words, because those bland, plain words evoke the movie for us. The toughest thing for a visual writer to learn (I’m still laboring at the elementary level) is to find words to get that movie over to the reader.

    For brilliant prose, check out Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts. Extraordinary. For fiction, Marilynne Robinson.

  2. I’ve just really been enjoying working my way slowly through Fly-Trap, by Frances Hardinge. I wish i could write sentences like her.

    “Unbidden, there came into Mosca’s mind a long forgotten image of her aunt peeling potatoes, the long spiral curling down and down from the tuber and then dropping into the waiting bucket of throwings and leavings. The thought that she had been casually cast down like a piece of rubbish filled Mosca with a wild surge of unpotatolike rage.”

  3. I like your theory, Sherwood. As long as we can see it in our heads, we expect everyone else to see it. I’ve accepted that I do something similar. But the question becomes–how much of that scene does a reader really need to see? Too much exposition turns off a lot of readers. So we have to choose descriptives carefully.

    And Cara, fantastic quote! The description has emotional and motivational effects. Absolutely perfect!

  4. Patricia–everyone will have an idea of what is enough, but I think Cara’s example beautifully illustrates what I think is a good rubric: a telling detail rather than an overused expression.

    We all know what “his eyes stabbed to the very core of her being” means, but is that memorable? Not really. But if the writer shows how that character demonstrates that full-on, pupils widened, breath-caught, 400 horsepower ooh la la gaze . . . we are more likely to both register the emotion the writer wants, but also remember character and situation more vividly. I think. (Working on this theory!)

  5. It’s an excellent theory, although exceedingly difficult to carry out. I “get” what “his eyes stabbed” should mean but in most cases, it’s the most boring part of the action and I really don’t care enough to make it more vivid. So there’s another part of the equation–which parts of the book are worth expending all that creative energy on?

  6. I just read Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo, which everyone should run right out and read immediately. Not only is it funny and heartfelt and surprisingly deep, and set in a time and place that is both now and elsewhen and here and elsewhere, but her language is clean and transparent and gorgeously evocative. If the book were not in the other room I would quote great swaths of it, but really: read it yourself.

  7. The sentences I remember best tend to look dorky in isolation, because they are built up to and carry the weight of most if not all of the story, lending them grandeur.

    “I see Bianca.”