Note to Self: It's the Story, Stupid!

Recently I've been asking myself this vital question:  am I a writer? or a storyteller?  I think the answer at this point is writer.  I want to be a storyteller.  But primarily, I want to be both.  Not all authors are.

One of my favorite adaptations of
Dickens' Oliver Twist
Let's face it.  Some of the best storytellers in the English language were deplorable writers.  Charles Dickens could not structure a sentence properly to save his life.  As an editor, I writhe in agony reading his grammar. I marvel that he got away with structuring his story arcs as he did, writing for periodicals notwithstanding.  But, as a storyteller, he was second to none.  He knew how to captivate, to compel, to reach into a person's gut, grab hold and twist—and leave them begging for more.


Judging solely from my own observations, the BBC and/or Masterpiece Theater adapt Dickens' work more than any other single writer. When they've gone through all the favorites, they queue up again at the beginning, or occasionally wander off the beaten path to stories like Bleak House, Little Dorrit (yay Matthew Macfadyen) and The Old Curiosity Shop. Screenwriters and producers fall over all themselves attempting to compensate for Dickens' literary lapses, untold master's theses have been earned analyzing them, but the voice of the storyteller remains.

Who is not dying to see these two belt it out in Les Mis?
Mark Twain is another great storyteller whose education could have been better.  Alexandre Dumasplease! Don't get me started.  Have you ever read The Count of Monte Cristo?  As for Les Miserables

I have to apologize to those who believe it the best book of the 19th century. It wasn't. It may very well be the best story of the era, my heart pitter-pats at the thought of Hugh Jackman singing his way through Jean val Jean, but the book . . . well . . . stunk. Victor Hugo needed a ruthless editor.

What else can I add to my list? Moby-Dick by Herman Melville is actually two books: a rip-roaring action/thriller and morality tale about hatred and obsession, and a naturalist's travelogue. Unlike Hugo's fifty-page treatise on the virtues of human excrement and the criminally wasteful Parisian sewer system, I found Melville's studies on not only whaling but the lives and habits of whales very interesting, if misplaced. But, again, never underestimate the value of a red pencil.

The inimical Jane Austen, I believe, was a great writer. My favorite sesquipedalian, her characters spoke with pinpoint accuracy, using expressions such as insuperable, disapprobation, importune and disinclination.  She used language to illustrate the subtle nuances of character, differences apparent not only between classes and sexes but between family members and education levels. Her popularity remains as vibrant today as the world she created for the reader—an escape to which can prove all too tempting (a la Lost in Austen).

However, her storytelling skills could have been better. Not much happens. Nothing surprises. People tend to sit around and talk a lot. But then (argue her outraged proponents), that's what women of her time did and precious little else.  That's the whole point!

Charlotte Bronte: storyteller, writer or both?
I am acquainted with a talented writer and artist who creates worlds with their pen as vividly and with as much intricate detail as they do with their brush. I read a scene of theirs once of a violent thunderstorm so real, I felt the compelling need to find a storm cellar. Fast. But, years later, I remember the scene but not the story.  Shouldn't it be the reverse?

I fear I fall into the "writer only" category. I need to quit impressing myself with my technical skills, intricately woven plot lines and character developments, and get on with telling the story. I first need the structure. I can worry about carpets and paint once the walls are up and the roof is on.

Who is your favorite storyteller?  Why? What is their most memorable work?  Leave a comment below and join the conversation.
—A Chaotic Mind



4 comments:

Fiona Ingram said...

This is a great post on the difference between good writing and good storytelling. Hopefully we all aspire to merge the two!

Scarlett Rains said...

Penny, my friend, you had me going there. I'm a Dickens/Twain nut! I love their work, and that of 'lady' Jane. When you added Charlotte in, I was smiling. Jane Eyre is one of my all-time favorites.

Am I a writer or a story teller? I hope I'm both.

Nice post! :)

Penny Freeman said...

Thanks, ladies. I think it's a worthy goal for all of us. Charlotte, Jane Eyre has been my favorite since sixth grade, I think. Charlotte Bronte opened my eyes to the classics.

Victoria Dixon said...

I hope I'm a story teller. I certainly do not obsess over the correct placement of commas. LOL