Commentary

Why Storytelling Advice Is Such a Mess

This post is 1 in the series: Navigating the Jungle of Storytelling Advice
Learning most crafts is a fairly straightforward process. Not so with storytelling. While a simple search will give you a plethora of tips and tricks, the fiction industry has no time-tested method of teaching the craft to newcomers. Based on the methods of those who are successful, becoming a self-supported storyteller has greater resemblance to winning the lottery than it does to undertaking a training program.

Some industry professionals claim that this is the fault of the people who want to learn. They say that newcomers just don’t have what it takes. That storytelling isn’t teachable. I imagine this feels better to these professionals than admitting they are the problem. I think they cannot teach storytelling because they don’t fully understand it. 

But why? People undergo successful training in a huge variety of skills every day; why is storytelling such a long and twisted road? If you’re embarking on this journey, you should know.

Cultural Messages Sabotage Learning

It can be hard to set up a system for something that everyone thinks is unnecessary. Unfortunately, fiction writing is plagued by a culture that actively discourages traditional learning. You don’t have to look far to find these messages.

As an example, let’s take the Deep Space Nine episode The Muse. Jake, a budding fiction writer, meets an alien who tells him she has known and helped famous artists. This muse promises to help Jake write a great novel by teaching a six-week course in how to craft a story. Just kidding, that’s not what she does. Instead, she says she unlocks creativity and gets artists to stop censoring themselves. Somehow, this transforms them from a beginner into a master. Of course, it turns out she wants to feed off Jake’s creative brain juices, but even so, Jake creates an amazing story under her influence.

What gets me is that writers wrote this. They probably struggled themselves to learn their craft, and yet they left out any kind of intellectual learning process. Instead, they are saying that good storytelling requires bringing out some inherent inner brilliance that Jake is lucky enough to have. And they are not alone in saying this.

I regularly encounter similar messages under the guise of encouragement. For instance, the message about writing in the movie Little Women is basically “Write with your heart, and you’ll have a great story.” While these kinds of messages may be well intentioned, it doesn’t make them any less toxic to writers. What storyteller out there isn’t trying to “write with heart” or “write like it matters,” etc.? If you care deeply about your writing but it’s still terrible, then what? Caring doesn’t magically transform you into a master any more than creativity does.

Some of the worst messages come from successful professionals in the industry. Everyone treats them like royalty, so they don’t have a strong incentive to be nice. They’ll talk about how they were gifted from birth, mock anyone who dares to ask where their ideas come from, and make disparaging remarks about those who create works they consider lesser. I’ve already parodied them by applying their messages to macaroni art, so I won’t say any more about them here.

According to all of these messages we tell ourselves, to succeed in writing you have to be one of the chosen few. If you aren’t brilliant without trying, you aren’t good enough. Just imagine walking into a carpentry class and listening to the instructor say stuff like that. It’s nonsense, and it’s not any less so when applied to storytelling.

The remedy for this silliness is understanding. Once people knew that disease was caused by germs and not bad smells, we could get on with sanitizing things and leave all the mumbo jumbo behind. So why hasn’t the real method of becoming a great writer been demystified?

Soft Skills Are Difficult to Understand

Skills come on a gradient from soft to hard. Getting along with others is a stereotypical soft skill, whereas math is a stereotypical hard skill. Many professions have softer and harder components. If you’re an illustrator, your ability to create an image that resembles real life is a hard skill compared to your ability to make that thing look pleasing. In fiction writing, the wordcraft component is a little harder than the storytelling component.

Regardless of whether you’re painting, teaching, or writing, soft skills generally aim to make an impression on one or more people. This matters because unlike hard skills, soft skills don’t have an obvious sign of success or failure.

For instance, if I tell you to go make some gunpowder, and you don’t have those hard skills, you can’t make it. Obvious. Even if you do make it, I can analyze what you’ve produced, or measure how many resources you had to put into it, to objectively determine how good you are. With such evidence available, hard-skill communities quickly come up with repeatable steps that lead to success. After all, the results of hard skills are never considered “cliche” or “overused.”

In contrast, if I tell you to design me a brochure, you can do it regardless of whether you have graphic design skills. The difference is that if you don’t have those skills, your design will be terrible. But here’s the real punchline: if you don’t have design skills, you probably won’t know how terrible your design is.

In the field of psychology, this is referred to as the Dunning-Kruger effect. It’s documented that the unskilled believe they are more skilled than they are, and to a lesser extent, the most skilled individuals underestimate their own abilities. This happens with both soft and hard skills, but with hard skills, correcting a false impression of competence is simple. The softer a skill is, the less accessible reality checks become. As a result, people often believe the skill is easy.

Ironically, this very trait makes soft skills more difficult. The first step in becoming a master storyteller is realizing you aren’t one, and that alone could take several years.

Stories Are Difficult to Test and Measure

While success and failure aren’t obvious in storytelling like they are for hard skills, there still must be ways to tell whether someone has succeeded. Otherwise, we couldn’t say that Terry Pratchett was any better than your neighbor’s toddler.

As I mentioned before, the goal of a soft skill is to invoke some sort of response from people. That means if you test those skills using a large enough group of people, you can discover the level of success or failure. For instance, if you want to know how effective a teacher is, you can’t test one student to find out, but you can test all of their students to get a reasonable average.*

Similarly, the responses of individual readers may not be anything like the average performance of a story. A few beta readers can help a writer find problems, but to get accurate data measuring a story’s strength, you’d need a lot more people – and the right people – to read it and report back. Since storytellers don’t usually have a large audience corralled and ready to take surveys, accurately testing stories isn’t practical enough for widespread use.

That’s why people often use a book’s sales or estimated popularity as a proxy for these kinds of tests. I do think there’s a correlation between a story’s popularity and the quality of the storytelling,* but even so, this is not a reliable way to judge quality. It’s easy to argue that many best sellers such as Eragon and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are only best sellers because of the great marketing efforts of their publishers. On top of that, differences in demand among readers will give books of a specific type the edge regardless of whether those stories are told skillfully.

Even if you get reliable results from polling a large group, you’ll run into another problem. While this method can measure how strong a story is overall, it’s not great at explaining why. What specific aspects of the work created a positive or negative response? Readers can’t tell us accurately. Because it’s easier to judge the overall strength of a work than it is to find the strong and weak points, people get the impression that everything about a work is of similar quality. On the contrary, storytelling is so complex that strong points and weak points are almost inevitable. So whereas many people assume that a popular work is flawless, in actuality, any popular book could be more popular if its flaws were addressed.

This is why it isn’t that effective to look at what popular books are doing and imitate them. To even prove correlation between popularity and a specific aspect of a book, you’d need to compare popular books to unpopular books you’ve also examined, and you’d need to include statistically significant numbers of each set. Find a statistical correlation, and your results are certainly worth sharing, but you still don’t know that the pattern you found is the cause of a book’s popularity.

If objectively testing stories doesn’t give us what we need to demystify the craft of storytelling, we have one other recourse: to consult experts.

Identifying an Expert Is Difficult

If you find one expert who really understands a soft skill, that person could not only tell you how successful you are at it, but also why. An expert of this kind can also teach other people what they know. While finding an expert is more practical than surveying lots of people, it creates a chicken and the egg problem. If we can’t measure success without an expert, how do we know which people are experts?

Can We Use Degrees?

For most skills, formal education fills this gap. If someone has a degree in graphic design or teaching, they may not be fantastic at it, but they’ll at least be okay. But when it comes to storytelling, formal education is largely useless. I won’t say no good storytelling classes exist, but overall, having a degree in creative writing says little about someone’s storytelling skill. It’s possible for someone to get a storytelling-related degree without learning the basics of storytelling.

Even considering the problems I’ve previously discussed, I’m genuinely baffled by this. I can only guess that because fiction writing isn’t very profitable,* universities don’t have enough incentive to get it right.

How About Best-Selling Writers?

Because formal education is sorely lacking, people often turn to writers who’ve made a successful living. This makes sense, but like judging book quality by popularity, it’s not nearly as effective as you might think. I mentioned earlier how people get a false impression that every aspect of a work is equally good or bad. Writers also buy into this. They assume if their books are selling well, they must be doing everything right. In reality, most best-selling writers are exceptionally good at one or two aspects of the craft and mediocre at the rest. I’ve seen more than a few best-selling writers get worse at their craft over time.

Successful storytellers may not be effective experts for another reason – they don’t always understand what they’re doing. To some degree, soft skills rely on tools provided by the subconscious mind. This includes instinct, creativity, and cultural conditioning. Some writers naturally have stronger subconscious tools, and some writers prefer to rely on their subconscious rather than thinking things through.

Now, let’s say we have two groups of writers. One group is full of people who can instinctively create sympathetic characters, raise tension, add novelty, and all those other essential skills. The other group has to learn everything the hard way. Which group is more likely to end up with best sellers? It’s the group that has strong instincts – instincts they can’t pass on to their students. However, this doesn’t mean the results they get with instinct aren’t possible to achieve with intellectual understanding. They just can’t teach it because they don’t have that understanding.

Professional Editors?

Even the existence of professional editing is something to remark on. Few other skills have a separate profession dedicated to improving people’s work, and for those that do, it’s generally a specialty that only exists in relatively large businesses. While the existence of editing is promising, editors are probably even more varied than storytellers themselves.

Many fiction editors don’t cover storytelling at all; they only work on the hard-skill aspects of writing, such as grammar and punctuation (copy editing). Most editors who do look at stories (content or developmental editing) do it in addition to copy editing, so it’s difficult to say how much of their time is spent on story improvement.*

Other than that, editors who focus on stories have all the same issues storytellers do: no formal education system, frequent reliance on instinct, and varying overall levels of skill. While editors don’t have sales data like authors do, you can see that they’ve been in business for a while and look at their list of testimonials. Editors rely on repeat business, so they have to keep their writer clients happy. That’s not proof they’re good, but it’s something.

Reviewers?

For some, this may be the most obvious answer. We have a profession of people dedicated to telling others whether stories are worth reading/watching, so why not consult with them? Because unlike editors, reviewers serve consumers, not storytellers. They’ll report on the particulars of each story, but they have no reason to learn what goes into creating those things. This is like someone who tells you not to walk into a building because they’ve noticed the support pillars are cracking. Just because they see the pillars cracking doesn’t mean they understand what engineering mistake caused those cracks. It doesn’t make them qualified to teach engineering.


I’ve just gone on at length about how it’s impossible for anyone in the fiction industry to know what they’re doing. Are you doubting me yet? Are you wondering if all the advice I’ve given you on this blog is baloney and I don’t know what I’m talking about? Good. Be suspicious. In the rest of this series, I’ll give you what guidance I can, but it’s your own questioning mind that will see you through.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

 

Comments

  1. Dave L

    To be a success (by whatever you define as success) in most fields you need five things, in varying amounts:

    1. Raw, natural talent
    2. Knowledge, such as can be learned from books or websites
    3. Persistence
    4. Experience, which can often teach things from 2, and can only happen if you have 3
    5. Pure dumb luck

    In some cases, an increase in one area can make up for a lack in another. Note that three areas are under your control

  2. Amy Marie

    So very interesting and in some ways, hopeful.

  3. C.C.

    I agree that in the end it’s the writer who has to decide what advice will move them closer to their goal and closer to the writer they want to be. I took some writing classes, but found that I learned far more about storytelling and the craft from my favourite blogging writers. I truly did. They’re amazing. They might not all be “experts”, as in best-selling authors, but the insights they share move me forward every time. They also inspire me by their passion for storytelling and by just keeping at it; learning and writing and sharing. I think that being persistent and keeping at it is essential for a writer, just like Dave L. said.
    Nothing guarantees success though. That’s the curse of the arts, I guess, but I’d rather try than not. Love your articles, Chris. They’re always informative and encouraging in tone, and I’m looking forward to this new series.

  4. Ken Hughes

    A good summary of the problem. I can’t wait to see where the analysis leads.

    I would add one thing: “write from the heart” is necessary (for most people), but not sufficient. It’s vital because it’s what keeps us writing long enough to learn the rest–IF we learn properly–and what makes it rewarding. But on its own it’s a slow lane at best and a closed loop at worst.

  5. Mike

    That’s a really interesting analysis. I find that I never accept advice blindly. With every article I read on this site, I usually try to make my own thought process around it, try to apply it to my writing, mess it up, and try it again.

    I still think a few golden rules apply to storytelling, just like any other skill. Messing up is the best way to get better. If you think you’ve mastered it, you probably don’t know shit.

  6. Yora

    Getting people to say what they think about good writing is like pulling teeth. Every time I raise any such questions, the first three replies are always that it’s impossible to answer such things because everything is unique and special and there are no generally applying rules.
    But if you persist long enough, you might finally get one or two people say something about what they feel could work well in certain situations.

  7. Sandy C

    Thank you, Chris. Your article made me want to both give it all up (writing), and to persevere till death (again, with writing). Looking forward to your further and wise insights.

  8. Tannera Kane

    Great article. Look forward to reading.

    I learned the hard way. I accepted advice from writing forums before publishing. Turns out all the advice was wrong. Now I have four talented individuals helping me fix all my stories – at great cost, yet they will likely sell when and if republished. I may scrap an entire series.

    • Cay Reet

      Just out of interest … which advice did you get that was wrong and what are you now doing to rectify things?

  9. Tyson Adams

    Excellent article. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

    The number of authors I’ve heard make the claim that you can’t teach writing because you can’t teach talent…. Writers are so often the worst sources of writing advice.

  10. Cay Reet

    I’ve always followed the idea that storytelling, like every skill, is 10 % inspiration and 90 % transpiration. 10 % is a basic talent you need to possess, but talent is relatively cheap, and 90 % are hard work so you learn to use the tools well (with storytelling, mostly the language, but also using tropes and stuff like that). That means that the only way to become a good storyteller is to tell stories. The only way to become a better writer is to write. Lots of stuff, even if you delete half of it again afterwards.

    One problem with storytelling might be that, unlike other arts, such as music or painting, there is no clear way of seeing how good you are. An artist can see how much the picture resembles their idea of it. A musician can hear how well the piece they play sounds. But storytelling is more difficult, because language is not something judged that easily. And it’s not just language as in grammar or vocabulary (that, too, though). It’s also how well you craft a plot, how well you create your characters, how well you move the reader through the story. Those aspects are much more difficult to judge, because different readers will put different emphasis on them.

  11. American Charioteer

    I agree, literature is the art that is furthest from mimesis which is why practice is the only way to even tell if you have become a better writer.

    The usual English translation of “transpiration” is “perspiration,” by the way, though your English is probably far better than my German

    • Cay Reet

      Thanks, I’ll keep it in mind.

      Well, I learned it in school and I’ve spent ages with it afterwards, so my English should at least be serviceable.

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