Are storytellers born or made?

At a talk I gave a few nights ago, at the Auburn Library in Maine, one man asked me a great question: “Do you think storytellers are born with that talent?”  I can’t remember if I’ve covered that topic in my blog.  I’ve written so many entries that I’ve lost track of which subjects I’ve already touched on.  But he asked me an interesting question that I think is worth talking about.

I think the ability to tell a good story is fully formed by the time we’re age twelve, at the latest.  I was already writing stories at age seven.  Age seven, in fact, seems to be the same age that many novelists say they knew they were storytellers.  (Maybe because by that time we know how to read and write, and can finally commit our own stories to paper.) 

But there are some people who never seem to pick up the knack.  You probably know people like this, people who are just, well — boring storytellers.  What makes them boring?  They get stuck relating inexhaustible details. They focus on things that no one else cares about.  They don’t know how to build suspense or tension.  They don’t understand what it is that captures another human being’s attention.  They don’t have a sense of the dramatic.  Any and all of these things can doom you as a storyteller.

I like to give, as an example, two people in my own family whom I’ll just call Ben and Maude.  Let’s say Ben and Maude get in a car accident together.  Ben will sit down in the kitchen and tell you the story of his accident.   He’ll ramble or tell you way more than you need to know and you’ll be bored to tears.  Then Maude will come in and tell you the same story — same plot, same characters — and you’ll hang on her every word.  You’ll laugh.  You’ll lean forward in your seat, anxious for the next sentence.  Yes, maybe she’ll include a lot of details but they’ll be interesting details, quirky details. 

Maude has the knack; Ben doesn’t.

So what made Maude a great storyteller?  Is it genetic?  Why do the Irish seem to be born with it?

Well, I don’t know how much is genetic.  But I do know that early childhood experiences are important.  If your parents read to you, or tell you stories, or if you read a lot of books, you will integrate the rules of good story structure without even realizing it. This is why it seems so many older-generation Irish seem to have the knack; they listened to their parents tell stories, or they listened to stories on the radio.  They absorbed words, in ways that you can’t from from merely watching television.  (I’m not talking about today’s “Talk radio”, where some blowhard goes on for hours offering his opinions on politics. I’m talking about radio storytellers such as Garrison Keillor, who can spin a tale out of just about nothing and keep you riveted.)

Every so often, I encounter an aspiring writer who just doesn’t have that storytelling knack.  Their manuscripts are boring, and it’s hard to make them understand exactly what’s wrong with their stories, other than to say “it’s not interesting.”  Or “it’s not dramatic enough.”  Often they’ll counter with “well, it isn’t meant to be commercial!  It’s meant to be literary.”  Okay, then.  But even literary isn’t supposed to be boring.

What I’ve found is that many of these boring aspiring novelists turn out not to be readers.  Yep, you heard me.  They want to be novelists but they don’t read novels.  They think they can tell stories, but how would they know if they have no one to compare themselves to?  I run into a lot of these people at my booksignings.  They come up to me and want advice about where to send their manuscripts, and how to get published.  When I ask them which authors they like to read, I’ll get back a puzzled look.  Read?  Why, they don’t have time to read!  They’re too busy!

So is their dream of being a novelist hopeless?  Should they just give up?  Are they doomed to forever be boring storytellers?

I don’t know.  What I do know is that they have a lifetime of catching up to do.  They need to read.  They need to absorb all the words, all the hidden lessons in dramatic structure, that can only be found in novels.  Musicians learn the fundamentals of music by listening.  Writers learn the fundamentals by reading.

So if you want your kid to grow up to be a famous novelist, start reading to him.  Tell him stories.  Instead of turning on the TV, turn on a children’s audiobook. And give him books.  Lots and lots of books.  (And yes, comic books count.)

Maybe he won’t grow up to be a famous novelist.  But there’s a better chance he won’t be boring.

—————

And now, a few more shots of my books around the world!

  Here are Yueying and Terri, with my books in Singapore:

singapore 1                       singapore 2

 

And here’s one from Wendy in Vancouver:

                                vancouver

Here’s one from Robyn in South Africa:

south africa

And from Martina in Croatia:

croatia

Thank you all so much for the latest photos.  Wish I could travel as much as the books do!

25 replies
  1. JMH
    JMH says:

    Tess: Steven King made the same recommendation in his wonderful book, On Writing–namely, that authors need to read. However, I can also sympathize with authors, and others, who don’t have the time. I personally haven’t read more than 5 or 6 novels since I graduated from high school more than 30 years ago. My writing would undoubtedly be better if I had. However, I don’t believe that that lack of reading has been a serious detriment to writing.

    One drawback, however, is that I am unable to compare my work to other authors, since I don’t know what they’re doing. So I rely on book reviewers and readers to make the comparison. On the plus side, an author who doesn’t read doesn’t end up emulating or copying, which increases the likelihood for a uniquie voice. So there’s always a silver lining.

    I agree with you 100 percent though that a story must be interesting, exciting and captivating. That is the secret to being an author. Create a page-turner.

  2. Mikal
    Mikal says:

    I definitely agree. I guess my mind just doesn’t understand how a non-reader would ever dream of being a writer. If you don’t appreciate the stories, what is the purpose of you writing a story in attempt of it being appreciated?

  3. robyn.s.africa
    robyn.s.africa says:

    I think part of the story knack you either have or don’t have (or perhaps haven’t cultivated) is that next step from recounting events that have happened in an entertaining/dramatic etc way, to writing events you’ve made up in that great story way.

    I’m Maude, but for the life of me I could never sit down and start writing a great story from my head, I need events that have happened to work with.

    Honestly I am not an aspiring novelist, but I think part of that comes from me thinking – what if it’s so boring and nobody wants to read it!

    Hats off to all the authors out there! 🙂

  4. Amy MacKinnon
    Amy MacKinnon says:

    Funny, I was wondering about this very topic just a bit ago.

    There’s much to know about craft, and one can learn such things in classrooms, but having a firm grasp of rhythm, cadence, voice is a more organic process I think. Some are born with those skills, just like the rare musical prodigy, but for most, it’s ingrained just as Tess said, through reading from early on in life.

    I can’t imagine a writer taking pen to paper without a lifetime of reading behind the effort. The result couldn’t be very good.

  5. Joshua James
    Joshua James says:

    I agree that some kids and people seem to have an elemental “feel” for storytelling, just as others do with music.

    I started writing late, like 25, but looking back on my life I realized I’d always been a writer / storytelling since I could read . . . I was, and still am, a voracious reader (I read my first Stephen King book, THE SHINING, as age 9) and wrote my first play at 13 – sadly, it would be over a decade before I’d write again, primarily due to laziness . . . but during that time I drew and wrote a load of comic strips . . . storytelling in a different form . . .

    Later on, I got a computer and began writing. I had no training and made mistakes, but in spite of that, seemed somehow aware of things in storytelling that people who had been studying for years did not . . . I had a taste and a feel for it.

    My brother taught himself to play drums at the age of 9, later on learned two more instruments . . . he had a feel for it, loved music and never stopped listening to it. He thought in music.

    Me, I’ve been a book freak, movie freak and comic freak since I was a wee lad, and I think it’s because I think in story . . . and it comes out.

    Hard work will always matter, hard smart work, but I do believe the touch comes to us early, I do . . .

    I wish I’d started earlier and studied formally, but I’ve certainly made up for lost time . . .

  6. Lorra Laven
    Lorra Laven says:

    As a musician (pianist), I’ve had this same discussion many times. With respect to musical ability: is it inborn or can it be learned?

    Obviously, everyone can learn to play competently if they start at a young age and are willing (or not) to sit at the keyboard and practice for endless hours.

    But can these same people move an audience to tears or cheers? Can a “true” musician (or writer) turn away from the light, or are they — like a moth to the flame — unable to choose another path in life no matter how many times their wings are singed?

    My opinion only: Although an audience may cheer a brilliant cascade of notes, they will never weep or feel the rush that comes from a truly musical performance — no matter how technically astounding — unless the performer is truly an artist. And I firmly believe artistic talent is inborn.

    So shoot me. It’s only one person’s opinion.

  7. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    I’ve been catching up on your last few posts, Tess. Love ’em!

    In Bag of Bones (I think), Stephen King mentions that there is a distinct difference between a good storyTELLER and a good storyWRITER. Some people are good talkers, while others communicate better on the page.

    I think reading, and awareness of genre tradition, etc., is crucial for the novelist. Maybe not so much for Uncle Joe who entertains us around the campfire.

  8. wendy roberts
    wendy roberts says:

    I haven’t heard that most writers know they’re storytellers by age seven but, yes, that was the case with me. Although that first story of a birthday cake received mixed reviews from my second grade public LOL.

  9. Pam Halter
    Pam Halter says:

    It reminds me of Data in Star Trek, TNG. He could play an instrument flawlessly, but the emotion, which gives music its soul, was not there.

    I’ve found that my best writing comes out of pain. When I’m struggling the most, my writing sings. Reading is important, of course, but so is life experience.

    And could it be Irish storytellers are so much fun to listen to because of their beautiful accent? 🙂

  10. Cynthia Reese
    Cynthia Reese says:

    I’m Ben in person, Maude on paper. Weird, I know, but I am NOT an oral story-teller unless I write it down and rehearse what I’m going to say.

    Reading (and reading EVERYTHING — novels, biography, how-tos) is by far the thing that helps me — that and listening to NPR’s features, believe it or not. Those radio guys have to bring the scene to you, and I have learned so much from their excellent reporting.

    That brings up another point — good writing (and good story-telling) means that you MUST observe people and places, really pay attention to them. Nothing jerks me out of a story more quickly than when a character doesn’t come across as real and three-dimensional or if the character does something that doesn’t mesh with either her personality or what her real-life counterpart would do.

    I believe my dd will be a writer — at the age of four, she was already dictating stories with a good narrative structure to me — and now that she is beginning to read and write on her own, she wants to use my laptop.

    Hmmm … part of me wouldn’t wish the curse of being a born-writer on anyone.

  11. SassyDevil
    SassyDevil says:

    I think you’re right on the money. All the authors with any amount of success I know of are, and always have been, readers. I love to read, and I don’t “get” people who don’t read.

    I look very Irish, and come from Irish ancestry, and my dad did read to me. I think reading to kids, and having them read themselves, is important. Reading increases intelligence, imagination, and helps one be more worldly.

    We just did the closing on our house today. After we get all moved, and I get my books unpacked and sorted, I’ll get a photo of me with one of your books, too. 🙂

  12. Ali M
    Ali M says:

    Interesting topic, and one I’m sure there are many opinions on! Personally I think talent is something you have to be born with, but even meagre talent can be built on like a foundation.

    I think the reason the Irish are good storytellers is mainly the tradition of storytelling, way before ‘regular’ people learnt to write. Of the seanchaí sitting in the corner of the bar with a pint telling a tale and captivating all his listeners. The accent is a major factor in storytelling, and a sing song voice is fantastic.

    I grew up in this tradition, listening always to the stories, reading as soon as I could, as much as I could. Creativity for me as a child was through drawing, but my narrative was through vivid role playing. Later as a teen I wrote novels on a whim and have banished them to the back of my harddrive since! Friends have told me I have a storytelling style, but for lack of time I’ve stuck to writing poetry, short & sweet! I dream to write books one day, time permitting!

    Nice to see more photies flooding in Tess! 🙂

  13. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    OK then, very interested in this thread and thought that I’d throw some of my observations into it. First of all in regard to are Storytellers Born or Made? I wouldnt be quite so sure. I suspect that modern society being what it is means that a great many of possible “gifted” writers never get the chance to learn the craft as its easier to put them either in front of the telly or on a games consol. Theyre not out experienceing things.

    Second of all I suspect that a certain amount of luck plays a part, the meeting of interesting people, having people who love to read imparting thier love and time on the person and finally having the chance to experience things. It may not be expensive stuff but it could be something silly such as watching a colony of ants on the march and putting it in the form of an army.

    Whilst I think certain skills can be passed on I think a number of them have to be learned. I read a hell of a lot (between 18-30 books a month) and whilst I see where the plots going a number of times from being able to see the “architecture” beneath the facade I am picking up tips all the time on how things should be done.

    I have problems with speech but I suspect that its mainly to do with not enough character development but I should find a way to fix that. I’d also say that it has to be a “wide” reading circle, not just one genre as theres so much on offer that you can learn from anything be it a romance novel of a sci-fi novel. Theres always something to pick up on. BUt these are just my thoughts and probably wrong but as they say it has to feel right to make sense, if it doesnt it wont. lol

  14. Debbie
    Debbie says:

    I know a lot of people who are voracious readers, and can’t write to save their lives. And I know some good writers who are so busy writing, they’re afraid to read anything for fear it’ll break their momentum or taint their originality.
    I’m more an avid reader of non-fiction than fiction. I will be the first to admit Im an impatient reader. My mind is like a pitbull when Im reading a scene that Id like to see written differently. It doesn’t let go..and I find myself leafing beyond it while still mentally shaking the daylights out of the scene Im trying to forget.
    My yearning to write/create came early in childhood. I would leave my poetry and stories all over the house and my mother would laugh..make a joke about it.
    ” Does this belong to anyone?” she’d find me and wave it in front of my face.
    (Mind you, I come from a chaotic family of 6 sisters and one brother.)
    She’d find my scribbles inbetween pages of books and magazines. I would draw pictures on adding machine tape and pretend I was creating my own movies. Silly..isnt it?
    When I write now, I visualize my entire stories as though I were viewing it already completed on film and I’m merely narrating what I see. It’s easier to describe scenes that way. Titles come to me. An entire book can come to me from a simple incident or scene I witnessed. And of course I am the queen of “What if’s”
    Most everything I write about comes not from what Ive personally experienced, but from where these visions take me. For instance, my protagonist in my first book is a male physician.
    Yes, I do believe a writer has to be aware of everything around him in everyday life. You have to notice the obvious, and the overt. In a crowded room…my mind is on everything and everyone around me… all at the same time.
    How people, (especially those of different cultures and social statuses) interact within and outside of their group I find fascinating…and inspiring.
    I love medical and suspense…but (God bless me) Im a true romantic.

  15. M.G. Zarocostas
    M.G. Zarocostas says:

    I couldn’t disagree more with the person who said that failing to read is not a detriment to writing. The way you learn the craft is through studying the language.

    Besides, you’re supporting other writers (and yourself) when you read more books. Z

  16. Frank Hood
    Frank Hood says:

    A topic close to home. My wife is a brilliant storyteller, and I am a talented writer. By storyteller I mean her writing as well as speaking. I can write clever sentences and funny scenes, but she writes dramatic, emotional, yes even funny, and brilliant stories. I have hopes that I will get there some day.

    Peter Shaffer inevitably comes to mind in an ironic way. The scene in Amadeus in which Salieri, who through love of music has willed and worked his way to the top of his profession, reads the music written by Mozart and drops it to the floor along with his whole understanding of the world by his recognition that this young genius could write something infinitely better than Salieri could ever write, seemingly without any effort or preparation work on Mozart’s part, is absolutely brilliant. The irony is that unfortunately Shaffer, apart from this one scene, can’t deliver on the rich drama of this situation. He has a genius for spotting the dramatic, but can’t seem to really exploit it. About 20 minutes after you see Equus, once you get over the stagecraft, you realize that the play didn’t really exploit the wonderful theme very well.

  17. alternatefish
    alternatefish says:

    Anyone can be a competent writer. Pay attention in English class, and that teacher will give you something.

    Talent, though, is something you’re either born with or you aren’t. However, you can either squander or nourish that talent. Even more important than talent is the effort you put in. Nobody, however talented, can produce brilliance without producing a lot of other stuff first. Remember…

    Genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.

  18. 5harmaine
    5harmaine says:

    Reading the comment about it being easier nowadays for children to be lured by consoles/TV – it is certainly more accessible nowadays but I think there are also benefits in terms of storytelling.

    Internet networking sites create an environment where children feel as if they are constantly in front of an audience; the internet seems to be losing it’s sense of anonymity these days, being more like an ongoing classroom show-and-tell session.

    Btw Tess, you convinced me to pick up ‘The Missing’ by Chris Mooney today at the bookstore – I was feeling lukewarm about it and then I saw a positive comment from you splashed across the front cover. I noticed you’re helping other authors get more sales by applauding their books (I got a copy of ‘The Rosary Girls’ too because of this) – but I was wondering, exactly how do you pass on the message?

    Sorry for this growing comment – but on genius, I have to borrow Aldous Huxley’s statement that “the secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm”: good storytellers may be formed at a young age but it’s continually immersing yourself in reading and writing beyond those years of curiousity that will make you outstanding.

  19. Ekey95
    Ekey95 says:

    I enjoy your work and am excited to discover your site. Voices of Alzheimers, a compilation, might be a read YOU’D enjoy since you’ve walked the walk. Thanks for all the valuable information on our craft.

  20. JMH
    JMH says:

    While reading the work of others will no doubt help an author some limited amount (e.g. as inspiration), the value of reading what others have written gets closer and closer to zero once an author knows how to construct a novel and has already obtained his/her unique voice. That is because the act of writing the next paragraph, or page, or chapter, is primarily an act of problem solving. Who should be in the scene? Where should it be? What are the issues to be resolved? What is the hook at the end? What words, dialogue and descriptions should be used to most succinctly and effectively convey the excitement, emotion, stress, conflict and infrastructure of the specific situation at issue? When an author is sitting down to resolve those specific issues, the words of other authors read days or months or years ago have nothing to do with it.

  21. Kristin
    Kristin says:

    Cynthia, I am the same way! I cannot tell a story verbally or a joke to save my life. I’m terrible at it. I need time to think and craft what I want to say. I also think the distance from my brain to the paper works better for me. Brain to mouth? Not so good. Just ask my husband.

    I think unlike art or music, many people believe they are good writers/storytellers because everyone had to learn how to write. Everyone had to write a story in school at one time or another. But can the same be said for art or music? There is usually very rudimentary knowledge of art taught in grade school and high school art classes usually only scratch the surface. Music? Some people never even pick up an instrument!

    Therefore, the written word sometimes does not carry the same mystique as music or art.

    Personally, I don’t get how the first commenter can say he is a writer, but has only read 5 or 6 books in the last THIRTY YEARS??? What is that about? I couldn’t even imagine reading one book every 5 years or so. How about one book every 5 days? Or at the very least once a month??

  22. NewMexicanAnn
    NewMexicanAnn says:

    Man! There’s so much to relate to in this blog!

    My mom told me that when I was a baby in diapers, she’d find me behind the couch with my diapered butt up in the air and I was looking through books, even though I supposedly couldn’t read yet. And then, when I was in the second grade, I wrote a story about Dracula eating my whole school. The teacher thought it was so cute that it somehow got put up in the teachers’ lounge and my mom, a substitute teacher, was always embarrassed to go into the lounge when she subbed there. Hehehehee! But the most important thing to me about reading is that’s how I became a great speller. Skip phonetics! My mom knew that site learning is the real way to learn to spell well, and the more books you read, the more you learn to spell and your vocabulary broadens, too.

    But sometimes (whether in music or in writing) being technically perfect isn’t the most important thing. The best praise of your work (writing or music) is if you see someone dance spontaneously, laugh, or best yet, cry over your work. I know that one from experience. (Yes, Tess, your writing has made me laugh and cry, so GOOD JOB!!!!)

  23. Peggy Bee
    Peggy Bee says:

    I’m a lifelong reader. I read, sometimes, a book a day (if I get half a chance!). I have absorbed,through osmosis I guess, a lot of knowledge on how to write. Therefore it distresses me when I see people who want to be writers, and they aren’t readers.
    Once in a novel writing class, a newbie began telling me about how excited she was to be in the class. She said, “I’m so anxious to get started writing my book. The problem is, I don’t know yet what I’m going to write.”
    “Well, what do you like to read?”
    She frowned, and said, “Hmmm, I read a book last summer, but I don’t remember the name of it, and I don’t really remember what it was about. But–” she glowed, “I liked it!”
    If she ever became I writer, I never heard about it–but if she did, and was published, I would also be very disappointed!

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