Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Storyteller or writer, which are you?

by Vivian Zabel

         A recent newsletter I wrote for another site about "show, don't tell" stirred up a hornet's nest. Several comments were sent me by email as well as a direct reply to the newsletter. So now I have a question to everyone: Do you want to be a storyteller or an author? Which is more important to you?

Which do you want to be: storyteller or a writer then an author?

         First we need to address what a storyteller is or isn't. Storytelling is the conveying of events in words, images, and sounds, often by improvisation or embellishment. Telling a story allows nonverbal actions and communication not possible with written words. The teller can entertain and keep attention of listeners with vocal, facial, and body expression, as well as words, using the combination to show the audience what is happening in the story. Therefore, storytellers do "show" even if not through words alone.

         An author/writer (called writer from this point forward, since a person has to be a writer before he can be an author) has only words as his tools. His face can't show excitement, surprise, or anger - note the use of "show." A writer needs to show the reader what is happening in order to gain and to keep the reader's attention. In this world of television and movies, readers also want to "see" the action from books and stories in their heads.

         One newsletter respondent used the argument that contests often have word limits and showing takes more words than telling. I enter some of those contests, as do others, and if the judges recognize good writing, the entries with showing rather than telling will place higher than others.

         Using excessive detail does not equal showing. In fact excessive detail often is a side effect of telling. To show, rather than to tell, a writer weaves details into the story as needed, bit by bit, not in long boring paragraphs. Also only details required to move the plot or characterization forward or to allow the reader to share the experience should be used.

         Another point, telling in directions and instructions is different than writing a story or novel. Directions and instructions are written in second person and are mainly telling. Most stories and novels are written in first or third person (second person doesn't work nearly as well) and should show.

         Two people argued that storytellers, stressing the teller portion, have been around ages longer than the advice to "show." Let's see, paper and pens haven't been around as long as storytellers, and computers haven't been around as long as paper and pens. Which do we use the most now? That argument would require we not write stories or improve our writing. That attitude will keep writers from being published authors. Also, as explained above, storytellers can "show" what is happening through the use of voice, face, and body. Writers have to use words.

         I wonder what would happen if people took the time and effort they use to argue against something, which would improve their work, to try and use the advice offered. Would more storytellers become writers? Would more writers become authors? Would more people, perhaps, become better readers?

         Each person must decide what he wants to be, a storyteller or a writer then an author.

Vivian Zabel  


  1. I have to choose? Well... um... being an introvert and all, can I just channel my inner storyteller (while mustering up a few more skills and feats of prestidigitation), call it "character," and write?

    Storyteller or Writer?

  2. You have to decide whether to "tell" orally or to write. You can use the inner storyteller, but you have to adapt to write. That's why I defined storyteller as I did, which is a legitimate definition appropriate for my uses.

  3. Show me, don't tell me (LOL!) This is just a line that was sung by Rush. Since I am writing patterns, I can do both - show, and tell. :-)

    It is a whole different kind of writing, compared to stories or poetry, but for me effective. And what counts is: does the reader/knitter understand what you mean, and are they able to knit the pattern without any problems.

  4. Bianca, you are giving directions, as I mentioned in the article, and instructions are telling. You have to tell readers what to do and in what order.

    I'm sure you are very good at it, too.

  5. Thank you Viv for your compliment. One of my designs hit the cover of KnitCircus Magazine (, an American based magazine. :-) Never expected that to happen.

  6. Hmm. I have to say I prefer to be a writer, but I also am a storyteller for my grandkids.

  7. Ahh, but that is different than writing. In-person storytellers "show" through vocal, facial, and verbal expression, not just words.

  8. Interesting. I'd like to be able to do both, but at this point, don't know what I'm doing.

  9. Well, given my genre, I'm a writer, and now (thanks to 4RV) a published author. I don't have the great ability of imagination like "all y'all" in order to produce fiction. By the way - if you would like to see the reviews which have arrived thus far on my book, they're posted on my author site at:


  10. Yes, Shirl, you're a writer and an author. The reviews are terrific, too.

  11. Rena, I think that admitting "I don't know what I'm doing" may be the first step to being an honest to goodness writer. Hubris is the hallmark of an amateur. (Of course, false modesty gets annoying, too, after a while.)

    I know what I'm doing, but it's impossible, some days, to articulate it in comprehensible terms.

  12. Being an illustrator, I would most likely fall into story teller mode, rather than writer mode. Letting my illustrations be my actions and expressions, to 'explain' a story.

    Good thing I'm an illustrator, huh?

  13. Let's just say you've very good at what you do, Aidana.

  14. I love the way a writer can draw you into a story with the "telling" of events and details in measured doses. It intrigues me when I don't know all the details but have to wait for specifics to unfold. I love to guess at what might be coming or what might have been that created the particular passage I am reading. A great author weaves words into a tapestry that has to be examined thread by thread.

  15. I have been meaning to comment on this for awhile. This post makes total sense to me but I used to compete in speech and debate. Having done poetry, drama and duo in front of people, the story teller form really comes through even though I wasn't very good at it.

    I'm not surprised at some of the comments from WDC. While the contests do tend to prefer lower word counts, I think they are missing on what makes flash fiction tough and great at the same time. Part of the challenge is to write a story in the short amount of words. Sure the microfiction is different, hard to show much in 55 words but getting 500 words, that should be enough to show a scene/story. The trick is to work on the economy of words and not overflourish. It is amazing what words can do.

  16. Some good points, Ginger, and you're used to working with illustrations and words together. A good writer does create a tapestry.

    Dawn, you summed up the flash fiction idea perfectly. It is a challenge but doable.

  17. Umm Since I don't tell stories and rather don't know if I'm showing or telling in my writings then that makes me not so good with writings. However I enjoy showing off my drawings and learning any technique I can~ Great article.

    @Dawn I do read everything but might be slow in responding too. Don't worry. :-)

    @Aidana You're a great cover artist. Hehehe