Good Writing vs. Good Storytelling

A couple of years ago, I developed a sneaking suspicion that I might be a good writer—sometimes a very good one—but not a very good storyteller.

Then I went to grad school and found out I was right. No one told me. I just figured it out after taking apart scores upon scores of novels and analyzing out which ones failed, which succeeded, and why. I could see the problems in my own writing far more clearly when I returned to it.

So, here’s the difference: good writing erases the outside world if just for a moment or a scene. Good stories always draw you in but then keep drawing you forward.

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I recently joined a critique group of writing pros. Everyone is either agented or published and they all have excellent insights. One of my critique partners after seeing my work for the second time said, basically, “It’s like this. If you grabbed a jar of spaghetti sauce from your pantry and we all had to write a paragraph about it, yours would be the most polished, but NOTHING would happen. Words come really easily to you.”

Correct. She’s absolutely correct. It’s exactly what I had diagnosed in myself and I’m especially guilty of this in the early stages of the story. This is largely because I’m a character-driven reader and writer. I’m perfectly happy just following my character around, taking in what they see, watching how they interact with people, observing them. I don’t really need a lot to happen to them. They’re just interesting to me in the same way that real people are interesting to me.

But. That’s not great storytelling. So . . . what to do? How to get to good storytelling?

The solution is NOT to plot.

You maybe weren’t expecting that, hm?

Yeah, me either, because I’m actually a plotter. In fact, all the romantic comedies I’ve written have come really easily to me because the goal, the protagonist’s heart desire, is always obvious: it’s the Adorable Love Interest. I just get to have the fun of getting her there. However, when I write outside of romance, I really, really struggle. The plots get fuzzy. But honestly, that’s kind of silly when the solution is the same. Regardless of genre, you must know your protagonist’s DEEPEST desire. It’s just more clear in romances.

Much of my wandering around in the beginning stages of a story is a symptom of a few things: I may have started with a cool hook and tried to craft the character that lets me make that hook happen. I can’t possibly know that character’s deepest desire without doing some serious sidewriting and character exploration. It could also be that I THINK I know the character’s deepest desire but I haven’t gone nearly deep enough yet.

But I make both of these mistakes over and over and over, so I’ve been trying to figure out an efficient self-monitoring test to make sure my story is staying on the rails and moving forward, not following my character around to moon over flowers or injustices or grades or whatever may be preoccupying her.

This may sound totally obvious to most of you, but the closer I get to internalizing this, the sharper my storytelling is becoming. The test is just asking myself these questions:

  1. What is my character’s deepest desire?
  2. Does this desire set up high enough stakes in the story, at least at key points, to make the reader uncomfortably tense?
  3. Is this scene (ask about EVERY scene) connected to this desire, either driving her toward it or away from it? If not, the scene needs to, or it needs to go.

Time after time, I find the first question is the hardest to answer. If anyone has some great tricks for figuring out their character’s deepest desire, TELL ME. Until then, I’ll be over here writing beautiful prose about jars of spaghetti sauce.

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Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and shoe addict. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Her seventh novel, Southern Charmed, released in October. Melanie is pursuing a Masters degree in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin..

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