I like to fancy myself a reader and a writer.

I read everyday.

I write every day.

But it took me 54+ years of reading and writing to realize that there are really two types of writers: There are story tellers and there are wordsmiths.

What’s the difference?

Well…

Everything.

and Nothing.

Presently I am reading a book called “The Go Between”. The plotline is very thin…there is one main thing going on, and it took about a third of the way in for the plotline to emerge. But the writing…poetic and lyrical. The sentence structure varies. The descriptions are unique. The only way the author keeps you guessing is by not knowing what literary device is being used next. We all know what’s going to happen to the main character and the sub characters…The author L.P. Hartley is a wordsmith.

I recently read a book “The Wife Upstairs”. This book is all plot. While the author tries to give us an updated Jane Eyre, there is really nothing outstanding about the writing. The words bring you from point A to point B. There is nothing lyrical about the language. There is nothing profound about the dialogue. There is little nuance- it’s an outline with a few trite descriptions thrown in…However, there is a more intricate plot. If you’ve never read Jane Eyre, you might be in for some surprises along the way. Even if you have read it, you still might be in for a ride. The author, Rachel Hawkins, is a storyteller.

Is it better to be a wordsmith or a storyteller?

It really all depends.

Both types of authors are valuable in the writing landscape.

But wordsmiths, well, their books tend to win awards. Their books get praise in The New York Times Book Review. These books are more likely to become classics, or have a long shelf life. These are the types of books that some people buy and never read, but tell people they read them.

Story tellers are more likely to end up on bestseller lists and actually read. These are books that keep you intrigued with what is happening, not the way that it’s presented. These are the books that become movies or TV shows. These are the books fancy people swear they never read.

Which books do you tend to read most?

Do you love a good story? The unpredictable plot? The boy meets girl saga? Or do you long for brilliant use of words? Do you live for first person accounts of looking at a tree and talking about the color of the leaves?

Think of the books that you read: Are they telling a story, or are they just using language to create word pictures?

Pros and Cons of both?

Can you think of a book that excels in both story telling and language use? And don’t tell me Pride and Prejudice because that’s too easy (and some will argue it’s just a romance book and I don’t feel like refereeing that debate)

Discuss:

99 thoughts on “Showing and Telling

  1. Storytellers for sure. Did the story keep me engrossed? Were the characters quirky? Did I laugh a lot/cry as I was reading through? Did the story have a strong message? These are the things I look for in a book. I am not against wordy stories. I have read a few but if given a choice, I will choose storytelling. As long as it feels like a movie in my head (when I am reading a book, not at other times😉) me likes the book 😁😁
    Writers put in a lot of hard work, especially when the book talks about a sensitive subject like abuse or trafficking, or some real life scenario – these books might not be wordy but they do their job of educating the readers.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I prefer storytellers as well. I like to be swept up in a plot. I like to go along for the ride. I do like wordsmiths, but I read them far less frequently

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  2. I do love both – some of my fav authors are pat conroy, Frederik backman, David sedaris, ann patchett, and bill Bryson. I think that I lean toward more of the storyteller style, but it’s a mix –

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  3. I think a good writer should be both. Obviously, the teacher in me prefers a wordsmith. I get a rush when words dance off the page. It’s like tasting a bite of a mouth watering cheesecake. Sheer heaven. But it’s taught in writing 101 that action moves the plot forward. Without it even the best string of words lose their magic. Good writing is magical. I can’t choose because I think you need both.

    The closest thing to explain outstanding writing was described in the movie, “Educating Rita”, when a student says to her instructor after seeing Macbeth for the first time. “ I thought it was going to be dead boring, but it wasn’t. It was brilliant. It was electric.” Watching this uneducated woman discover a world of literature was truly magical. And that is what I want to feel each time I open up a book. I want to see great language skills drip from the page. But I want the plot to be intriguing as well. One without the other doesn’t get an A+ from me.

    Liked by 8 people

    1. I agree with you…I want the unicorn of gorgeous prose and compelling story. But I find it difficult finding books that move me in that way. They end up in my best of list every year…so far I have only three or four books that did this for me this year

      Liked by 1 person

    2. What a good way to describe it! A unicorn of prose. Sadly unicorns are mystical creatures and today it seems that is what happened to excellent writing. It’s become a fantasy. Which is probably why I reread the classics so often. I can’t tell you how many times I put down books where the bland writing style or grammatical errors abound. The plot doesn’t matter any more because I’m rewriting the author’s mistakes in my head. That becomes exhausting and annoying. I actually get angry. I shouldn’t have to edit or correct books when I want to read to escape or enjoy them. I start thinking how I had 5th graders who had a more colorful vocabulary. And who knew not to use the same dialogue tag more than twice on a page.
      Honestly, I think before anyone publishes a novel they should read Abigail Adams’ letters to her husband first. And then the letters from Civil war soldiers ( either side) to their families. Or early settlers on their journey across country. Simple people whose language skills were far superior to most of today’s published writers. In fact, It should be a requirement for all writers to watch old Ken Burns documentaries just to see and hear how to string a sentence together that exudes emotion. Yes, I may be critical but it hurts me to see how we’ve dumbed down literature in the last half century. Mediocre is not good enough.

      Liked by 6 people

      1. Agreed. It’s sad to see how far the use of language has devolved. There’s rarely wit or beauty or just playful use of expression. It’s the same tired verbiage. And more cursing. I rarely find that useful

        Liked by 1 person

  4. You know about me and reading so take my opinion with a big brick of Himalayan salt..but one of the most beautifully written books I ever read was A Gentleman in Moscow.

    Liked by 6 people

      1. This book made me think of my dad whose life got progressively smaller as he physically deteriorated..from a beautiful waterfront condo..eventually to a small room at an assisted living facility into which he had crammed his most prized possessions. One of them was a HUGE painting..a nude..that hung directly over his bed. I often cringed at the sight as the care takers would come in to tend to him.. it was a bit sad.. but funny too.

        Liked by 4 people

  5. I adore A Gentleman in Moscow – please read his other one Rules of Civility. It’s an earlier book of his. I love a good story. I appreciate wordsmithing, but the story is what captures me. For a combo of both, The Whistling Season. 😉😀

    Liked by 6 people

      1. Ahhh and I live for those details. I’m visual. I want to see everything! I want to know what paintings are on the wall, the pattern of tile beneath the feet of the protagonist, the scent of her perfume. I want to know the color of her coffee mug. When those details aren’t there I want for more. I don’t know what is in the room.

        Liked by 5 people

      2. I think it’s because I like the details to be organically woven into the story. And I hate the use of brand specific things….don’t say the shoes are Laboutains….say they’re crafted, or supple or something else the denotes expensive. What if I’m a reader who doesn’t know the significance of the brand?

        Liked by 1 person

  6. It depends on the mood I’m in. I can read a book quickly if it’s written by a story teller. But love to be drawn down a dark alley with sunshine at the end past walls of lilac and cigarette butts if the author is a wordsmith!

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Ok, I say I love story tellers but Erin Morgenstern who wrote the Midnight Circus was not a storyteller. I’m sorry people she wasn’t! She was a word smith and I was thirsty for her long winded descriptions of magic and wonder. I didn’t care about Marco and Celia all that much or even their weird romance (which was paper thin) but the magic! Wow. The plot only kicks in in the last third of the book but damn did I enjoy my time just doing nothing but strolling through that circus. I only hope to have imagination that good. Word smiths give us something we can sink our teeth into, storytellers give us A->B. Which isn’t bad just lacking the lasting factor.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. That’s a great way to think about it…the “lasting factor”. Which book haunts you (the good haunt). A story rarely does….but a wordsmith…totally

      Liked by 2 people

  8. The truly great writers (and books) are both great storytellers and great wordsmiths. I think there are many. The first one that came to mind is “A Gentleman in Moscow,” by Amor Towles. I thought it was one of the most perfect books I’ve ever read.

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  9. I just picked up John Le Carre’s first novel with George Smiley as the unlikely protagonist. I’d say Le Carre is both storyteller and wordsmith. I have to admit, though, that the book is somewhat of a disappointment. I’ll read the book, but I didn’t expect to find what’s inside.

    Liked by 4 people

  10. It depends upon my mood. Sometimes I like to get lost in a story and can’t wait to finish the book. Other times, I love to dwell on the language. My favorite books tend to have both. After reading several page turner Hilderbrand books, I picked up The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. I gave a sigh of relief after a couple pages, enjoying her writing style. Interesting, both authors attended the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

    Liked by 5 people

      1. I’ll ask my son and his girlfriend for more writers who went there. They’re Lit majors from the College of Creative Studies at UCSB and both wanted to go to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I talked with my son and is girlfriend for more of their favorite writers who went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. They said that for literary writers to get commercial success they have to attend there. It’s a who’s who place for connections. Here are some of the names they mentioned (some are poets): Lucy Grealy, Robert Bly, Denis Johnson, Philip Levine, James Alan McPherson, Mary Flannery O’Connor… They gave me a ton more, but these might be interesting to read if you haven’t already read their work.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve begun reading non fiction a lot more lately. And clear concise writing is a wonderful thing…though you read me so you can’t like it too much….😉

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Kate Morton is the first one that comes to mind. With storylines that cross generations and keep me guessing at the outcomes, I enjoy the way she adds nuance and details to her writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Alright, I think it depends, though I am more partial to storytelling. There are two authors I can think of that are amazing storytellers and also use language elegantly – Haruki Murakami, and, new to me when I read, The House of Spirits, Isabel Allende. I’ve read a lot of the former, always excellent, and, well, you know I loved the latter….

    Liked by 4 people

  13. Of course there’s a place for all types of books – whether written by storytellers or wordsmiths. What I struggle with is badly written books – especially those with poor grammar and spelling, and including inaccurate facts when placed in a historical setting.

    My personal preference is for the wordsmith, but a good storyteller who is skilled in the craft of writing is an equal joy.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I hate inaccuracies!! I just read a beach read from an established author and I was so annoyed by some of the falsehoods she wrote I actually emailed her contact page.

      Liked by 2 people

  14. I love telling a story, and so I really love a good storyteller. I try to be a storyteller when I’ writing my first draft, and then I become the wordsmith when I edit. Not too long ago, I read Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne. It’s a great historical account about Texas and the Comanches. It’s good because it mixes history and storytelling. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer. I love reading stories like this because they take me on a journey somewhere else for a while

    Liked by 5 people

  15. 😀 By any stretch of the imagination I’m NOT a Wordsmith but I can tell a naughty true tale (brain dump)……….. One of my very favourite writers, both her Blog and penned erotic Novels now loaded on my Kindle, is a lady who goes by the name of Libra Paley. She is a quite beautiful writer both use of language and pictures she paints in the mind. Even reading her blog I admire her style and rhythm with always a new word or I’ve never come across before……….a proper Wordsmith who writes truly hot sexy novels a genre which isn’t as easy as it first may appear.

    Liked by 4 people

  16. You’re right about this. For me, there has to be a little bit of both; that’s what makes an overall great read: not too much wordsmithing, and just the right amount of structure = perfection.

    Liked by 4 people

  17. My favorite authors are both good story tellers and also wordsmiths, but if I had to choose between the two, I suppose I would pick story teller. Ultimately, it’s the story that stays with us. But still, I think that truly great writers are both. James Baldwin is a wonderful example….he tells a story that draws you in, and he tells it in such a way that you are transformed by his writing. For me, the way to tell a good writer is when I’m willing to read their works more than once. A good book can be enjoyed many, many times.

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  18. I love how much I relate to the post. I have read books of many authors who have beautiful ways of describing and writing and that’s what keeps me hooked. And then when I finish the book, I realise that the words were so intricate that even if the plot wasn’t that unique, the writing kept me interested. And then I recently finished an amazing book which had very simple writing but an amazing plot.
    Since you asked for a book which excels in storytelling and word use and isn’t pride and prejudice, I’ll just name another one of Jane Austen’s book, Mansfield Park 😂❤️
    I hope you have a lovely day!

    Liked by 5 people

  19. I was never a deliberate reader. I read because my parents and my teachers told me to. However in grade 11 we were set Tess of the D’urbevilles and I took one look at the length of the book and hid it at the bottom of my school bag. A particularly good English teacher told me about the plot and I was intrigued. Needless to say once I started reading the book, I could not put it down. So for me a good story teller always captures my attention. From Great expectations to Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, any writer who can capture my imagination will always keep me coming back for more.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Agreed. Those authors that just draw you in. I remember when I started reading the Harry Potter books…the way she tells the story…just incredible

      Liked by 1 person

  20. A wonderful book that uses both is Gone with the wind. Beautiful description and a plot that keeps you intrigued.
    Loved your post. I mostly like a good mix of both. Anna karenina is also a good mix of both I guess 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  21. Wow, I swear I was just writing a post that had my exact thoughts on this type of thing😂

    Right now, I’m team storytellers all the way. Stories are what keeps us engaged, entertained, and hooked in in the first place. They provide lessons and laughs, and help expand our own horizons and experiences. I can’t remember a single book/blog post in which I went “Ah, what a brilliant use of words” or “Wow, that was truly an amazing deployment of metaphor/simile,”. I can, however, gush over my favourite stories and books for hours at a time.
    I think of this comparison like going on a walk through nature. The ‘team wordsmiths’ people will continuously stop and smell the flowers on the way, and walk slowly to take in and enjoy all of the beautiful surroundings.
    The ‘team storytellers’ people simply want to get from point A to point B, with no hassle or waste of time. We’re curious to see what’s on the other side.

    Though I think it needs to be said that both are necessary for a good book. No good stories are crafted with a poor choice of words, and a book with just a glamorous choice of words that doesn’t lead anywhere is pointless.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I need to tell you though that I totally chuckled at your word usage in the first paragraph. But yes…you have to have some semblance of both to have a compelling read

      Liked by 2 people

  22. I think in school we often read books that are written by wordsmiths more than storytellers and that makes a lot of especially young people dislike them and reading.
    I probably prefer storytellers because for any book I really liked, I got swept up in the story. But this is a guess because until very recently, writing style, especially the difference between good and bad (though that is of course in some way subjective), was not something I entirely understood.
    But I think fixating on just one is not really a good idea since leaving out creative descriptions can rush a plot and keeping too many slows it down. Balancing both is probably a good way to go.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Good food for thought here, as usual. Gave me pause to consider why I enjoy certain books that I come across in all of my book groups.

    To start with, as usual I agree with what I see as the majority of the comments here. A great book has to tell an interesting story and include really good and vivid passages of descriptive language. Perhaps that’s why there are fewer great or classic works of non-fiction than there are of fiction. Non-fiction writers more often than not stick to the facts alone to tell their stories. The great ones embellish them with descriptive language that I find add to my reading pleasure by putting me in the place where the action is occurring. Andrea Wulf is an author who does this brilliantly.

    I have also enjoyed the works of Amor Towles because they combine both elements. I don’t know if they will become classics, though. My definition of a classic book is one that tells a timeless story, no matter where or when it is set, and tells it in vivid language with that infuses its characters with real emotion that is also nearly universal.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Just checked the Wikipedia entry for Gentleman and saw that its universality was among the traits for which it received rave reviews. IDK but I found Rules of Civility to be more timeless and therefore possibly more universal than Gentleman because to me so many of the universal relationships in it were more a product of the idealism of communism and therefore more dated than the Depression era setting and relations of Rules. In any case, he is definitely a talented author who maintains my interest in reading more of his work.

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