September 22, 2013
Is Storytelling Genetic?
What makes a good story? How come some books you can’t put down, have to turn the page, start a new chapter, and others…might be good, but if you go to bed late and are tired, the book waits for the next day. How about movies. Some movies you can leave running while you get a drink or make a quick snack, with others you put them on pause, afraid to miss a second.
What gives some people that skill and others not? My aunt used to say that my daughter could make walking down the street into a funny story, and she still uses that talent in her genealogy business, telling heartwarming stories of families who have found relatives they didn’t know they had, or uncovering things from the past that shed new light on their ancestry.
My dad had the skill. He could hold a room enthralled with his stories or his jokes, but my mother couldn’t tell a story or joke if you provided cue cards. Storytelling is a lot like joke telling. Give a joke to five different people and you get five different versions of the joke. Some will have people doubling over in laughter, others are lucky to get a polite giggle. My two sons can both tell jokes. My sister and her son can, and one of my brothers, but my other three brothers couldn’t make it through a knock-knock joke.
The same goes for stories. If you give an identical plot to five writers, you’ll get five different versions of it. Pacing, mix of dialogue and prose. Short chapters versus long, choice of vocabulary. Sentence structure. All of it plays a part in the telling of the story.
What Makes A Good Story?
Think about books you’ve read or movies you’ve seen that have a great premise, a well-constructed plot, but…they just don’t click. Something was missing.
• Maybe the story dragged through the middle.
• Or the ending was anticlimactic.
• Or there just wasn’t enough conflict to keep you going.
I think we’ve all seen movies like this, or read books that failed to deliver. But there’s also the flip side. Sometimes a plot is not that intriguing. It might even have holes in it, but you ignore the problems. Sometimes the ending isn’t a huge, satisfying climax, but you still enjoy it. And there might not even be much conflict, but that, too, is forgotten as you flip the pages in a mad rush to get to the end.
Books like The Da Vinci Code come to mind when I think of these. The Da Vinci Code was a huge bestseller and one of the most talked about books in years, but in hindsight it wasn’t that great of a book. There were plot holes. Some might say the entire movie was one giant plot hole and that the plot was, at best, implausible. The writing was not phenomenal. And many of the facts were not quite accurate. And yet…the book sold about a gazillion copies.
I’ll tell you why. Because Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, knew how to tell a story. He hooked the reader at the beginning, and then he left a mini cliff hanger at the end of every chapter. When readers got to that point, they couldn’t stop; they had to move on. The book was a compulsive read, a chapter-by-chapter mystery, a page-turner. And nothing is more sought after than that. When a reader finds a page-turner, they tell others about it, and those others tell even more, and that’s what makes a bestseller.
Dan Brown might not be the best writer in the world. He might not create the strongest plots, or use the best dialogue. His characters could be accused of being one-dimensional, but no one can ever say he can’t tell a story. So the question is, did Dan Brown learn this skill? Or did he inherit it? Was his mother or father a great storyteller?
I don’t know the answer to that. Nor do I know the genetics behind any of the other great storytellers. But I know from looking at our own family that there’s something to the genetic factor, even if it’s nothing more than raw talent that has to be nurtured and honed to a fine edge.
Are You A Writer?
If you ever find yourself wondering if you’re a writer or not, perhaps you should be asking yourself a different question. Am I a storyteller? I believe that people can learn the mechanics of writing, but the storytelling—I think—has to be natural.