September 22, 2013

Is Storytelling Genetic?

Giacomo & Slick

Giacomo & Slick

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.

What about you? I’d love to hear opinions on this.

If you enjoyed this post please share.

5 Responses to “Is Storytelling Genetic?”

  1. Good question.

    Parts of it might very well be genetic as there are certain innate traits that lend themselves to good storytelling.

    I think those traits can only be learned to an extent. For the most part, they are either in you or they’re not.

    Or at the very least, it helps to have them come naturally vs. acquiring them (which is likely also the case with other endeavors. You can have the best coach around and train hard to be a great athlete but it certainly helps to have the right physique for that sport to begin with. You don’t see a lot of tall gymnasts, or short basketball players, right?)

    I’d say most things are like that. You have natural-born salespeople, people who are naturally good at math, etc. That might be especially true of anything involving the arts (and storytelling is an art form).

    With storytelling, perhaps the biggest part of the craft is not in the telling itself, but in the SEEING. In fact, maybe it should be called “storyseeing”.

    You have to have the vision to spot where the gem of the story is before you polish that gem into a story. Yes, if you facet the gem well it’ll really shine — but if you didn’t have the vision to pick a good gem in the first place, no amount of polishing, cutting, grinding will make it sparkle.

    A contemporary of Monet (forgot who) once said that it wasn’t so much that he’d like to paint what Monet painted (as a talented artist could mimic him if they wanted), but that, more than anything, he wished he could *see what Monet saw.*

    Monet was known for portraying subtleties of light and shadow. But he had to SEE that before he ever picked up a brush. So the same question applies there: Monet might have been able to show that fellow painter to paint as he did, but could he teach him to detect those subtle shifts of light on his own?

    Probably, but only to an extent. (My two cents)

  2. Aliza, that was a lot more than two cents. Thanks. I loved the comparison to Monet.

  3. Yeah, I know. Got a little carried away. Ha ha!

    But I had to add the Monet bit to illustrate the thought.

  4. My grandfather on my father’s side was an awesome story teller. He came from the oral tradition he learned in Germany as a boy. He could remember poems and stories he had memorized as a boy, even into his 80’s. He also told marvelous stories about his life, and he did live an interesting life, during a fascinating time.
    My mother was the story teller of the next generation. I’m not sure where she got it, but she was Irish and full o’ Blarney. Her mother told great stories also and absolutely loved jokes, both telling and hearing. My mother loved writing and telling stories and dramatics, and of course jokes. She has a wonderful sense of humor. She had to, she married my father…the scientist.
    I have inherited the pen for my generation. I love creating stories and telling jokes. I am adopted. My point in telling all this is that I believe it is nurture, and not nature that creates storytellers.

  5. Thanks for stopping by, KC. Sounds like you had a lot of fun growing up with all those storytellers. And maybe it’s both, or some combination of genes and environment that makes good storytellers. Either way, let’s keep the tradition up and keep telling them.

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