The Magic of Storytelling

Any writer who heads out into the marketplace soon realizes that the marketplace is carved up into sections, organized by genre. Is your book science fiction? Fantasy? Steampunk? Women’s fiction? Literary fiction? Romance? Creative nonfiction? Biography? Historical fiction?

Roughly you can think of this as “Where would you look for this in the bookstore?”

This can be frustrating. Many authors of science fiction will claim, rightly, that their books have the same devotion to character and language that “literary fiction” does.  And authors of literary fiction will say that their books have enough mystery, or romance, that they shouldn’t be lumped in with the highfalutin’. Most if not all authors believe that their books have at least a couple of these elements, and can appeal to readers accordingly.

Aha, you say. Bookstores are no longer physical spaces! We don’t need to choose one shelf on which to place a book. Online, every book can be in multiple categories!

But that’s not how it works. Online bookstores organize things into lists. Forums dedicated to books and reading focus on particular genres. Reviewers have preferences for genres they like to read. And most importantly, readers look for books in their genre (or avoid ones they don’t like). For an author, declaring a genre serves a purpose in a) getting readers to consider your book and b) setting their expectations for what they will find.

I don’t know if this will ever change. I’m just saying that it hasn’t yet.

All of this is a lengthy prelude to what I really want to say. Because there is a different way to think of this. There is hope, people!First principle: there are many, many authors who say that they aren’t writing to fit within a particular genre. And there are many, many readers who say the same thing. There’s common ground here: authors want to put out the books, and the readers are eager to read them.

What unites them? Story.

Think I’m wrong? How would you complete these sentences:

Reader: Genre? I don’t care about genre. I’m just looking for__________.

Author: Genre? I wasn’t trying to write in a particular genre. I was just trying to_________.

I’m sure you can come up with answers to that. But I doubt any of them would be able to top these:

Reader: Genre? I don’t care about genre. I’m just looking for a good story.

Author: Genre? I wasn’t trying to write in a particular genre. I was just trying to tell a story.

Right? It’s the story that matters. That’s the simplest, purest way to put it. Get that right, and everything else will click into place. Readers and writers will be united in that happy communion we call reading.

So that’s it: storytelling! The magic and the wonder! Feel the power!

And there’s more! Not only does storytelling have the power to unite, it has the power to inform. Maria Popova puts it this way:

A great storyteller — whether a journalist or editor or filmmaker or curator — helps people figure out not only what matters in the world, but also why it matters. A great storyteller dances up the ladder of understanding, from information to knowledge to wisdom. Through symbol, metaphor, and association, the storyteller helps us interpret information, integrate it with our existing knowledge, and transmute that into wisdom.

There’s a longer essay on her site, which you should all go read. Or you can have it read to you by Popova herself, along with these lovely animations:

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15 thoughts on “The Magic of Storytelling

  1. great post… yes I’m just trying to tell a story, albeit a true story, but a story nonetheless and continually attempt to make it entertaining and maybe, make the audience want more. Not sure I’m accomplishing those elements all the time, but learning as I go. Thanks so much for this post! I needed that today!! 🙂

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  2. Whilst I agree with you wholeheartedly that readers are looking for a good story, I wold argue that setting (ergo genre) is also very important. Take, for example, my (hopefully soon-to-be-published) book. It’s a story of hope, betrayal, bravery and ultimately, revenge: good, solid cornerstones of classic storytelling I’m sure you’ll agree. But there are very few, say, contemporary romance readers who could dig my pseudo-Victorian, sailing-ships-in-space, swashbuckling-sci-fi type world. Therefore, no matter how universal my actual story is, they’d never really enjoy reading it because they would not be able to connect with the world in which it takes place. Hence, genre does matter. I only say this because I am very aware that my story will need to find a niche audience… and that trick is one I’m going to have to pay very close attention to.

    Really good post. Thanks.

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    1. You’re welcome – and thanks for the comment! This is like the poster child for my “serves to set reader’s expectations” point. Whether it’s erotica or horror or time travel – or indeed pseudo-Victorian, sailing-ships-in-space, swashbuckling-sci-fi – it’s important for readers to be able to find what they want and know what they’re in for before they start. Genre helps! But it shouldn’t be a straitjacket. And when it is, we’ll attack it with some space-sailing-ships loaded with pseudo-Victorian swashbucklers! 🙂

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  3. Reader: Genre? I don’t care about genre. I’m just looking for something with no vampires whatsoever in it.

    Author: Genre? I wasn’t trying to write in a particular genre. I was just trying to write something fresh about vampires.

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  4. Thought-provoking. I like your post, but I’m conflicted about the video/essay. Because I have more thoughts than will fit into a comment without WP censoring it as suspected spam, I’ll go into detail with a future post at my own blog. Thanks for sharing this!

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  5. “Most if not all authors believe that their books have at least a couple of these elements, and can appeal to readers accordingly.” True, but as you mention, the need for order trumps other considerations. I don’t think a writer determines his genre as much as the establishment and his audience does.

    Thank you for sharing Maria Popova’s video, which resonates with me. I want to make people think using story telling.

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