In physics, scientists since Einstein have tried to create a unified field theory that ties the interworkings of gravity and electricity and magnetics together. Think of it: if we knew how they related, antigravity might be possible.
As an engineer who is passionate about becoming an author, I seek the unified theory of writing, an equation that will unlock the secrets of creating great works of art that are also engaging and readable. Here’s what I’ve got so far:
Writing = Storytelling + Technique
I define storytelling as the “what and when” and technique as the “how.”
Storytelling informs you of when you need a fast or slow pace; technique shows you how to speed or slow the pace.
Storytelling informs you of when you need to show and when you need to tell; technique shows you how to show and tell.
Storytelling informs you of what elements need to be included in your story for plot and character development; technique shows you how to incorporate these elements.
So, which is more important?
The easiest answer is neither. Let’s assume that the best theoretically possible piece of writing ranks at 100 on our scale. Both elements contribute equally to the total. If you’re at 50 on the storytelling and 0 on the technique, the best you’re going to get is a 50. Same with the reverse. I think that a publishable piece needs to achieve a minimum in the range of 70 to 80.
However, I consider technique to be the more important field of endeavor for the beginning writer. Here’s my reasoning:
- Technique is easier to learn. It’s simply a set of rules that anyone can pick up. There are hundreds of books and 10,468,115,924,245,209 blog articles (I know; I counted them all) explaining this element of writing.
- Learning technique quickly improves your writing. Take a beginning writer and teach him to use proper grammar, to show instead of tell, to use tension in every scene, to add emotion, and not to info dump. That beginner is going to go from producing unreadable dreck to creating something that can at least get his ideas across. This allows him to be able to focus on what he wants to say and boosts his morale.
- A good portion of storytelling is intuitive. Humans are natural storytellers. To an extent, the talent is ingrained into us, especially if we’ve spent our entire lives watching stories unfold on television and in movies and reading them in books. I’ve seen a lot of beginning writers who start out at 1 on the technique scale. I’d say it is unusual for one to start below 10 to 15 on the storytelling scale.
- To transition from an intuitive storyteller to a good storyteller, you need to study the types of stories you want to tell. The best way to do this is to read and analyze those types of stories. However, if you don’t understand fully the techniques being used to perform the storytelling, you’re missing the first fundamental step in determining why the author chose to tell the story that way. Understanding technique is crucial to understanding storytelling.