Which Is More Important, The Story or How It Is Told?

Open book

In contemplating the craft of writing, I have been drawn to what may be a very old question: Which is more important to the reader, the significance of the story or the way that it is told? If you had to rate the two components on a percentage scale, would story get 50% and telling get 50% or would one greatly outweigh the other? Of course, the type of book affects the answer. Non-fiction is typically more subject-matter driven. If I want to read a biography of Winston Churchill, I am not inclined to be as concerned with the quality of the writing as with the accuracy of the content. Still, familiarity with the author will influence my decision.

In general, I believe the quality of the telling can overcome a mediocre storyline. Do we tend to read books based on our experience with the author’s style or with the subject matter. In fiction, I think the author drives the interest–at least if the author is known. When I want to read a mystery or thriller, I don’t necessarily search for a book with a particular murder plot or terror threat. If I like the writing of a specific author, I am likely to go for that name on the cover before I even notice the book title. Publishers realize this. It is not uncommon for the name of a well-known author to take up more space on the book cover than the title does. Even so, I have been disappointed in that method at times. We have all probably really enjoyed a book by an author only to be underwhelmed by a subsequent offering from the same author because the story failed to hold up.

So as a writer, how do I weigh these two very significant components in my book? Do I invest the majority of my effort in crafting a remarkable one-of-a-kind story, or do I focus on taking whatever story comes to mind and trust to my unique writing style to make it remarkable? Both have worked for authors. Genre fiction is full of examples of authors who succeed on their storytelling ability. Who cares who was murdered or if the butler did it as long as the author is able to pull the reader into the streets alongside his characters? Other authors choose to weave an intricate tale or base the story on an event or location, which holds the reader’s interest on its own.

While story and storytelling are not the same thing, they are likewise not independent of each other. The really great books employ the best of both. The best of both should be a writer’s goal. Recognizing the difference in the two may be the writer’s best aid to creating a lasting book.


2 Comments on “Which Is More Important, The Story or How It Is Told?”

  1. Bill Chance says:

    I don’t think there is a difference between a story and the way it is told. The words are the story.

  2. To me, at least, I think it comes down to the way in which the story is told. There’s only so many different kinds of stories and they’ve all been told a hundred times before. I’ve seen many instances where a poor story is overcome by the flair with which it’s told and, likewise, I’ve seen interesting stories squandered by poor telling.

    And, of course, as you say, having both the story and telling be good makes for the best books.

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