Anyone can tell a story. Seriously. It’s part of human DNA and unique to our species that we use stories to relate, learn, and teach. Granted, some of us are better storytellers than others. Some of us know which parts to emphasize and which details don’t matter. Some of us know which stories are appropriate to tell when.
But anyone can do it, given enough practice. Anyone can become a polished, entertaining storyteller.
So when writers talk about craft they’re not really talking about the storytelling itself. Since competence at that comes with practice, storytelling is just the surface work of writing. It’s just the reason to write.
The craft of writing is in how we use the story’s words to generate a specific experience.
For example, to increase the pace of a scene, use short sentences. Rapid-fire statements force the reader to progress as if an inner monologue of, “What’s next? What’s next? What’s next?” drives him. Pace makes the reader desperate for resolution.
The craft of writing is also about getting better.
Studying craft means looking at the tools we have available to us and learning what each tool is meant to do. How does a lengthy character description earn readers’ affection? How does a short one lend mystery to the described person? How can a succinct passage of character interaction tell us everything we need to know?
When we talk about craft, we mean recognition that writing is not just speaking onto the page. Speaking is clumsy and unpolished. Writing is worked over, revised, rearranged, and tried again. While most people write their internal monologue first, craft recognizes those monologues as first drafts.
When we talk about craft, we mean that we’re all invested in revision as the most important part of the process.
It was gratifying to go to the SCWA Craft Builds Community conference and commune with other writers looking to improve their craft. We listened attentively as faculty members, all published authors and instructors, talked about specific questions and decisions writers use to improve the stories they tell.
Keynote speaker Michelle Buckman offered questions that create meaningful characters. Who are your heroes? What is your protagonist afraid of? Does that fear come true in the book? Answering these questions is working on the craft.
In her session on time in writing, Heather Marshall discussed her work that spans several centuries. She said she’s making choices about how to explain the passage of time from event-to-event. Making choices is craft. When does the story begin and why?
Even just learning that those questions and decisions exist is an evolution from storyteller and page-monologuer to writer.
When we talk about craft, we mean the step up from writing in a competent storytelling way, in the way that every person can achieve. Craft is creating compelling characters, telling nail-biting action scenes, and contextualizing all of that so that the reader gets more than the story, he gets the experience.