Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Wordsmiths and Storysmiths

By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 9, 2015

From time to time over the years I’ve worked with partners. The experience has taught me about the kind of writer I am, and the kind I’m not.

David O. Selznick, perhaps the greatest showman-writer ever

Am I a wordsmith? Or am I a storysmith?

A great partnership is a wordsmith and a storysmith.

Even better is to be both yourself.

What’s a wordsmith? (Another term I’d use for this is writer-writer.)

A writer-writer was born with a verbal gift. She can talk. She can sling bullshit. She’s glib. She’s articulate. She can turn a phrase.

If you’re a writer-writer, you’ve got an ear for dialogue. You can write crackling scenes and machine-gun exchanges between characters.

Writer-writers are bursting with ideas for books, movies, scenes, sequences, characters. They’re fountains of inventiveness and creativity.

The problem with writer-writers (and this was definitely true for me) is they can’t tell their good ideas from their bad ones.

It’s easy for a writer-writer to lose her way.

That’s when she needs help from a storysmith. (Another term would be hyphenate-writer, as in producer-writer, director-writer, even showman-writer, the David O. Selznick-writer.)

The wordsmith is great with rhythms of speech, dialogue, description, vivid interesting prose. She’s brimming with story ideas and character concepts, usually far too many for her own good. The storysmith or showman-writer, the David O. Selznick-writer, on the other hand, possesses no (or very little) flair for prose or dialogue, can’t write a scene, couldn’t compose his way out of a paper bag. But he understands the dynamics of story. He has brilliant and original ideas for plot twists, dramatic breakthroughs, and show-stopping scenes. He has a feel for spectacle. He grasps infallibly the story’s theme and, just as important, he has a gift for putting himself empathically inside the reader or audience’s heads. He senses instinctively the places in the story where the readers are getting bored, where the narrative is confusing to them, where we as writers have overplayed or underplayed our hand. He understands where we can get away with a logic flaw and when we can’t, when the story isn’t working and how to fix it.

My first partnership in Hollywood was with a renowned producer-writer/showman-writer. (I’ll call him Stanley for purposes of this blog post.)

Stanley had a genius-level feel for story. He didn’t analyze. He didn’t dissect. He just knew. I was by far the junior member of the team. I was replaceable. Any one of dozens of journeymen writer-writers could have contributed what I contributed. (And in fact once the partnership broke up, succeeding writer-writers did exactly that.)

The way we worked, Stanley and I, was that I threw idea after idea at him. I had no conception of which ones were the good ones. Stanley did. I could tell from his face when I’d heaved a bad idea at him. “Ah,” he’d say when a good one showed up.

He’d stop us at the good idea. Then we’d work on that.

But Stanley was not only a fielder of ground balls. He also had GREAT ideas himself.  (If I told you a couple of them from movies, you’d agree, trust me.)

Stanley could not write a scene. If you sat him down at a keyboard, he was paralyzed. He couldn’t write dialogue. He couldn’t create characters. He knew them when he saw them or heard them. But he couldn’t sit down and put them on the page.

Working with Stanley made me see all my weaknesses. I thought, “I’ve got to learn to recognize a good idea the way Stanley does. I can’t just sling thirty of them against the wall like spaghetti and be unable to tell which ones stick and which don’t.”

And I thought, “I’d got to find my own madness and genius and access them like Stanley does. I’ve got to get to great ideas. Not good ones. GREAT ones.” Otherwise I’ll always be just a wordsmith, a journeyman, a writer-writer.

Most writers, in my experience, are writer-writers. That’s their strength and that’s their weakness.

One of the great effects that Shawn’s THE STORY GRID is having, I hope, is to open wordsmiths’ eyes to the need to be storysmiths as well. But that skill, witness Stanley, is more than keen analysis and brilliant dissection.

It’s access to one’s own genius and instincts on the broadest and deepest possible level. If you’ve got this gift, God bless you. If you don’t, the best thing to do in my opinion is to put yourself around writers and artists who do have it, then just watch them and imitate them and be inspired by them.

I will never be the producer-writer that Stanley is naturally. He’s a genius. He’s got the gift. But when people ask me what I learned from working with Stanley, it’s simply that: to think big, to trust your instincts, to be wild and crazy and grab for ideas that seem lunatic on first glance but that are flush with genius once you look at them closely.

I don’t think a storysmith can ever learn to be a wordsmith. But a wordsmith can become a storysmith.

How?

If I knew, I’d bottle it and sell it. In the broadest terms, it seems to be a process of internal expansion, of casting aside all preconceived notions of what’s good or what’s true (or even what works) and digging deeper to find one’s own specific crazy genius and then learning to trust it. It’s like befriending that little lunatic elf that lives in the center of your chest, or that mad troll who hangs out under that bridge inside your heart, and then convincing that brilliant but easily spooked little character, instance by instance, that it’s okay to show himself, that he can stick his head up and come out into the daylight; you won’t hurt him or make fun of him, that you want to hear what he has to say and that you value it.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

19 Responses to “Wordsmiths and Storysmiths”

  1. Vlad Zachary
    September 9, 2015 at 6:57 am

    Just posted this quote on Facebook:

    https://www.facebook.com/MoveYourOwnCheese/

  2. September 9, 2015 at 7:09 am

    HI Steve –

    I bought The Story Grid when it first came out and have been studying it off and on all summer. What an eye-opening book! It is so interesting to go back and look at stories that don’t “work” (but I couldn’t figure out why) and diagnose them. It’s like a graduate level course in story.

    Shawn is to be commended and thanks for recommending it to your followers.

    David

  3. Mary Doyle
    September 9, 2015 at 7:14 am

    Thanks so much for this post! I definitely fall into the wordsmith category and struggle to separate the good ideas from the stinkers. The Story Grid has been an enormous help in developing my storysmith side. I agree with David – it’s like a graduate level course in story.

  4. September 9, 2015 at 8:39 am

    So, if I feel I fall into the Story-Smith category, Should I stop trying to write my stuff down as stories? I write scenes, and I have good(I think) ideas for a story, but I struggle to glue it together and make it work technically. I am just getting to the point where I trust my own skill to get words on paper and make the ideas work. I am now seeing where I need to work on the craft and learn the tools to get the story told. It is like my mind is producing branched of beautiful woods and I am still learning the carpentry skills to turn those branches into cabinets and tables and chairs. Beautiful ones not just functional ones. Am I wasting my time?

    • September 9, 2015 at 11:29 am

      Robin, have you read Shawn’s “The Story Grid” or followed the posts on his site, http://www.storygrid.com. That’s a great full-immersion journey through exactly the country you’re talking about.

    • September 9, 2015 at 11:51 am

      Also, Robin, you can read two books by Larry Brooks: Story Engineering and Story Physics.

      Not, of course, to take anything away from Shawn’s monster of a book, but Larry’s books will give you more information up front, before you write, and while you write.

      I use Larry’s stuff to create the book, and Shawn’s to go back and fix what’s not working. Both vital.

      • September 9, 2015 at 12:11 pm

        Thanks Joel; I will look into those. I’ve been trying to follow Shawn’s stuff from the beginning. I think the real trick for me will be to get the novel done and then apply Shawn’s grid to it. Maybe Larry’s books will help me get my book finished.

        • September 9, 2015 at 9:09 pm

          Robin, delighted to spend a few minutes by email chatting about how they’ll help, structure and planning and whatnot. Follow my name to my website and give me a holler if you like.

  5. Liam
    September 9, 2015 at 10:57 am

    This is fantastic, and a distinction I hadn’t even thought about making. I love and appreciate the freshness you brought to the art here, SP. Thank you!

  6. September 9, 2015 at 1:56 pm

    Thank you so much for another perspective, I’ve never thought about. I’m currently reading Larry Brooks book, Story Engineering and have read some articles on the Story Grid. Excellent post.

  7. Robert Doucette
    September 9, 2015 at 4:16 pm

    I also found Larry Brook’s work insightful and his discussion on story structure a complement to the Story Grid. His discussion of structure provides a set of “road signs” to the story path. Similarly, it can be used as an editing tool to mold the prose story to the structure of the genre.

    However, I do think SP’s description of a story smith is different and something I would like to emulate. I am trying to find the inner voice saying “more, more, Fortissimo.”

  8. Sonja
    September 9, 2015 at 4:45 pm

    I loved this piece! I’m working hard to bring my crazy vision of my thriller to the surface. I excavate, and excavate and am praying and hoping my instincts and enthusiasm somehow carry me through. Then it’s story grid time, and rewrite after rewrite…thanks Steve!

  9. September 9, 2015 at 11:01 pm

    This explains so much about something I’ve been struggling with lately. Thanks for writing this….in the absence of a genius to bounce ideas off of I’m not sure what to do. There are times I’ll write something and know it’s good – or know it’s not. That skill is coming around, but I’m encouraged by the thought that this is something that can be developed. I’ll keep looking.

    Where I’ve been frustrated lately is when my good ideas get shot down by someone who is neither a wordsmith or storysmith – who is also afraid of small risks. Any suggestions on how to maintain your confidence while fighting for your ideas?

    What I also like about this post is the part about how you would keep pitching ideas even when you could tell from the look on his face that you heaved a bad one at him. I’m curious about how you handled that or encouraged yourself to keep going and find that good idea.

    • September 10, 2015 at 4:54 am

      It was kinda like shooting baskets, Christine. Each “miss’ made you want to keep shooting, till you got one in.

      • September 13, 2015 at 1:26 pm

        This is perfect. Just the right mindset and encouragement I needed. Thank you so much.

  10. September 10, 2015 at 6:08 am

    I haven’t read Larry Brooks’ books but I have read The Story Grid and it’s absolutely phenomenal.

  11. September 10, 2015 at 8:03 am

    Another excellent and interesting post. Actually the most impactful portion for me was the final paragraph on how to practice and develop the skill of storysmithing. I’ve almost always heard advice of that nature focusing on the study of mechanics, structure, thematic consistency, etc. Nuts and bolts stuff.
    I’ll keep chewing on the implications of your comment that the crucial thing is to dig deeper, to access your own crazy genius. It’s a delightfully contrarian approach to the question. Do you think that there are any intentional disciplines one could adopt to work towards that? I’d love to read more elaboration on the idea in the future if you’re ever casting around for a blog topic.

  12. September 10, 2015 at 7:41 pm

    I’m so the writer-writer. Could care less about plot. And I wonder how much it matters in narrative non-fiction, travel memoir, diary formats which is my genre. I think I already know the answer; but feel free to tell me anyway. I’ve got 300 pages of beautiful prose; but I figure I need some discernment to cut a bunch of darlings and string the rest together with an arc. It’s gonna be a lot of work and wish I had a story-master by my side.

    • September 11, 2015 at 6:47 am

      Anne, any book except the most prosaic “how to” needs a story. Memoir, travelogue, whatever. An episodic “this happened and then we went there and we did that” fails to provide the vicarious experience a reader craves.

      A good bio, for instance, isn’t just what happened, it’s a long graceful arc explaining why it matters.

      Thomas B. Costain wrote a 4-volume series on the Plantagenet family. FOUR VOLUMES and yet it hangs together as a story, taking us on a thrill ride from Henry & Henry to Lancasters, Yorks, and Tudors.

      A good developmental editor will find the story in your work and point it out to you.