On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, author JJ Barnes describes the specific skill of story telling, and why writers work with editor and proof readers.
Written by JJ Barnes
The ability to tell stories is a very specific one. Somebody could be a writer and not a story teller, and many story tellers are not expert writers. In my opinion, story telling is a specific skill which matters in its own right. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to ask for help now and again.
What Is A Story Teller?
A story teller is a person with both the desire, and the skill, to move their characters from the beginning to the end of their story. The desire can exist in people without the skill, but I don’t think the skill exists in people without the desire. Mainly because it’s hard work and a challenge, and you have to be willing to hone that skill over time and with practice. You’re unlikely to accomplish actual skill in story telling unless you have the desire to work on it.
A story teller can recognise the difference between a story and a situation. A situation isn’t interesting, in and of itself. It’s just people living. They might be moving about, having conversations, existing, but they’re not on a story. A story requires activity, action. It requires a goal.
You’re not joining your characters at just any point in their life. They live before your story begins, and they’ll live on after it ends. The period of time you’re choosing to cover is chosen because that is when the story is happening.
What Is Your Story?
Your story is the events that happen in the life of your Protagonist as they set out to accomplish a goal. They become motivated at the inciting incident, and set out to achieve it. The story lasts until the climax, when they either get what they want or have to live with the consequences of failing.
To make your story move, they are set against your Antagonist. Your Antagonist is either a character or a situation that prevents them from achieving their goal to easily. This could be because they want your Protagonist to fail for a specific reason, or because they want to achieve the same goal and only one can do it.
Without your Protagonist you have nothing to write about. Without your Antagonist, your story is boring and over too fast. It’s that relationship that moves your story forwards. It’s through that dynamic that your Protagonist has challenges to face and obstacles to overcome. As your story moves, your Protagonist will grow and change, learn to be the best version of themselves. This means, by the time the climax comes and they have the opportunity to get what they want, they’re in the best possible position to achieve it.
Why Is Story Telling Different To Writing?
Story telling is the very specific skill of telling your story. You use writing to do it, but that doesn’t mean you’re a technically proficient writer. It means writing is the tool you use to tell your story. Some people are incredibly skilled at writing, and it’s their specific skill that works in tandem with the story tellers specific skill that turns a story into a book.
Developing a working and honest relationship with an editor is essential for all story tellers. You need somebody who can read your story and see it for the bones, not get lost in the imagery or characters. Your editor will see your individual words, your sentence structure and, in my case, your interesting choices of grammar. They will fix that story that, whilst beautiful in many ways, needs neatening up before it can be read.
Asking For Help… And Accepting It
Don’t be shy about asking for help. Editors are good at their job. They won’t judge you or ridicule you. They won’t accuse you of being unable to write. A good editor will respect you and your talent, and be happy to use their own talent in partnership with you. And remember, editors NEED writers to make mistakes or they’re out of a job. Don’t let imposter syndrome convince you that asking for help is a weakness. It’s in the asking that you will do your best work. Asking for help is a strength.
Another thing to make sure you do is to accept the help. If something in your story isn’t landing and an editor points it out, don’t take it personally. Spelling and grammar errors are unlikely to make you defensive, but an actual problem with your story… then you might get upset. But editors aren’t trying to make your life hard. They’re trying to make your story good.
Sometimes as writers we get too close to our stories. We think something is perfectly clear because we can see it so well in our own heads. But that doesn’t always translate to the page as clearly as we think it does. If something in your story is confusing or doesn’t make sense, it’s better to know. Accept the help. Work on it, take that opportunity to make the best quality product you can. Respecting your audience is important and if something doesn’t work for your readers, you should want to make it better.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you’re obligated to change things. Stories are so subjective that what doesn’t work for one reader will work perfectly for another. It’s okay to stick to your guns on things if you know they are right. But running your book by a couple of beta readers will let you get a real handle on that. A marmite story line, where some love it and some hate it, is fine. But if every single reader doesn’t understand something in your story, in my opinion, it’s worth changing.
Embracing Your Own Skill
It would be lovely if we could all be masters at everything. But life isn’t usually that generous. Some people are incredibly talented at every aspect, from ideas to structure, grammar to cover design. But not all of us are that lucky.
It’s okay to ask for help. Being a story teller is an incredible gift, and worthy of the study and practice needed to become an expert. Being a gifted editor is equally special and equally important. It’s in working together that the best stories get out into the world, and the most readers are satisfied.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose
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