the knack

In The Craft of Writing, the editor William Sloane writes that the ability to tell a good story, the “narrative faculty,” can’t be taught:

Its techniques can be discussed—foreshadowing, for instance, or the structure of scenes in fiction and nonfiction, perhaps even “plotting”—but there is a special quality about a writer with the narrative gift. He makes you want to read on, to find out what is going to happen.

That there’s a knack for storytelling distinct from every other writerly quality, I agree completely. Likewise, I believe that this knack is either present or absent in writers. The difference is clear as day. While it strikes me as fatalistic to argue that it can’t be taught, particularly coming from a teacher of writing, the truth is, I’ve never seen anyone develop it. You’ve either got it or you don’t.

I don’t have the storytelling knack myself. If pressed to list my own talents, I’d lay claim to clarity, force, and sometimes wit in my writing. But I’ve never understood how to tell a good story. And boy do I feel jealous when I meet someone who can.

In a college playwriting class, one student in particular stood out. His work was trite, sloppy, even schlocky. But when we’d read his latest piece, everyone wanted to know what happened next. They’d lean right in. It had a magnetic quality distinct from any of its other characteristics. Magical.

At the time, I couldn’t understand how someone could struggle in so many other areas and succeed so well at the narrative part. Meanwhile, I didn’t have a clue how to do it myself. While my work generated the occasional laugh, it never pulled people in. The Sloane quote only reinforces my sense that this is something intrinsic. Nature, not nurture.

When I’ve met natural storytellers in my career, I’ve found that, no matter how timid they might be in other areas, they all display tremendous confidence in their own narrative faculty. Like humor, there’s nothing subjective about the ability to spin a yarn. People laugh at your jokes or they don’t. People hang on every word of your stories or they don’t.

In my experience, storytellers grow up being told stories and telling stories themselves. In fact, that’s the common element: a childhood immersed not just in reading but in telling stories to other people: parents to children, children to parents, and also aunts, uncles, cousins, all telling stories amongst themselves. Some families make music, others tell tales. And there doesn’t seem to be any substitute for a storytelling family.

We argued in my house. It’s served me well, but I wish we’d told stories instead.

Sometimes my daughter demands a story before bed. All I can do is approximate one. Telling a real story is like drawing with my left hand. My brain just doesn’t work that way. Instead, I’ll cheat, swapping her in as the main character of a familiar movie. It’s a hack, but it works.

If, when you tell stories, people light up, lean in, hang on for dear life—don’t take it for granted, you lucky jerk. In fact, this is the one time I’ll say: yes, quit your day job. Become a professional writer. If you can tell a story, I’m not worried about your chances. The world rewards storytellers.

If, like me, you don’t have that extraordinary knack, take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. Most of us don’t.

And if, against all odds, you somehow manage to develop this remarkable talent, tell me the secret.

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