Words vs. Stories: Why Fancy Word Arrangements Don’t Make a Story

Daniel Schwabauer, award-winning novelist, and creator of The One Year Adventure Novel and Cover Story Writing, is passionate about teaching young writers how Story works. Here he shares why kids need more than perfect paragraphs to communicate meaning.

Words and Stories

The more I write, the more I value story over words.

I started dreaming of becoming a writer in grade school. What that meant escaped me for decades. I only knew that I loved to write and needed to write. I loved words, but not as a linguist. I loved them because of what they did in my head. They were tools for putting together a movie in my imagination, and great writers, to me, were not great wordsmiths but great storytellers. In a sense, words to me were merely words.

Then I went to college and studied creative writing for eight years. There I learned that words are not just words. They are the focus of what writers do. They must be dissected and arranged into beautiful patterns that exist for the sake of existence. Great words, I learned, make great stories. Silly words make silly stories.

This of course is pure hog swill, and it took me years to rid my mind of its effects. Words are just words. They are powerful, yes, but only because they are the tools of creation. They are the building blocks, not the building.

I should have realized the philosophy of writing taught at universities is wrong by the effect it had on me. Before I entered college I had written two novels. But in eight years of higher education I wrote only one, and only because I was required to. Once out of school, I started writing again for the love of it, and finished a fourth novel in nine months.

I was back to valuing story over words. I didn’t think this through. I only knew that when I sat down to write a story I was interested in, the words came easier.

Isaac Asimov once said that it takes about a million words of prose before a writer is ready to be published. I don’t know if this is true, but I do know that writing consistently establishes a realistic understanding of the craft. The man who writes a thousand words a day acquires a storehouse of words. This won’t make you a great writer, but it will strip away your pretension. Plentiful things are cheap things. What holds real value is that which is rare. To the writer this means Story.

But what do writers do when story itself is a mystery? No one taught me structure and fulfillment. No one taught the basics of conflict and meaning. People were either born with the “gift” or they weren’t. The muses, those traitorous old hags, either loved you or they didn’t. Since I had nothing to guide me, I settled for rearranging words into beautiful shapes.

Later I started to see the techniques of story, and I thought, What has Calliope ever done for me?

But stories! Stories can be shaped and chiseled! They can be made beautiful, even if they begin as chunks of granite prose. Isn’t that what art is about? Reshaping the ordinary to communicate truth and beauty?

Suddenly individual words were not so important. They were necessary, and sometimes even beautiful, but not so valuable that I wouldn’t sacrifice one (or a thousand) if doing so could make the story better or more true.

Now such a sacrifice is not hard at all. This is what words are for! They do not exist for their own sake, but to give form to something greater.

Words are just words. They are not true unless a story makes them so.

Could you use some help demystifying the wonderful terrain of Story? I’d like you to have the training I had to get the hard way.

– Daniel Schwabauer

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