4) Harry Potter was darn good storytelling.
J.K. Rowling, like many other mega-popular authors, has been derided by some snobs as “not really that great a writer – people only like her for the stories.” That’s always baffled me since it indicates people don’t realize that storytelling is just as much a part of being a good writer as word choice or elegant description. Storytelling isn’t all about diamond-cut prose. It’s about weaving together the right scenes with the right emotions and the right pacing to draw a reader in, sever her from her reality, and absorb her totally into the world of the book until the very last scene. And I think that nearly everyone can agree that J.K. Rowling owns that.
One reason why it’s easy to undervalue storytelling is because the best storytellers make it seem effortless. Another is because it’s almost impossible to describe what makes good storytelling. Two features of good storytelling are a sense of foreboding (it’s never just about what’s happening now – it’s about what’s about to happen) and a sense of inevitability (you might not know exactly what’s going to happen, but you sense that the proverbial guns being set on the mantelpiece will be fired).
Great storytelling isn’t all about throwing in fantastical plot twists or earth-shaking events. A lot of readers on Amazon have complained that not much happens in The Casual Vacancy. That’s not quite true – what they’re sensing is not a lack of events, but of story. The Casual Vacancy offers plenty of events (people die, lose their jobs, are raped, fall in love, run away from their homes, cheat on their spouses, hack computers, run campaigns, open and close businesses, go on and off the wagon with addiction) – but those events don’t start to feel like a story that creates a sense of foreboding and inevitability, until the very end in the book’s stunning, fast-paced, un-put-downable last few pages.