You are asking a fiction writer what makes a good storyteller? Well, since it seems lacking in the Amazon Slush Pile, quite a few things. I watch the Slush Pile authors run around screaming read my book then bemoan the fact that no one is buying their work of art. The problem is simple. It isn’t a work of art. They have no bloody clue what they are doing and the story, well… sucks. And that is being polite.
Why should I care about your characters? Why should I can about your plot? The reader/listener doesn’t go into this invested in finding out. A storyteller has to make you care about the character and his/her story. This is especially true if the storyteller is outside the reader/listener’s genre. I honestly don’t care what a pimple faced 17-year-old is lamenting about because her 17-year-old boyfriend is whatever. I really don’t. I don’t care if she finds love or not or if the guy is a budding serial killer/werewolf/vampire/elf/whatever. That is not plot. There is no reason for me to go forward.
Take for example the first line of the Lattimore translation of the Iliad.
Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades…
That’s one angry dude if it brings about the death of many. Makes you wonder what pissed him off that bad and sets your interest for the rest of the story. Why is Achilleus that angry? What did they do to him? We have all been in a rage that if unleashed could have destroyed. What would push a man over the edge? So we start to read/listen. It had to have been good because the oral Iliad was performed over several nights. The singer wanted his audience coming back for more without the tacky cliffhangers of today’s slush pile.
A good storyteller does several things from the very first lines. They make you care about the character. They make you relate to the character. They raise your curiosity. They give you questions that must be answered in the story. Those questions are your plot. Anything in between is the rocks you throw at the character in his quest to answer those questions.
In Standing Stone, the first thing Will sees is Joe. His interest is strong. Now the question for the plot is: Does Will get what he wants, Joe. The rocks are their pasts, an old lover and a serial killer. And even after he seems to get what he wants, can it be taken away? Will it stay as firm as Standing Stone? You know Will is wounded somehow and Joe might be by the end of the first page. You also know the interest is mutual and Joe jumps to conclusions. I’ve set up the story.
My job is to make you care about those two and what they want and what haunts them. It’s to lead you on that path to the end of the question. Will William get what he wants most?
My job and every storyteller’s job since the first caveman sat around the fire is to weave the story and the details to take you down that path. If we do our job right, it will have the same comfort as eating your favorite meal. If we do our job wrong, we lose you.
What writers do I admire? Stephen Cannell, Robert Crais, Michael Connelly [but I have had a hard time with Bosch lately], Ed McBain, Josh Lanyon.
Have there been writers on that were on the list but have fallen from a readers/listeners grace? Yep. Dana Stabenow. She betrayed her contract with her readers in the last two Kate books by failing to maintain her story line and her style. When you present a reader a book written in a manner that says “I’m in it for the money.” don’t expect them to hang around for the next one even if you throw in a lousy cliff hanger. You broke the trust of the story. Readers/Listeners don’t forgive easily. They are hard to gain but even harder to forgive and return once you muff it up.
The Storyteller’s job is to create a contract with a reader/listener and then fulfill it by answering a question in a story in a manner that is entertaining. No one rides for free unless they are Stephen King and he’s turned out some real duds but because he is Stephen King, he sells. No, you notice he is not on my list. I don’t follow names. I follow writing. Ask Stabenow.