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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Storytelling versus Story Writing

Ever been to a storytelling event? I have not but I hear and read about them now and then. I'd like to attend one someday.  I ran across the quote above and found it gave me food for thought. Susanna Kearsley is a best-selling author who also blogs about writing.

Consider this:  You go to lunch with a friend and you tell her what happened to you on a recent camping trip in the mountains. You've got a captive audience of one and you're excited about the story you have to tell her. Your voice goes up and down, your hands gesture (maybe with fork clutched in one!) and your eyes reflect the mood of the story. Your voice emphasizes the best parts. Your sentences aren't grammatically perfect but they get the idea across. Your emotions are evident as you relate what happened and you have fun telling the story.

And now this:  You had an amazing experience when camping in the mountains. It's a story you want to write and submit to an adventure magazine. You write a first draft, then let it sit for a few days. Next, you edit to make sure your sentences are written with clarity and excellent grammar. The spelling is 100% correct. The facts are there. You set the scene and feel like there is a sense of place in the story. All good things but when you read the story with objective eyes, you think it feels flat. It sounded so good when you told the story to your friend. And she appeared to like it. What happened?

Why the difference? The audience for a written story is unseen. The writer doesn't have a chance to respond to the reading audience's reaction like he/she does with an in-person audience of one. It's difficult to put inflection into the telling in a written story while it's quite easy to do when you verbally relate a happening in your life. You can't use hand gestures; instead, you must create visuals as you write. You must instill a sense of place as you write. A written story with no emotions added is going to fall flat. It's up to the writer to bring emotion into the writing without banging the reader over the head. It's the old show rather than tell thing.

You have fun when you tell a story to a friend. Your voice and gestures and facial expressions are evidence of that. Try to write as though you're enjoying the story, too. If it's all business and no enjoyment, it could very well come through to the reader. The subject matter will make a difference in whether or not you can write with pure joy or not. But for most things, you can instill that feeling if you allow yourself to do it. If you do, your reader will appreciate what you've written more than if you write strictly to get the story down as it happened and forget the human side of it.

It would be great if we could all attend a storyteller's event so we could watch the way these verbal writers perform. I'm assuming they write the story first, then practice telling it aloud. I'm guessing that they add a great deal more in the telling than what was actually written. It's that human touch that comes through so well when we listen to someone telling a story. When you write, aim for that human touch in your stories, too. Use your writing voice that is like no other writer's voice to ensure that your written stories are special.


  1. I wholeheartedly concur with your commentary on voice in writing. That was a concept that took me by surprise when I went back to graduate school to work on my doctorate in Rhetoric and Composition. Interestingly, the myriad of textbooks and theories that I studied in my classes back in the 1960s was of discussion about the concept of 'voice in writing'. It was used often in literature, but seldom in student writing.
    That all changed during the 1960s when Donald Murray, Donald Stewart, Peter Elbow, Walker Gibson, and many other rhetoricians denounced textbook voices used in academic writing. To counter the problem, they began writing their own textbooks promoting and modeling the concept of "voice in writing".
    Having been previously schooled using the voiceless method, in grad school, "voice in writing" captured my attention. For my dissertation, I interviewed 20-25 experts on "voice" country-wide at various rhetoric conferences. That was a dynamic year, and I turned out a 500 page thesis on my findings. It was exciting to interview the shakers and movers of the movement.
    After defending the dissertation, my husband and I left for Japan with twenty American exchange students. We lived there for a year, and I taught English classes at Hokusei Gakuen Daigaku in Sapporo.
    Only recently have I gone back to my dissertation, but now that I have, I plan to retype it and make it available electronically. The book may be a year in coming, however, as I have two other books in process at this time.
    Nancy, I noticed here that you are from Manhattan, Kansas, the home of KSU. I am currently living in McPherson. If we get your way at some time in the future, I may try to call you. Thanks so much for your essay here. It brought back many fond memories.

    1. What an interesting comment you have for us, Jeanne. Also interested me that you are from McPherson, KS--not all that far away. Since you are a writer, do you belong to Kansas Authors Club? It's a great group and has a fine annual convention every October.