Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Storyteller

This past week, I had several conversations with a dear lady regarding telling, point of view (POV) and distance in stories. And as we chatted, I had one of those monumental moments of clarity, and I was able to explain the difference between showing a story and telling it.

It helped that she is, I'm told, a fabulous storyteller. Not just a write-the-story-on-paper storyteller, but a, get a fire going in the fireplace, gang, and gather round. I have a tale to tell storyteller.

How did this lead to my monumental moment? Because, I soon discovered, she wrote her novels as she told her stories--with a lot of telling. This was the focus of the conversation, and the resulting epiphanies. Epiphanies I'm happy to share with you.

So let's lay some groundwork. What is a storyteller? According to Merriam Webster, a storyteller is a teller of stories. A relater of anecdotes. A reciter of tales (emphasis mine). What do each of these definitions have in common?

Telling.

Not to say that's wrong, despite what we're taught. Sweeping dramas that occur over the course of decades and science fiction stories benefit from summarized telling. And telling is essential to bedtime or fireside-type stories because storytellers must fill the reader in on a lot of details in a short amount of time. However, in the case of the latter, the listener benefits from voice inflection, facial expression, gesture, and tone of voice in both the narrative and parts that are acted out.

Let's look at an example. In an episode of I Love Lucy, Ricky tells Little Ricky a bedtime story using these techniques:


Now imagine Ricky records that same story (in English) on paper exactly as he told it. Gone would be the awe and fear in his voice, and his skipping around the room as he showed Red's journey. Instead, he's telling the reader what Red is doing. When she's confused. What she said. When she's afraid. He tells it all.

Now, instead of writing it down, pretend he acts it all out. He no longer tells anything. No, "once upon a time a little girl named Little Red Riding Hood walked through the woods to visit her grandmother." Instead, he skips across the room holding a basket. Looks at Grandma with curiosity and points to her teeth. Throws up his hands when frightened. That, my friend, is a play. There's motion and color, and because of it, we're drawn into the scene. We watch the action, and then the reactions. We're engaged.

Novels are a mix of both. A story in which action, reactions, and dialogue are shown, but with narrative portions that either state the character's feelings and movements (frowned upon in this sensory age, but it still occurs) or serves as the character's thoughts and observation. In other words, Internal Monologue. The first informs us. The second engages us.

That's because the first creates distance and the second helps close that distance with what we call a deeper POV.

I'll continue that line of thought in my next post.

But before then, why is all this important?

This morning, while riding my exercise bike, I watched a recorded episode of Paula Deen's cooking show. At the end of the show, the scene transitioned to Paula's trimmed green lawn and big back porch. The table overflowing with food and fellowship, the colorful flowers, and the charming white railing surrounding the porch looked so picturesque and inviting, as the family enjoyed their picnic under the eaves, protected from the rain, I grew wistful, wishing I could experience the same.

It drew me in, and that would not have happened if Paula had stood in her kitchen and told us about that moment instead of showing us. That wistful desire to experience a charm lost in this world, and a hope for the future, is what readers want from front porch fiction. And that's what we need to give them.

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Copyright 2012. Do not distribute without permission.

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