Sunday, November 11, 2012

Storytelling vs. Fiction Writing

After a lifelong affair with storytelling, becoming a professional storyteller was one of the highlights of my librarian career. At the time, I naively thought that being good at my craft (as I was told I was) meant I could put my stories on paper and instantly become a novelist. Think again! There is a huge difference between writing and storytelling. As the cliché goes, writers are made, storytellers are born. But like Yours Truly, you may be a fantastic tale-spinner and yet lack all the skills that makes a good novelist.

Family lore asserts that I was involved in storytelling way before I learn how to read. I used to memorize fairytales and then create my own version which I would retell to family, servants, pets and whatever captive audience I could get hold off. It was a form of oral fanfiction. As I grew old, my storytelling experiences went underground, until I found myself in Library School.

There I learned that storytelling was a crucial skill for good Children’s Librarians.  There I heard about the great Augusta Braxton Baker and other pioneer storytellers/librarians. I also got to meet and watch real storytellers performing their magic.  One of the landmarks of those wonderful years was a chance to do library programs in which I polished my old art and went through marvelous experiences that plied me with anecdotes to dine on for decades.

Augusta Braxton Baker

Technique vs. Drama
Encouraged by my storytelling success, I decided that I had the skills to become a true novelist. This crass mistake derived from my confusion between the terms “storytelling” and “story writing.” The first is all about voice, words, atmosphere, vigorous action, drama and wonder. The second is all about method, prose, rules and in-depth characterization. 

Popular commercial writers like to think of themselves as “storytellers,” consequently they rely more on dynamic action and dramatic mood than on literary technique. Their lack of fine writing skills is what their foes will bring up when attacking their work. On the other hand, think of Henry James’s novels, very little happens in them, but you can’t deny his masterful prose or his powerful characters.

The majority of fairy tales were originally found within storytellers repertoires. But when early folklorists shuffled those narratives from the oral realm to a written page, the tales underwent drastic modifications. Early versions of well known tales contained disturbing elements such as Sleeping Beauty being raped by the prince or Rapunzel having twins out of wedlock (something they forgot in the Disneysque version called “Tangled”.) Language had to be cleaned up and the whole text had to undergo a refining process. Each story found that transcription to paper meant to be bound by literary technique and conventions.

No twins for this Rapunzel!

Rules vs. Spontaneity
Storytelling is linked to an old traditional activity known as oral narrative. It goes back to cavemen telling tales around the camp fire. Most cultures will have some form of traditional storyteller, from the Irish “seancaid” to the Jewish “maggid.” In the past, storytellers have been seen as shamans, healers, keepers of tradition, even as intermediaries between the sacred and the profane. Such is the strength that comes from spinning a tale.

Telling a story, even to an adult audience, is a dynamic-spontaneous activity. You can’t go back to polish a draft or edit mistakes. What comes from your mouth is what your audience gets. It’s like acting in a play, if you goof you get booed. If you forget your character name, or skip a major moment, your audience will know and will let you know. And worse than being pelted with tomatoes, like actors of old did, is to lose your listeners’ attention. It is the equivalent of losing their respect.

You have to prepare in advance for predictable disasters. So you said “Princess Alice” instead of “Princess Alexandra”? Then you quickly explain that Alice is Alexandra’s evil twin who, in fact, is working wit Dark Forces to take over her sister’s throne. I know it sounds far-fetched, but believe me, it does work. I have tried it. Did I say the storyteller is an actor? A stand up comedian might be a better description.

Is your audience yawning and staring at the clock? Wake them up with some unexpected plot twist. In Romana, the Jewish-Italian version of Snow White, the heroine does not find shelter with benevolent dwarves; she ends up at the lair of seven ruthless thieves! I often imagine this twist must have come about as a desperate storyteller attempted to get his audience’s attention back with a “Hey, guess what? Romana has just been caught by the most dangerous gang in the entire Italian peninsula. Yes, seven hardened criminals, and there she is, hanging from a tree branch, wondering if she should climb down and take her chances with these strapping lusty outlaws.”

Darth Vader and Son

You may think this only works in front of a live audience, but surprise twists are useful in all forms of storytelling, especially in book or film series that have dragged too long and are reaching the point where the reader’s patience is wearing thin. Who would have imagined that Darth Vader would turn out to be Luke Skywalker’s father? It was the most unforeseen moment of the Star War Saga and left us waiting breathlessly for “The Return of the Jedi.”  Stephanie Meyer was aware that half her fandom wouldn’t be happier with Bella choosing to be Vampire Bride instead of the Wolf Man’s Wife. Her solution was to turn Jacob into Bella’s future son-in-law and leave her readers pondering about the possible incoming “Reneesme’s Adventures in Lycanthropy.”

Followers of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire were a bit confused after Clash of Kings, the second book of the series. Not only was it more slow-paced than the previous  Game of Thrones, but Martin’s surprising killing of the apparent protagonist had left his devotees treading on thin ice. The only thing they were certain was that the one great villain of the story was Ser Jaime Lannister. How else could one describe a man who had backstabbed his king, impregnated his much-married Queen (who also was his twin sister), ambushed good Ned Stark in the street, and threw children off ramparts?

Well, in Storm of Swords, the third book in the saga, Martin did the unthinkable: he presented Jaime as a victim. By turning him into a POV character, the author granted him a chance to tell his side of past events, baffling those who thought him a monster. That changed the viewer’s perception of the character forever, transformed the Kingslayer into a sort of heroic figure, and made Storm of Swords the most read, discussed and loved book of the entire saga.

Ser Jaime Lannister from Kingslayer to tragic hero

Archetypes vs. Well-Developed Characters
But storytelling is not totally devoid of pitfalls, one of them is lack of time and space to develop multifaceted characters. Thus, storytelling has to rely on archetypes: The Charming Prince, Cinderella, talking animals, and others that just by mentioning their name have the spectators imagining looks and personalities. When telling a tale in front of a live audience you don’t have the time to give a complete biography or a full physical description therefore you to have to simplify. One of my tales started like this, “Miguelito was a very poor mouse. So poor was he that his pants lacked pockets because he lacked loose change.” Obviously, if I was writing the tale I would submit to the “show not tell” clause, and never mention the word “poor.” In storytelling you just have to.

When Isabel Allende published The House of the Spirits, critics pounced on her accusing my countrywoman of creating a bad copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Indeed, her book owed plenty to Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece, but Allende imbued enough political ideology and her own family lore into the novel to establish a distance. Moreover, she had one advantage over the Colombian author, she had well-developed characters.

This may sound like anathema. Don Gabo is a literary giant, nobody surpasses him in telling stories, describing imaginary worlds, and creating a family tree spotted with intrigue and domestic drama, but his larger-than-life characters are iconic images, never flesh and blood personages. Look at his fictional women. We know that his many Renatas, Remedios and Amarantas fall in and out of love, get pregnant by the wrong man and die in childbirth, but do we know what they think? What they like to do in their spare time?

Garcia Marquez is a terrific storyteller and as such he relies on characters that are a combination of mythical figures and anecdotes. He could stand in front of a crowded theater and verbally convey his novel because it belongs to an oral storytelling tradition. Unlike him, Isabel Allende’s characters are too complex and experience too much interior drama to be put into five words. There is no way to explain briefly about mystical Clara, forced by fate to marry a man that belonged to her dead sister. And how would you verbally express the horror, pain, and humiliation of Alba as she goes through physical torture?

Meryl Streep as Clara in "The House of the Spirits"

If I had to take one book with me to a desert island, I would pick The Holy Bible. Aside from its spiritual content, it’s the best storytelling I have ever laid eyes upon. Within its covers you find everything: political trickery, supernatural events, domestic squabbles, war epics, romance and lust. We love biblical stories and their protagonists have become household names, but do we see them as real-life characters? Do we get to know their point of view? We know King David liked women and played the harp, but what was his favorite food? We know Sarah hated her husband’s concubine Hagar, but do we know if Hagar hated her back? Do we know if Hagar was happy with Abraham?

Every March, Orthodox Jews are subject to one great story hour. The reading of Megillat Esther (The Book of Esther) is the highlight of the Purim Holiday. The synagogue becomes a big storytelling room. All gather to hear the rag-to-riches story of Esther, a nice Jewish girl who is taken away from her home, and after winning a harem beauty contest, becomes Queen of Persia. I love to hear how even after marrying the most powerful man in the land, Esther is still subject to palace intrigues, has to hide her Jewish identity, and strives to save her people from evil Haman.

The story ends in a colossal triumph after Esther manages to save Persia, the Jews and herself through cunning and courage. It’s Cinderella meets Joan of Arc, but do we know Esther? Do we know how she felt about her king-husband?  Is she home-sick? Where did she learn to play bedroom politics and how she went about it? Knowing the answer to all those questions would make The Book of Esther a terrific novel, but it would probably take two days to read it in the temple. Even the most pious audience would be snoring before the reading was over.

Continuity vs.  "The End" word
Whenever we think of the term “storyteller,” the name “Sherezade” comes to mind. Wrapped in her veils, the protagonist-narrator of the Arabian Nights is the teller of stories par excellence. She alone performed the prowess of spending a hundred-thousand-and one nights weaving stories to charm a king out of his psychotic misogyny. What is so compelling about her feat is the impression that Sherezade spends every hour of her existence at her craft, that her entire life is linked to the continuous act of fable-spinning. It’s only by the end of the book, after it’s disclosed that she has delivered two sons for the Sultan, that we realize that a lot more went on  in that bedchamber than just telling tales.

María Montez as Sherezade

Sherezade exemplifies one of the greatest joys of storytelling, its continuity. Unlike novel writing that is bound to arrive to the word “The End,” a tale could go on forever. A storyteller could call it a day just to retake the narrative thread the following day, or night like Sherezade did. A novelist can give up on his craft, never write another book, a great novel may never have a sequel, but storytelling is endless. You have cycles of tales connected to one single protagonist like Anansi, the Spider or Stupid Jack. That is what written series and storytelling have in common, the infinite possibilities.

Agnes Newton Keith was an American bestselling writer that wound up experiencing stranger than fiction events. In 1942, she and her small son were taken into captivity by the Japanese. For the next three years, she lived in a civilian prisoner camp, away from her husband and enduring privations, malnutrition, slave work, plus physical torture and a rape attempt. Throughout her captivity, her utmost preoccupation was the survival and well-being of George, her little boy. One way she found to keep up George’s morale was an evening storytelling session that centered on the exploits of a super hero known as Big Game Hunter “Keith of Borneo” (later joined by “Jack, the Giant-Killer”.)

Birthday card , Agnes Newton Keith sent to her husband while still in captivity

One night she realized that other children in her compound had gathered around her mosquito net to hear her story. At first, Mrs. Keith wanted to yell that this was only for George, but finally she gave in. Her daily story session became a source of pleasure and comfort for the youngsters in captivity and a way to maintain her narrative skills. She stretched Keith’s adventures as far as credibility could allow, sent him on trips around the world, personalized the stories and in every way proved the power of storytelling and the capacity for a tale to continue ad infinitum.

The Interactive Storyteller vs. The Writer in the Ivory Tower
Mrs. Keith’s anecdote illustrates another advantage that storytelling has over story writing: you get to know your audience. When we write our first bit of fiction, we write it mostly for ourselves. We are the target audience and we grow attached to that piece because we like it. Then we expose it to the criticism of family and friends. We start modifying our text to suit the audience’s needs, a process that expands as we move from acquaintances to agents and publishers. We are always running into new more demanding readers, while in the horizon looms the threat of the “real public,” a terrifying but foreign group.

In storytelling you have no such problems. Even if you may be awed at the prospect of meeting listeners for the first time, you’d have plenty of data on them. You will know their sexes, occupations and ages. Novelists have three abstract age groups to choose their target audience from: children, young adult or adults. In storytelling, age groups tend to be more specific.

My first story session brochures explicitly said “toddlers and pre-schoolers” and my audience were Latinos. My second storyteller job was with elementary school children and it was done in English. Even when dealing with adults, knowing in advance that you will be addressing senior citizens, middle-aged housewives, or teenage boarding school students helps you prepare tales, props and mood.

When your book hits the market you don’t know who will be buying or reading it. Whether it comes from New York Times reviewers or by readers complaining on the Amazon boards, reactions to or interpretations of a novel may shock its author. The storyteller gets to face the reaction immediately and has a chance to discuss the interpretation or even change it, because storytelling is always an interactive activity. So interactive that in some cultures the listeners actually interrupt the session with questions and even offer suggestions to improve the storytelling.

There is tremendous power in storytelling for narrator and public alike. When my mother saw the snapshots of my first story hour she was more impressed by the children’s expressions than by her daughter’s antics. “Look at their little gaping mouths!” she said. I know what it’s like to captivate an audience as well as I know what it feels to be enthralled by a fine storytelling session, or by a book that fulfills my emotional needs or by a television show that grips my attention while bringing comfort to my exhausted mind.

Modern authors tend to forget and forsake the pleasure of interacting. They cherish (sometimes with good reason) the distance that separates them from audience. A true storyteller would never sacrifice his chance to know the feedback of listeners/readers and would find a way to recognize and meet their needs.

Can you think of a novelist, or scriptwriter who combines the quality of fine fiction writing with strong storytelling skills?


  1. This is one of my favorite posts from you, Sister Malena, particularly because I'd never given oral storytelling much thought. I never knew the storyteller had such freedom of invention!

    I remember when I took a children's book illustration class a few years ago, we had to share a picture book with our classmates every class. I loved when my classmates read to me! Some people really have a gift for that.

    Excellent comparisos betweeen Allende and Garcia Marquez! I also loved your insight about the relationship between an oral storyteller and a writer with the audience.

    1. Sister Lore,
      Storytelling is such a joy, you can tell a story to one person (like Sherezade did) or to a full room, and always get that sense of intimacy. My students used to say I conducted my classes like a storytelling session, but when I got down to business they resented the change of pace. Then, on my first summer at Library School I took a Children´s Service course. And the teacher, G-d Bless her, managed to convey her lessons in a storytelling fashion. That was the moment I decided to become a storyteller because I could teach while entertaining.

    2. I wish I would have been your student! :)

    3. Mm, thanks, but I wasn't so great

  2. This thought just occured to me: as writers, we should definitely develop the skill of being able to tell our stories verbally. It would be great for pitches and for booksignings. However, I think this doesn't come naturally to a lot of writers (me included) who are shy about speaking in public.

    1. I'm terribly shy, but I guess my years of teaching gave me public-speaking courage. It´s scary to face a live audience, but , just like in the classroom, I would start by making eye-contact with the person that seemed most interested, that gave me confidence.

  3. I agree: this is the best yet, Malena. Very excellent post!

    When I think of excellent storytelling, I think of my father-in-law. An Arab who survived so much during the war of '48, he has turned his unbelievable life into a series of hilarious and moving anecdotes, which he has used to keep his family and friends entertained for decades. The stories are told over and over, and we don't mind. We are rapt. He holds us captive. My husband has absorbed this skill and can tell his own stories (even though he's been through zero wars) with aplomb.

    I do not have this skill. I can't carry out a long anecdote: I trip up, I forget where I'm going, I rush, I skip important things. I need to write, because I need to slow down, think, plan, edit. Oral storytellers do not need this extra bit of revision: it comes out just right each time. I *am* a great narrator of kid-books, though. I can read a picture book and I'm like the flippin' Pied Piper: I have had twenty children I don't know gather around me as I read to my kids. As long as someone else has done the editing and plotting, I can deliver. I just can't do that stuff on the fly.

    1. Thank you, Sister Stephanie, family anecdotes breed storytellers. As I mentioned in my post, storytellers were once custodians of family and community history. You must feel honored for having met your father-in-law, perhaps as a writer you should keep a written record of his oral tradition.
      I have done both, reading hour and story hour. I find that reading for children can be very gratifying, not so much for adults. Storytelling works better with grow-ups than reading to them. In librarianship we used to have an exercise called book-talk. We would go to high- schools and other places and convince our audience to go to the library and read such-and-such book. In a nutshell, we would have to tell what the book was about and what made it great. We could show the book cover, but we could not read excerpts. In fact, it was storytelling but done in the briefest time. Ahh I forgot, we could not tell the end, so we would have to know the exact point where to stop and leave the story in the juiciest cliffhanger.

  4. Who doesn't enjoy a good story! I love storytelling. One thing I really enjoy is when an author will actually read an excerpt from his/her novel. They give the story its voice. They read it with the emotion they felt when writing those words. Many writers today, especially those who are very successful, will admit to the fact that they never read any feedback on what they've published. They say they don't want to be influenced by sour comments. But the fact of the matter is that they need to hear the feedback from their audience, otherwise, like you said, how will they know how to improve upon their storytelling skills?

    I would probably take the Bible along with me to a deserted island as well. Speaking of Esther, have you ever seen the 2006 film "One Night With the King" starring Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif? I haven't, so I don't know if it's any good, but my daughter absolutely loves Esther's story.

    Great post!

    1. I did see One Night... but I still prefer Joan Collins playing Esther.
      Writers shy away from reading their work in front of people for several reasons: stage panic, fear that their voices are not adequate and they may sound monotonous, general shyness, etc. The greatness of storytelling is that it´s more than voice. It´s body movement, it´s sounds (I used to wear dangling coral earrings that made a watery sound to create rain effect), it´s magic. I have seen storytellers that start like little plump nondescripts and end up vanishing in front of my eyes, totally transformed into princes and hags.
      The interaction between writer and fan is so delicate. That could be a great subject for another post

  5. You raise an interesting point about the interaction between reader and writer. Technology has given authors the chance to know how their work is received in a way that was inconceivable for earlier generations. The prevailing wisdom is that writers should never comment on reviews in any way, and I can understand why as many problems can arise from this - who hasn't witnessed the spectacle of an author losing their cool over a bad review. On the other hand I think it could be a great opportunity for readers and writers to connect and share their opinions.

    1. Hello, Frances. Thank you for your comments. Back in the 20c, I used to host a telenovelas forum that managed to attract several well-known scriptwriters. Some were terrific, very giving, very grown up in their interaction with a public that sometimes could be a little childish. But there were others that irked me beyond reason. The smallest, most courteous negative critique of their work would send them into fits. The nicest ones among them would sulk and wilt like flowers, the nastiest would become downright aggressive. Of course, authors are in love with their work and characters, and rightly so. But planning to interact with readers on the hope to get constant moral boosting and accolades is impractical.
      Would-be-writers have to learn to endure criticism (sometimes not the constructive kind) from friends, siblings, beta readers and colleagues. Eventually, the novice novelist gets bricks thrown at their work by agents and publishers. The lucky ones to get published, will receive at least one bad review by a professional critic. Then why expect fans and devotees to be any different? On the other hand, being a hermit writer, never getting honest feedback from one´s audience makes writing a lonely, dull, self-centered activity.


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