Storytelling I

I grew up in the American South in a storytelling culture. To explain something, you told a story, and everybody understood it. To explain things, we relate the unknown to what your audience already knows. Stories draw on common human knowledge and experience, and link those knowns to the unknown.

Newspapers call their basic units “stories,” although, technically speaking, most of them aren’t. They’re collections of data arranged in traditional templates, sometimes with bits of storytelling thrown in. We should probably call them “articles.” A few, mostly features or sports, do tell a whole story.

So what is a story? A story consists of actors performing actions in time for reasons, or a voice revealing actions by actors. That voice is the storyteller, and all stories have one. We call the storyteller “the persona,” to distinguish it from the author.

The storytelling voice, the persona, is an artifact, a device created and controlled by the author. (The second half of this book will show you how to create your own voice.) The persona allows you to escape the trap of sincerity; you don’t have to believe or mean what your persona says. Your persona is a fiction, even when you’re writing non-fiction.

In stories, actors act. We use various devices to characterize the actors, to make them seem like real human beings to our readers. (Actually, characters aren’t necessarily human; some are monsters or talking spiders.) The primary devices for characterization are description, action, and speech.

Human beings become expert at judging character, not just by what people say, but also how they say it. As we read quotes or dialogue, we make judgments about the speakers. Here’s Johnny Moore, who witnessed the Wright Brothers’ first flight: “They done it, they done it, damned if they ain’t flew.” That quote, 11 words, conjures up Johnny for you.

I didn’t describe Johnny, but you pictured him speaking, perhaps with his mouth gaping. Notice how that little detail enriched the image. You may have imagined a landscape surrounding Johnny, perhaps including the Wrights and their plane. Description works best when you don’t tell readers too much, allowing a few details to help them create their own version of the character.

Action has more power than description, so we set the actors in motion, letting them interact with each other. What they do and how they do it and how they talk about it reveals their characters, and now you have plot, or a sequence of motivated actions.

Storytelling is the most powerful form of explanation, the most fun to write and to read.

Published in: on March 7, 2009 at 1:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

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