Storytelling Voice vs. Storywriting Voice

By Rukhsana Khan

In some cases, storytelling and story writing are so inextricably interwoven they amount to one and the same thing. For me the process of storytelling is distinct from story writing.

I initially came to the whole process of story via the writing. It took me close to ten years to establish my ability to conceive, develop and then write down a good story. It was only after my first five books had been contracted and were in the process of being published that I discovered storytelling.

Initially I looked at storytelling as a means of promoting my books. In the process I found a complete and separate art form that has claimed me on its own merit. I do use storytelling techniques when presenting my books to audiences. I never ‘read’ my stories, I story tell them. The results have been excellent.

But for a while storytelling really messed up my writing, my storytelling voice messed up my writing voice, until I learned to distinguish between them as two separate but parallel art forms.

I had mistakenly assumed that because both storytelling and story writing deal with stories, they are the same. They are not. And the skills are not necessarily transferable.

The cardinal rule of writing is ‘Show Don’t Tell’. It amounts almost to a mantra and many write it down on a chit of paper and tape it above their computers. When you are writing a story, you should not be ‘telling’ it, you should in fact be ‘showing’ it. Using words to paint images that evoke moods and emotions to create an experience for your reader that is your story. Of course plot and characterization come into play as well.

For instance, in writing a story, don’t ‘tell’ the reader, the boy is poor, ‘show’ it instead. Show it by the way he lives, his actions, etc. In my second picture book, The Roses in My Carpets, the main character is an Afghani refugee. Not once do I use the word poor. Instead I describe the mud house he lives in; his breakfast of bread and tea; the way he "rips the bread into little pieces to make it last longer"; the way his sister wolfs down her share and then looks at his. In this way I demonstrate that he is poor in a more vivid way than simply saying ‘he is poor’. This is why "Show don’t Tell" is such an important concept in writing. It evokes a much stronger emotional response in the reader. Of course the downfall of this method is that it takes a lot more words to ‘show’ than it does to ‘tell’ and this is one drawback to the written story.

For those who are unfamiliar with storytelling, it’s an ancient art form, going back to the days when we gathered around campfires and told myths and legends to entertain ourselves. Mind you we still do that, so it’s never truly been lost. It’s an oral art form with its own strengths and peculiarities. And perhaps surprisingly to some, in this age of technological gadgetry, storytelling is enjoying a revival in many cities in North America, including Toronto. There’s something very appealing about listening to a master storyteller weave a story using words, voice and little else.

Once I was telling a story to a group of fidgety twelve year olds. It was a very long story about half an hour at least. But it was a very good story and they were listening so well they didn’t move a muscle for the last twenty minutes. When I was done, collectively they all sighed and then started stretching because they’d sat still too long. It was an amazing feeling. One of the joys that go with storytelling.

But the stories that work best for telling are not necessarily those that work best on paper. And vice versa. The addition of the human voice to the medium really changes the dynamics of the story. And it goes back to our ‘Show don’t Tell’ example. In storytelling, the human voice itself can carry the authenticity or the mood of the statement. In the way the storyteller says, ‘he was poor’ we can not only believe and accept that ‘he is poor’ we can actually feel ‘how’ poor he is without necessarily going into a lot of detail. With less words, and the appropriate voice intonation, we can accept the storyteller’s saying something where we would question it on paper. Because we require less words to establish a situation, and because elaborate description is not as essential or as abundant in storytelling, it leaves room for more plot.

The stories that work well for storytelling, are those with a strong plot and archetypal type characters. The poor mistreated girl, the handsome prince, the tyrant king, the wicked stepmother. We don’t need to ‘show’ that the prince is handsome when we are telling the story. We can simply say, with an appropriate sigh, ‘Oh, he was handsome!’ and thereby conjure an image of whatever the individual audience member considers handsome to be. There is an ‘authenticity’ to a story that the medium of the human voice conveys that the written story lacks.

Simply by intonation, pauses and delivery you can change the story from a tragic epic to a comic parody. You can give a statement like ‘he was very grateful’, a serious tone or comic irony. Such is the power of the human voice.

The stories that work best for storytelling are often the folktales and epic sagas that have been handed down through the ages. It makes sense. They were honed in the oral medium, polished over centuries by countless tellers till they have a strength and beauty all their own. They are still told today but what people need to realize is that there are lot more folktales than the major ones of Goldilocks, Red Riding Hood, and the Three Little Pigs. Doing a little research will uncover a wealth of stories that are at times touching, and at other times hilarious and yet little known, such as The Three Sillies, Mullah Nasruddin, The Five Chinese Brothers, The Clever Wife and The Crocodile and Monkey. And the best thing is that you have the traditions of the whole world to draw upon.

The benefit of doing this research is that it indirectly affects the process of writing new and individual stories of your own. The more stories you know, the more you have to draw from in creating your own works.

But problems can arise in translating the stories from oral to written. So often I can tell a story and then try to write it down, just as I’ve told it, and the story is flat and lifeless on the page where it had been vibrant in oral form. Story writing requires its own techniques and styles, and that’s where the problems can arise.

For years after I began ‘storytelling’ my ‘story writing’ suffered. My storytelling ‘voice’ interfered with my author’s ‘voice’. Now, it’s like I wear two hats. When I am storytelling, I am in storyteller’s mode. When I am writing I am in writer’s mode.

It is very hard to do both well. It’s like riding a unicycle while juggling grapefruits. It’s possible but each task requires its own skills and concentration.

For one thing when taking an oral story to a written format, you almost need to forget the way you ‘told’ it and write it the way it would read well. And when taking a written story to the oral, you need to forget the way you wrote it and concentrate on the major ideas you need to get across using whatever words come to mind.

Storytelling has a spontaneity that is lacking in story writing. When you’re writing, you know you can go back and polish, fix, cut and paste phrases, sentences and even whole paragraphs. Such an editing facility isn’t available for storytelling. Once the words are out, you can’t take them back. But the other strengths of storytelling more than compensate for this.

This article is copyrighted by Rukhsana Khan and cannot be transmitted or produced without her express written permission.