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