Published Author, Professional Storyteller & Writer, and Educator
Published Author, Professional Storyteller & Writer, and Educator
Published Author, Professional Storyteller & Writer, and Educator

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Combining Storytelling and Writing

Click! The proverbial light bulb flashed over my head, as I read aloud the story I was currently working on.

As a children's writer, I have always sought the perfect word, and frequently agonized over paring down my word count while still hanging on to my original story line or article development. Not an easy task!

Besides being a writer, I'm also a professional storyteller and usually practice telling my chosen story at least twenty times. Each time I embellish it a little more so the story literally jumps from the page and comes to life. By the time I perform my story, it has gone through many changes. And each time I tell it, I become more familiar with my story, and make more changes.

I wear two hats - author and storyteller - but always kept them separate. Until now, that is. The story I was currently writing was, to be honest with you, flat. I wasn't getting the spark I wanted, and I labored harder than ever before. In pure frustration, I put my manuscript aside, and told myself the story I was trying to develop. I'd looked at it long enough; now I needed to hear it.

Using Storytelling To Get The Story Off The Ground
As I spoke, my characters began to move in ways they hadn't moved while on the page. They talked with each other warmly and vibrantly, and propelled the plot along. I continued to speak the story aloud, from beginning to end, not caring about how long it was, how many adjectives or adverbs I used, or how drawn out the dialogue was. I was getting the story out, and that was all that mattered.

When my story ended, I quickly picked up my hand-held tape recorder. I was afraid that I'd forget the story, so I told it again, and this time I captured it on tape. It was still quite wordy, but I didn't care. When I heard myself say "The End," I rewound the tape, played it back and listened to the story with a critical ear while taking notes on possible changes. Now I heard some of the spots where I could make improvements - more or less description, stronger dialogue, and more action. I was listening, thinking and mentally processing the story I'd been trying to write for so long.

Putting the Story Into A Written Form
I played the tape again while transcribing the entire story as I had told it. Starting and stopping the recorder was a bit arduous, but worth the effort. I had to refrain from making changes as I typed, but self-discipline won out, and I completed the story. Next I printed out the full story (double-spaced, of course.) This gave me something to tangible to hold with words to look at, and spaces in which to write my observations, thoughts, and ideas. This was my first draft, and my story began to take shape with a fullness and richness that previously had been missing.

After a few self-edits and a little re-writing, I had my final draft, ready to submit to a publisher.

Try It!
A few weeks after this 'writing breakthrough' I was invited to do a creative writing workshop for elementary students. Usually, when I work with kids, I take them through hands-on activities, using jewelry, pictures, and assorted objects that help generate story ideas. Once the stories are developed, the students immediately write them.

But this time, I had the group create a story, which I retold to them. I maintained their story line, characters and events, and adapted the story as I modeled storytelling techniques to relate the story. The students asked how I could tell the story so quickly and smoothly, and I shared my 'secret' - I pretend that my head is a camera that records the characters and action, and I merely describe what I see and hear.

As they listened to my adaptation, I could picture their internal cameras rolling, as they thought of ways to adapt the story and make it their own, while keeping the original thread intact. Some of the children volunteered to tell their rendition of the story, and I quickly realized how creative the group could be. As they related their adaptations, they described the characters and the setting, created dialogue, and enhanced the tale in ways that I'd never even considered.

Some Strategies To Make The Transfer
I quickly realized that storytelling techniques are easily transferred from telling to writing. At the top of my list of techniques is expressiveness. I listen carefully to a character's voice - the quality, volume, how he expresses himself, and so on. Then I mimic those elements, as well as what is being said, so the listening audience can tell from my expressiveness, intonations, volume and pacing how the character feels. I don't have to add adjectives or adverbs - my voice says it all. But when I put the dialogue on paper, I need the tags. For example, if a character said, "I don't feel like going," and I related it with a soft whiney voice, while dragging out my words, the audience would know how the character felt. But, when those words go on paper, the reader needs to be told that the character was reluctant, hesitant, sad or whatever.

Facial expression is another storytelling technique that transfers from oral to written. My listening audience can tell from looking at me how a character feels - a broad smile, grin, frown or scrunched up face is all they need. But readers can't see those expressions on the page. So, I study at my character through the lens of my camera, or look in a mirror while telling the story, and describe what I see. "She closed her eyes so tightly they looked like slits across her face. Her mouth, too, formed a tight line that stretched from ear to ear. In fact, every muscle in her face was rigid." Get the picture?

The same holds true with body movement - I use my entire body to show sizes of things (tall/short; big/little), action (kicking, flailing arms, wringing of hands), looking up or down, and so on. Again, the audience sees what's happening and gets the picture immediately. But I must describe these movements in my writing, or readers won't get the picture. Just to say "He was nervous" doesn't really mean anything. But, to state, "He rapidly rubbed his hands together, as though trying to wash away an unseen stain." Or - "He shifted his body weight from one foot to the other." Does this help you see how nervous the character might be? When telling a story, I have no illustrations to show, so I must rely on my choice of words, expressive voice, dialogue, facial expressions, and body movements to create the images. When writing a story, I use the same techniques I use in storytelling, but I must add words that describe the images. However, as long as my head camera keeps rolling, and I can tell what I see and hear, the writing aspect is easy. Teachers have told me that beginning the writing process with storytelling makes writing easier and more fun for their students. After a story is retold several times, with new twists or ideas, the kids are more ready to commit it to paper.

I've also shared my technique of 'first tell, then write,' with members of my adult writing classes. The results were very satisfying. One woman had struggled with her children's short story, and admitted that it was stilted and dry. Nothing she put on paper worked. Then, following my suggestion, she told her tale aloud into a tape recorder, and was delighted to see the story come to life. The following week she submitted her revised manuscript to the class and received glowing comments from her peers.

Now You Try It
So, the next time your characters fall silent and your plot goes flat, or your article doesn't seem to go anywhere, go through my 'first tell, then write' process. Tell your story or article out loud to yourself - several times. Let the words flow and record it on tape. Listen to your tape critically and make notations and suggestions as you listen. Transcribe the tape and create a hard copy. Edit and/or rewrite your story or article until you're satisfied that it's ready to submit. Then, ship it out!

This works for me, and perhaps it will work for you.

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