Monday, March 31, 2014

Writing a Story vs. Telling a Story

I think everyone has had the experience where you’re with a friend, and you turn to them and say ‘so, I was on my way to (somewhere), and...’ or ‘you’re not going to believe what happened to…’ or something along those lines. And then we tell them what happened, which is basically an abbreviated story. In this scenario, the story works really well, especially for those who tell it with gusto. But if you were to transcribe those words onto paper, stick a title on it, and call it a story, it would read as flat and boring. Why? Because there are several key elements missing.

When you recount an event verbally in this way, it’s very linear: first this happened, then this, then that, and finally this. End of story. Basically, you’re giving your friend an outline of what happened. You’re not trying to immerse her in the events. If you did try to immerse her in the events, she would get bored and make that ‘get on with it already’ face. She doesn’t want to know what the room smelled like, or how soft someone’s skin is. Not unless that *is* the story. I.E., “Every time I walk by that spa on the corner, it smells like soap.” Or, “You have got to try this new body lotion. It makes your skin so soft!”

But when we write a story, our goal is immersion. We need to include all five senses in our prose, because we want the reader to feel as if he is right there in the world we’ve created.

Many new writers don’t make this distinction. I think it’s natural to sit down and write a story the way you’d tell it to someone. After all, it’s probably the only thing most writers have known up to this point. It’s all I knew when I first started writing, and that’s what my very first story looked like. :)

That’s not to say that verbally telling a story has no merit. It does. People read to their kids all the time, and there’s a huge market for audiobooks. And, most of the time, the people reading aloud can really get into it. Sound effects, altered voices, changes in pitch and speed, depending on the level of tension in the scene, etc. A great reader can turn a mediocre story into a fascinating one simply by telling it well. I’ve experienced this with audiobooks. I’ve also experienced the opposite, where the reader was not very good and made a great story sound annoying or boring.

So, basically, you can’t rely on a good reader. :) Your story has to stand on its own and generate images, feelings, sounds, and smells without the help of a good reader. That means you need to go far beyond the linear nature of this-happened-then-this-happened-etc. and the best way to start is to look at a moment in your own day. What do you notice? How do things feel or taste? What puts you in that moment and makes you feel like you’re there? Those are the details that need to go into your story.

1 comment:

Kelly Hashway said...

Great point, Tabitha. When I write a synopsis I pretend I'm telling the story to a friend. I find that method works well for a synopsis but not when you're writing a book.