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Monday, January 23, 2012

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Last week, I kicked off a series on storytelling by giving a general overview of the current state of storytelling in America. I wrapped up the column by mentioning that storytelling is a useful skill for writers to acquire, promising to delve into my reasoning in a future column. Welcome to the future column. Or maybe I should say columns, since this topic will take more than one.

I'm sure you all recognize that there is a connection between writing and storytelling. Both share the same goals; entertainment, education, and preservation. The first two goals are pretty obvious, but preservation sometimes surprises people. By "preservation," I mean the preservation of stories, allowing them to be passed on from generation to generation. Once again, that's a topic for a future column. So, returning to the original topic, how does storytelling benefit writers?

Perhaps the single greatest benefit writers will realize is immediate feedback. Writing, by its very nature, is a solitary activity. The image of the writer working late into the night, alone with his computer (or typewriter, or pen, or whatever), a single light illuminating his work, is practically a cliché in movies, on television, and even in stories. A writer only receives feedback if an editor chooses to provide it as part of a rejection letter, if the writer's spouse can be counted on for objective criticism, or if the writer joins a writing group and actively seeks out feedback from other writers.

Storytelling, by its very nature, is a social activity. A storyteller without an audience is not a storyteller. The audience is not just a passive mass of humanity, either. They bring their own energy and add it to the overall performance. I know that may sound like New Age mystical nonsense, but it's completely true. If you're not convinced, try telling your favorite joke out loud when you're alone. Even the funniest joke isn't that funny in this situation. Then tell it again to at least one friend who hasn't heard it before. Suddenly, the joke is funny again. It's the energy brought by the audience which makes all the difference.

The energy from the audience translates into immediate feedback for the storyteller. Since the storyteller has no manuscript to read from, he can make eye contact with everyone in his audience. Bored listeners are easy to spot. They'll be looking elsewhere, speaking with the person next to them, have their eyes closed, or have a fixed look of polite interest plastered on their face. None of that matters, though, because the eyes tell it all. A storyteller can tell when the audience is with him, interested in the story and wondering what will happen next. A storyteller can tell when he loses the audience, as well. Perhaps your opening is fine but the story wanders or gets too complicated in the middle, leaving the audience bored or confused. Or perhaps your opening and middle are great, but the ending is anticlimactic, leaving the audience unsatisfied with the story. All of that feedback is present for a storyteller to see and feel during the telling of the story. You don't have to wait weeks or months for an editor to respond, a relative or friend to find the time to read your story, or for the next writers' group meeting.

You'll know your funny lines are funny if the audience laughs. You'll know your tense bits are tense if the audience looks tense. You'll know your ending is a good one if the audience looks satisfied when you finish telling the story. This level of immediate feedback helps writers learn what works for them and what doesn't, not only in that particular story but with your writing in general. It also doesn't matter whether you're telling an original story of your own or telling a folk or fairy tale. The feedback from the audience will tell you which parts of the story are working and which parts are not. As you might guess, what succeeds for one storyteller may not succeed for another storyteller. Just like some writers are very good at action scenes and other writers are very good at dialogue. You'll not only learn what works in stories, you'll learn what works best in your stories. You'll also learn what parts of your writing need the most work.

This is invaluable information for writers (and storytellers). You can learn it elsewhere, but I have yet to find more brutally honest, pinpoint specific feedback than what I receive from an audience I'm performing for.

Next time, I'll touch on some other benefits writers can gain from storytelling. Meanwhile, any questions?
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