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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Better late than never, the Old Goat is back for another column. Last time out, I discussed the immediacy of feedback a storyteller receives compared to the glacial speed with which a writer typically receives feedback. I also promised to discuss other benefits storytelling can provide to writers.

I'm going to touch on that in just a moment, but I want to offer up a quick clarification to the word "audience." It dawned on me that some of you readers might be thinking in terms of a fairly large audience -- dozens of people, at least -- when I use that word. If we were discussing professional performances, yes, we'd be talking about audiences ranging anywhere from 15 people on up. I've performed in front of a few hundred before, though my typical audience usually ranged from 20 to 60 people. But in this instance, where you're using storytelling techniques to gauge an audience reaction to your story, your audience could be as small as a single person. I'm not expecting everyone to become a professional storyteller, seek out professional gigs, and then tell their story in such a setting. Honestly, you'd get faster feedback from an editor whose lips move when he reads. But a small group of friends, family, or fellow writers will give you the same benefit you'd get from a larger audience.

Years ago, when I was just getting started writing comic books, I'd get together with my wife and my partner in the comic book (we were originally self-published) and tell them the story I was planning to write for the up-coming issue. They'd listen to what I had to say while I gauged their reactions. Once I was finished, we'd compare notes. I was quickly able to figure out problem spots in the story based on how my audience of two reacted. They were able to give me more details on why they didn't like certain parts of the story and why they did like other parts. Those early stories rarely turned out like I had originally planned but they always turned out better because of the storytelling session.

That brings me to another benefit of telling a story before writing the story. Have you ever started working on a story you thought you had fully planned only to discover, usually somewhere past the halfway point, that your original plan for that part of the story just wouldn't work? Unless you're very new to writing, the answer to that question is bound to be, "Yes." So, what do you do? You can sit there and think on the story for a while, try to figure out some way to fix the problem. If you don't think of something, you just put the story aside and plan to come back to it sometime later. Maybe you'll come back to it, maybe the story will fall by the wayside, never to be completed.

You can't really do that when you're telling the story. Sure, if your audience is just a small group of friends, you can just stop and tell them your idea isn't working. They won't be mad at you, but they will be disappointed because they'll have invested time and attention in your story and will want to know how it ends. If you decide, before you even begin telling the story, that you're going to complete it no matter what, you can learn a lot about the story and, very possibly, find a better way to move the story forward.

Within my storytelling group, I will tell stories I've never told before and which exist as little more than an outline in my head. I warn my fellow storytellers in advance, but then I plow into the story. I do this for two reasons. First, it forces me to finish the story. I may not like the ending or the middle or whatever, but the first step to fixing a story is to have a complete story to fix. Fortunately, it's much easier to edit a story in your head than it is to edit it in a word processor. But it's possible the story may not need very much editing at all.

That brings me to the second benefit. It's entirely possible that a way to fix the story will occur to you as you're telling the story. When you're telling your story, your conscious brain is working on keeping the story going along as planned. Meanwhile, your subconscious is listening to what you're saying and churning out words and ideas. I'll admit it gets easier with practice, but whenever I tell a new, partially completed story, I always find the words I need to convey my story and the ideas I need to complete my story. There's still work to be done on the story, polishing and pruning, but it is no longer a collection of half-formed ideas. It's an actual, complete story.

Further more, once you've got your completed story, you can both polish and prune it by telling the story again. Any storyteller can tell you that stories tend to edit themselves in the telling. You'll be telling a story you've told before and suddenly find yourself leaving out some parts of the story and expanding other parts of the story. It's not usually something you do consciously, but it happens all the same. If you tell a completed story three or four more times (not all in the same sitting, of course), you'll find the story becoming leaner and more focused naturally. I can have real trouble pruning and polishing a written story. I worry about how the change will affect the preceding and following parts of the story. I even end up deciding that a change in one paragraph will force me to do such a serious rewrite of the next few paragraphs that it's not worth making the change. When I'm telling the story, the rewriting all happens on the fly and, since it all just exists in my head, there's no real effort performing a "rewrite" of the next several paragraphs.

I know some of you are out there thinking you can't think fast enough to do any of the things I've discussed in this column. It may not be easy the first time you try to do it, but editing a story as you tell it is something you can teach yourself to do. And, really, you're already doing it when you're sitting at the keyboard typing a story. If you're a fast enough typist, it's entirely possible you type almost as fast as you talk. But when you talk, you don't have to worry about misspelled words.

I hope I've given you some ideas to help you use storytelling to improve your writing. Please post questions if you have any.

Next time out, I'll discuss how I got my start as a storyteller and offer up some suggestions for how you can get started, too.
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