Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Storytelling vs. Writing

On a fantasy writing forum that I have recently joined, a member posted a question:
I know both the story and the way it's written is important, but if you had to pick one above the other, which would it be and why?
First, of course, I have to pause to sigh at the imposed false dilemma. Why is it that humans have such an urge to force ourselves and others to choose "one or the other" when there is no real need to do so? There is absolutely no reason to make one aspect of storytelling more important or more of a focus than another, unless that is your personal preference.

Second, one has to ask what the questioner means by "story" and "the way it's written". This is the missing element that bothers me in so many debates. Terms are seldom defined even though we all tend to mean different things by what we say. To be on the same page in any discussion it is important to understand how we are using certain words, to agree on how to define the terms being discussed. For instance, to me "story" includes the whole package. Story includes the individual elements of the particular story being told (plot, characters, setting, theme, etc.) as well as how it is told by the author (exposition, dramatization, characterization, description, foreshadowing, etc.). So in my opinion there is no such thing as "story" vs. "the way it's written".

However, if you define "the way it's written" as "the technical aspects of writing" such as sentence structure, word choice, and techniques based in the words themselves such as alliteration then I think there is a very important difference between "storytelling" and "writing". A difference that one has to think back to the oral storytellers of other eras to fully appreciate.

I have a book called Hibernian Nights which is a collection of the stories told by Seumas MacManus, a real Irish shanachie (storyteller), often called the last. In his preface he laments the lost art of the told story. There are certain qualities of the told story which the read story can never possess, he says. For one, the told story is a living story. The storyteller can alter it each time he tells it, adding details or flourishes or whatever he wishes in the moment. The read story, he says, is dead on the page. He describes the told story as "glowing, appealing and dancing with energetic vitality- the personality and inspiration that the good storyteller can always command into the tale he tells." In addition, he says that the read story possesses alone the value of the story its self while the told story also benefits from "the golden worth of the good storyteller's captivating art and enhancing personality- trebling its worth."

Now I agree with him to an extent. These are real problems with the written down, read story. However, I disagree that these are unchangeable qualities of the read story. I don't think it has to be that way. I think authors have been taught to write that way. Yet I have read many stories in books where the author's voice came through so well that I did feel I was being told a story and it felt alive. I love those stories more than any others. Yet across the internet I see the advice to stay far away from the feeling of the "told story", to keep yourself separate from the story. I think this is terrible advice. I think it is a real detriment to literature. In addition, the advice I see across the internet focuses on technical aspects of writing. We are told to improve our storytelling by avoiding certain types of words to avoid any storytelling technique that presents even the slightest challenge. Our tools are removed from our hands by the so called experts and we are patted on the head and told to be a good little author and write things that appeal to critics (agents and editors) instead of readers.

Seumas MacManus
But, as I said, I don't think it has to be that way. I think most of the great things about the told story can still come through a written story, if the author has the art of it. And what is lost, for instance the changeableness of it, I think is outweighed by the good. I think in many ways the written story in this day and age can move above and beyond the told story, but not if we abandon the value to be found in the told story. You build on a good foundation, you don't tear it down before putting up your walls.

We have certainly all but lost the art of good storytelling, which, as Seumas MacManus says, "was ever a propagator of joy". I think that in losing the art we've also lost the joy. My goal, at least, is to try to find it again and do what I can to propagate it a little. That's what's important to me as a reader and a writer.

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