Have you ever heard of a professional storyteller? Not an author who writes stories, but storyteller, one who tells them?
The instructor for one the “Great Courses,” The Art of Storytelling., is such a person. In addition to telling stories, she teaches storytelling at the college level. I purchased her course, reasoning that there must be similarities between stories that are written and those that are oral, and that what I learned could help me to be a better author.
In an early lesson, the instructor introduces the “story telling triangle.” The triangle is composed of the storyteller, the story, and the audience, and the instructor suggests that each element in the triangle influences each of the others.
For example, the storyteller shapes the story by the words he chooses to use and by the specific elements of the story that he chooses to include or to emphasize.
The story, in turn, affects the teller. We don’t choose stories at random, but we tell stories that are important to us. My story may be drawn from my religious background, it may reflect a legend that is important in my culture, or it may be based on something that happened to me. Our stories help to shape the ways that we view our world.
Similar interactions occur between the story and the audience and the story teller and the audience. Each has an effect on the other.
A major difference between telling a story and writing a book (or a script for a motion picture or a short story) is that in a book, the audience (the reader) does not directly interact with the other parts of the triangle.
A storyteller can present her story in different ways to different audiences. She can modify her story as she tells it. She may gain a deeper understanding of her story from the reactions of those who hear it.
A reader, however, can affect neither the story, nor the author because author can neither nor observe nor listen to the reader as he writes. Once the story is written, it is fixed, the same for every reader who opens the book.
I review books for the Kindle Book Review, and as a result, I frequently read romance novels. Too often, the plots involve men who treat women shabbily in one way or another. I often have the urge to tell the author, “I don’t like him.” Of course, I can say this in my review, but my review won’t change the story. If I were listening to the story, though, my reaction might have some effect.
Can you recall a book with an unsatisfactory conclusion? I once wrote a blog post, maintaining that stories do not always need happy endings, but they should always have satisfactory ones. I recall one book, in particular, in which a young woman was in a coma. For most of the book, you root for her to recover. As you almost reach the last page, she is disconnected from life support, and takes a breath. A final breath. She dies.
Had the author been watching my reaction, she would have known my feeling about her conclusion!
This author actually considered revising the ending, and I told her that I thought she should, but readers seldom have his opportunity. Written works can be “auditioned” and revised before publication, of course. Authors may have “beta readers,” who read and react to their work. An editor may suggest revisions. Nevertheless, once publication has occurred, a book is seldom withdrawn for revision.
If authors want the immediate feedback that storytellers receive, they must imagine their audiences and visualize how readers might react to the plot line, to the word choices, and to the specific lines of dialogue that compose the story. Sometimes, authors imagine the reactions of specific people. I do this. As I write, I will mentally hear a line read aloud, and I will imagine what some person, one of my daughters, perhaps, would say or think upon reading that line. If I don’t like her reaction, I will modify it.
Beyond this, books are written with specific groups of readers in mind, and the author will imagine what members of those groups might think if they were to read his story. Books written for an audience of women, for example, will be different from books written primarily for men. We might well imagine that Nicholas Sparks and Ian Fleming had very different audiences in mind when Sparks wrote The Notebook and Fleming penned his series on James Bond.
The group whose response the author imagines as he writes determines, in a large part, the book’s genre. Those of us who write romance novels assume that most of our readers will be women. If I were to write Christian fiction, I would be concerned about the reactions of Christians. Science fiction authors anticipate different audiences than do those who write fantasy. An author of literary fiction expects to reach a different set of readers than does one who writes steampunk.
The potential readers who the author imagines do not form an exclusive group! Many men read Nicholas Sparks’s novels and women enjoy James Bond. I’ve read and enjoyed both. The group – the genre − is important, though. It dictates all sorts of things about the book, from the content to the language used – formal vs. informal, for example –to how the book is marketed − the “look” of the cover, the description, the sites on which a book is promoted, to name a few.
As I write, I’ve come to see that, perhaps, writing stories and telling them may not be so different, after all. Writers do not work without audience feedback; they simply work with imagined feedback. And after all, imagining the world is what writers do.