More on writing and telling

In the blog I wrote last week I drew attention to a can of nice wriggly worms and wondered what would happen when the can was opened. Well, I can tell you what happens: the worms wriggle out and head off in all directions. It’s what worms do.

The similarities and differences between storytelling and story-writing are numerous and interwoven, so the worm analogy is apt, cliche though it be. I wouldn’t want to devote a single blog or even a series of blogs to the task of tracking, identifying, unplaiting and deconvoluting all these metaphorical annelids, but here’s a taster: it’s about the way we start a story.

No matter whether you’re writing or telling, the aim at the outset is to grab the reader’s/listener’s attention – hook the audience. But the writer and the teller achieve the aim by different means. If you’re telling a story you can start There was a man… or There was a king… or Once upon a time… and the audience is with you but you couldn’t use an opening clause or phrase like those in a written story unless you wanted the reader to imagine it’s an oral tale; in other words, to achieve a special effect. On the other hand, great opening lines of novels like Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (Marley was dead: to begin with!) or the best novel by the late Iain Banks, The Crow Road (It was the day my grandmother exploded) couldn’t be used in storytelling. The audience would be more confused than hooked. So although the aim is the same in both art forms, the means of achieving it are different.

The reader can see the printed page as a whole, and if necessary look back to earlier pages; the listener can only rely on her or his memory of what’s been told. This difference probably accounts for the contrasting efficacies of openings in the written and the told tale. It also accounts for the contrasting use of repetition. If you repeat yourself in a written story your publisher will ditch it. If you don’t repeat yourself in a told story (unless it’s a very short one), your audience will ditch you.

So far, it seems the differences between writing and telling are more significant than the similarities. My reflections on the subject more generally indicate that differences do indeed predominate. So to repeat the question with which I introduced the topic in my blog a week ago: Why do creative writing and storytelling work synergistically, so activity in one area facilitates activity in the other? At present, the explanation eludes me.

I await suggestions!


  • Mishka Zakharin 02.02.2014 - 22:47pm

    Perhaps the missing element is drama. Prose at one end, plays at the other, with storytelling in between?

    And in terms of how the story is received, there seems to be a direct correlation between presentation and degree of interpretation by the audience. With a play, everything is just laid out for you; in a book, it only comes to life if the reader’s imagination is up to the task… but, again, storytelling is the middle ground, the story brought to life by a living, breathing storyteller, but the details left open to the listener’s own creativity.

    • Mark Henderson

      I like this, Mishka – very good point. Storytelling and drama do have a link, as I discovered in writing a play based on local folktales (!), but both storytelling and writing (assuming they’re done well) require creative/imaginative acts by the audience. The reflection leads me towards further thoughts, which I’ll try to develop.

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