Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Show vs Tell: Speaking and Writing Stories

My Thoughts on All Things in the Creative World
Every Wednesday

The urge to tell stories, to create epic tales that explain and entertain, has been with us for thousands of years. It's instilled in us as human beings; we do it every single day without even realizing. Every word that comes out of our mouths has the potential to be transformed into something more, through the sheer power of imagination. Before the invention of the printing press or use of paper, or in societies where oral traditions reign, the emphasis on storytelling is so strong that it has helped to define us as a species.  Authors understand this form of communication so much that they surround themselves with words: they take the stories out of their minds and put it down on paper.

But is the paper route always the best, most foolproof way?

Last year I was given an amazing opportunity to work as a children's entertainer. I loved what I was doing: I enjoyed making them laugh, acting my crazy energetic self who simply refused to grow up. But while I was at it, completely by accident, I managed to rediscover a skill I'd neglected so much, I'd almost forgotten I had it. I told a story.

It's easy to argue I do that every day. "Emma, don't be silly! You're a writer!" But in that very sentence lies the key difference: I wasn't writing. I wasn't showing a story, with physical markings on bound sheets of paper. I was telling it, with nothing more than my own voice. It was a simple fairy tale that I'd grown up with, recited from memory. Before my stint was over, I was telling six of them, including a couple of originals I made up on the spot.

It was quite a shock to me that I managed to do that; usually it takes me at least one month to write a story, as well as the years I can spend researching it. But writing stories and telling stories are two completely different kettles of fish, and it requires different skills to pull them off. Writing allows you to be a bit more introverted, letting the story do a lot of work as you bounce it back and forth against yourself alone. There is a clear distinction of before and after: first you create the story, and then you release it to your audience. Telling, on the other hand, calls for more extroversion. You become the vessel for the story; you must engage and make eye contact with your audience constantly. You are not giving them a page - you are the page, and every word and hand gesture is what fires their imaginations.

So where does that sit with the author?

Just because the main focus may be on showing - i.e. writing - doesn't mean we can't also tell our stories. Many authors have done readings at one point or another. Even though we're reciting what we have already written, we also already have a good idea of what we are going to say and how it's going to come out of our mouths. We wrote every single one of those words, so they strike a few chords! We place emphasis on our audience: yes, they are listening to you, but you are also looking into their eyes, flourishing your hands, taking on characters' voices. The people look up at you, listening, with only your spoken word to go on, letting the story unfold.

That is when authors tell stories. And now I realize, after my initial surprise at still being able to do that with the children, it's not such a big leap to know your story so well that you don't only pre-empt it on the page, but also in your own mind. Yes, they are different skill sets, but they're still joined at the hip, so to speak. And I would encourage all authors, whenever they get the chance, to tell a story rather than show one. Don't just read from your own books; make something up out of the blue and see where it leads you. Watch the reactions of those who listen, and play off what they give you.

It's amazing how much going back to storytelling's roots can sharpen your own modern take on imagination.

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