Saturday, July 30, 2005

The Art of Storytelling

Recently, I had the opportunity to teach a class on storytelling at the community college where my wife works. The education department was offering the course, although it was cross-listed with the humanities program. Due to some family constraints, I wasn't able to teach it this semester, which was a bit of a bummer -- it would have been a great class to teach!

The course is focused mostly on oral storytelling, but of course, the elements of the Story form are the same whether in written fiction or in oral form. To a certain extent, oral storytelling is becoming a lost art. We don't often sit around the campfire (or wherever) and just tell stories anymore.* Certainly we listen to, read, and watch stories all the time, but there is something magical about a tale told live, using only the power of the speaker's voice and gestures to convey it. The requirement to hold the listeners' attention without using all the flash and bang of Hollywood forces you to boil the story down to its most essential elements and then infuse them with drama in every word. A reader may be willing to sit for five or six hours and read a book, but no listener will sit for that long listening to a story.

Oral storytelling is fiction honed to finest, sharpest edge. If you can maintain the level of conflict, suspense, and drama needed to tell a good story orally, think of what you will be able to do on the written page! I strongly recommend that every fiction writer learn the craft of oral storytelling. Your writing will only improve as you gain mastery of this ancient art.

*Roleplaying games are, I believe, the exception to this statement. In some sense, RPG's are the descendents of telling stories around the fire. A true roleplaying game is an interactive story written collaboratively in real time by the game master and the players. Too many of these games end up being "roll-playing," focusing more on dice and tables than on telling a good story, but if done right, the story trumps all and dice aren't even needed. How many players would willingly sacrifice their character just to further a dramatic scene? Not many, but on the occasions when it has happened, it resulted in some of the most memorable tales I have ever run across.

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