Elizabeth: Writer or Storyteller?

I bet these folks have lots of stories to tell.

I grew up in a family of introverts so storytelling was not something I had a lot of experience with (ignoring, of course, those convoluted, highly improbable explanations about why whatever was broken, missing, spilled was someone else’s fault).  

Things changed a bit as my siblings and I grew up and out of the tumultuous teen years and washed up on the shores of adulthood.  While we were still professional introverts, a funny thing happened when we used to go back home for family gatherings:

Storytelling ensued.

The stories always seemed to involve the golf course or the lake and an amazing catch or an amusing comedy of errors.  Whatever the subject, hilarity generally resulted.  Even “remember when” stories, which I’m pretty sure we’d all have agreed were not at all amusing at the time, were rendered into comedy routines.

My brothers were the storytellers and I was impressed that they could take a simple (and frankly not that exciting) incident and turn it into something that would have us laughing our heads off.

Later, my father-in-law’s story-telling put theirs in the shade.  Shaggy-dog stories were his specialty and he could drag them out so long you’d begin to fear you’d be long dead before he got to the end.

I found it baffling since I’ve always been more of a Dragnet – “just the facts, ma’am” – kind of person.  It’s a skill that’s highly prized at my day job where condensing information down to the critical facts is something that few seem able to do.  It’s not, however, a helpful skill for a writer, unless 100-word stories are your specialty.

While I can plot and plan and define beats and turning points, I seem to be missing that certain something that those family stories had that made them flow and be so entertaining.  I may be a writer, but apparently I haven’t quite made it to “storyteller” yet.

Fortunately, I’m getting some help with that transition from, of all places, my day job.

Go figure.

Storytelling is part of an ongoing project to help us as individuals, clarify how the work we are doing ties into the company’s mission.  Many folks groaned and rolled their eyes at the idea, but I’ve been in a number of meetings where managers have shared their stories and they’ve been both interesting and helpful in seeing how all our work ties together.

My own story started out unsurprisingly brief when I first developed it months ago, but I’ve noticed that each time I go through it there is more detail and depth.   When I told the story just last week there were even some (intended) laughs and for the first time I felt like I might have a handle on storytelling after all.

Now I just figure out what I did with that story and then apply it to my current manuscript

Piece of cake, right?

So, are you a natural storyteller or is it a skill you’ve had to develop?

10 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Writer or Storyteller?

  1. I’m a much better writer than a speaker (my brother is the opposite, much in demand as a presenter, performer, best man, you name it, but totally allergic to small print). In my business life I always got the job of writing the business plan verbiage or the investment proposal, which is a kind of story-telling–why are we going to make/miss our targets? why should we hire/fire this person? why should we invest/disinvest in this business? I think that was about choosing the important facts and assembling them in a persuasive structure that led smoothly to a conclusion/recommendation.

    I think that experience gave me an instinct for story structure which has stood me in good stead for fiction writing. OTOH, it also drilled some habits into me that I’m working hard to overcome–I default to passive voice instead of having the characters own the story and their actions, focus on logic when I should be adding emotion, choose arguments over actions, and skimp on detail when I should be painting a picture for the reader. Thank heavens for beta readers and editors 😉

    • I hear you Jilly on focusing on logic rather than emotion. I think that is the big take-away I’ve gotten from my work storytelling exercise – when I figured out how to add that emotional component, I was much more successful.

  2. I grew up in Wisconsin, and those long, cold winters meant that the only thing people could do was sit around and talk, sit around and play cards, or sit around and talk and play cards. I’m not sure that I’m a natural storyteller, but I certainly did absorb the rhythms of the folks around me who were. And when the next-door neighbor could spin out the story of how the rabbits ate all the green onions in his garden, I think I learned how you can build tension without making worlds collide—or, more accurately, how the “worlds colliding” are the avid gardener and the hungry rabbits.

  3. I’m a storyteller from way back, but I’ve learned so much from writing, writing, writing. And I envy people whose speaking voices hypnotize people. My nasal Midwestern tones make them want to fall asleep or leave the room.

    I’ll be fascinated to hear how your storytelling apprenticeship affects your romance writing!

    • I’ve always been the story-listener, rather than the story-teller. I blame my first grade teacher who recorded us reading out loud and made us listen it it afterwards. It’s a wonder I ever spoke out loud again.

      It’s actually surprising (at least to me) how much storytelling is a part of the corporate world – from selling products to getting employees onboard with the company mission or direction. I’ve lost count of how many times someone has talked about “framing the narrative” or “changing the narrative”.

      Watching our top executives speak has been a great experience. They all have their particular stories, which they’ve perfected over years of telling. Perhaps that’s the key – constant telling and retelling.

  4. I love a good bullshit spinner. I’m not very good at it myself (but that may be a matter of practice). Justifying poor life choices, dreaming up get-rich-quick-or-slow schemes, or talking one’s way out of punishment were the stories people told around me, and I still find them fascinating.

    One thing you said really clicked with me — your work story took several tellings to develop richness and depth. Same with other stories!

    I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to spin things out to a full 100,000 page novel (maybe if I cheat and tell three or four related stories, I can fake it, though). But short stories have their place, too!

    • Michaeline – yes, I think the multiple telling may be the key. The first few times through sets up the story framework and then each additional pass through adds more and more details.

      I share your concerns about a 100,000 word novel – that still feels sooooo long. On the plus side, I heard an interview with Louise Penny, who had been a journalist before she started writing. She talked about the concern she had early on about writing a novel that was longer than two pages, since character development and adjectives were frowned on in her journalistic career. Oubviously, 15 or so books later, she’s cleared that hurdle.

      I’m thinking practice, practice, practice is the answer.

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