Writing and storytelling

I had an interesting experience the other night as a writer or, more accurately, as a storyteller.

I had to pick up a prop two blocks from the Puppet Kitchen and thought I’d poke my head in to see what they were working on. A big group of my favorite people were there, making what has got to be one of the most gorgeous puppets I’ve seen.

Sometimes, when I’ve needed a break from sewing or basket-weaving or whatever tedious bit of puppet building I’m doing, I’ve read these guys a story. So Emily saw me and said, “Read us a story!”

“Err… I only have an unfinished one with me.”

The group gives a very gratifying chorus of “read it anyway.”

Now, I’ve read unfinished stories to Emily when I’ve been stuck so I could bounce ideas off of her but never one that stopped quite this close to the beginning. “I mean, really unfinished.”

“That’s okay.”

And I wanted to see if the opening works, so I pulled out my palm pilot and started reading:

Half-consciously, Kim put a hand up to cover her new nose ring. She knew it pissed her parents off no end that she could tolerate cold iron and they couldn’t, not like there was that much iron in a nose ring.

It still made her break out sometimes, but didn’t burn her like it did them. “Kimberly Anne Smith,” Mom’s voice caught her in the foyer as surely as if she’d been called by her true name. “I’ve been worried sick. Do you know what time it is?”

“11:49.” Kim dropped her hand and turned to face Mom, her Doc Martins making a satisfactory clomping sound on the hardwood floor. “I’m here. Home before midnight. No one with me.” As if she’d take the chance of her glamour dropping and showing her friends what she really was. A freak, like her parents.

I kept reading for another two thousand words and right as Kim was about to go into The Scary Place the story had been leading up to, I said, “And then… this is an unfinished story.”

I thought they were going to throw the puppet at me.

“I told you!”

“Yes! But what happens next?!?!”

I glanced at all the sharp instruments they had in their hands, decided that my life was in danger, and told them the rest of the story. My word-smithery went out the window pretty fast leaving me with voice to convey mood and then… the rest was all about the plot. What happened next.

I knew basically what I wanted to have happen, but I hadn’t worked out any of the details yet. Having a live audience listening to me as I found my way through the rest of the plot points showed me exactly which things were interesting and which weren’t. (The car chase is right out.) If they had a question, I could stop for exposition, (See, the Faerie Queen knew there was a traitor, she just didn’t know who) while making a mental note that I needed to plant that piece of information earlier when actually writing it.

When I got out of there, I sat down with the keyboard and the words fairly flew out of me. I still have a couple of thousand words to go, but I know exactly what happens next.

Hans Christian Andersen used to do this. As he was working on a new story, he would tell it to a live audience and then go write it down. I don’t think I’ll do this with every story, but telling this one to a group was a good reminder that writing was created to capture the spoken word. I might be a writer, but I do that because, really, I’m a story-teller.

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14 Responses

  1. Chang

    This is very cool. I’d love to have been in and audience like that. Maybe sometime I’ll read to my yoga classes, and not just in one pose.

    I once sat down with a friend and told him the plot of my first book. It took about 20 minutes and it really helped me put the whole thing in place well before I had finished it. It probably bored him to tears but it helped me. Hey, i bought him beer beforehand and then left his house right after.

  2. Charles Tan

    We can now officially call you MacGyver for the improvisation…

    * And you always have the option of putting your life at risk again whenever you run into writing stumbling blocks.

  3. Jeff

    Many,many moons ago I ran across a National Geographic Mag. that celebrated living story-tellers. From east coast to west coast. Traditional stories, folk legends, modern myth …

    …story telling is a part of who we are as people. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here. I mean, puppetry has it’s own traditions that are deep and vast in our history as a species.

    Try it again sometime. Maybe you’ve found your inner-tribal voice ;).

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      Years and years ago, I took an oral story-telling class which had a section on improvised stories. I also used to compete in an event called “Improvisation Story-telling” on the forensics ((Speech, debate and interpretive reading. Not dead bodies)) circuit. I don’t remember a darn thing from it except the basics of knowing beginning, middle and end.

  4. Mike F

    That’s neat. I would never do it at work since it’s a very different environment than yours, but I can see how that would help. Speaking the story out loud would be a way to help work things out that you might gloss over if you just think about it. See, that sentence makes more sense in my head than if I read it out loud.

  5. Rick Smiley

    I had forgotten the “we are not dead bodies” thing – I think I have a sweatshirt somewhere.

    Tell Rob he is lucky. My wife is a nurse – when she wants to practice, there is a lot more poking and prodding.

    “Cough”

  6. L.C. McCabe

    Roald Dahl used to perfect his stories in that manner. He would spin yarns as bedtime stories for his children and then the next day he would write things down on paper. His routine included six(?) sharpened pencils and yellow paper, if I recall correctly from the extras on a DVD of James and the Giant Peach.