I love telling stories. Working as a children’s librarian for many years gave me the opportunity to not only read stories but tell them. However, oral storytelling and writing novels are more dissimilar than you may think.
Recently, I acquired an old book published in 1921 entitled: Storytelling Lessons, by Henry Edward Tralle. The text informs the reader about stories, their history, tradition, and different types and also instructs on how to tell stories well.
I gleaned some helpful tips from reading it, but since it is geared toward oral storytelling, most of it didn’t quite apply. Some of the points Tralle lays out for the validity of stories, I can relate to.
- Stories Have Great Cultural Value
Stories are the oldest form of transmitted culture, and the most informative.” Richard G. Moulton
Much of what I have learned about other cultures has come from stories, which have a way of immersing the reader into another world.
Tralle says, “…It has been the storytelling outside the formal processes of the schools to which we have been indebted for a very considerable proportion of our real education.”
He continues, “…it is through storytelling artistry that we may hope most effectively to pass on to future generations the cultural treasures of advancing humanity.”
Let us hope this is true— Think of the recent events which set in motion a clamor around the world to acknowledge that life is precious no matter its color. What stories will be told about this year, which has held so much potential for light and darkness? Perhaps you will tell one.
- Stories Aid in Understanding History
The history of every people begins with stories, and in all history, it is the stories that most deeply impress us… The best transcript of American contemporary life is not to be found in census reports, economic essays, or didactic editorials but in the stories of the novelist, the short-story writer, the moving picture producer, and the skillful storyteller.” Henry Edward Tralle
This quote makes me rethink the importance of my role as an author and that I do have a valid role to play in society and in history itself. I want to leave behind a marker, a thought that points to a path of questioning, of discovery, and of healing.
- Stories Make Education Interesting
“In the story, education assumes the guise of entertainment, and it accomplishes its more serious purpose most effectively because it entertains incidentally.”
Thank the goodness for teachers who tell stories. I think back to my school days in middle school. I remember one teacher as my favorite not only because she was nice, but because she told us stories.
- Storytelling as a Humanizing Process
Talle states that, “It brings one into contact with every phase of human life and activity. It leads one to become interested in other people, and to become more generous, charitable, and cooperative.”
Storytelling vs. Story-showing
These days “the powers that be” frown on “telling” in novels. “Showing” has become a more preferred method.
- Active Voice: I contribute to this in my novels by using an active voice in sentence structure, which essentially equates to using less “verbs of be”. Using passive verbiage relays the tale in more of a storytelling fashion.
Passive Example: William was listening to the radio and hearing reports of the war.
Active Example: William listened to the radio and heard reports of the war.
In the passive example, the action is being performed on the subject. In the active example, the subject directly performs the action.
- Dialogue: Instead of having lengthy passages of the novel progressing in someone’s head, I try to encapsulate my tale within dialogue. Often the most interesting, dramatic bits of a scene play out between characters this way.
- Action: Describing the action and heart of a scene with strong, active verbs sets the tone for showing instead of telling.
Storytelling Example: Nola was walking to the mailbox to mail a love letter.
Story-showing Example: Nola strode to the mailbox, urgent to post the love letter, burning her side with phantom heat from the depths of her pocket.
The second example, although much wordier, gives a detailed image of the action Nola and her letter engage in.
If you’re a writer, how do you strive to show instead of tell? Tell me in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!
How I Include Storytelling in Modern Fiction:
In my books, Ruby Moon and Silver Moon, I have an inner storyteller: one of my favorite characters, an older Ojibwe woman named Maang-ikwe. Her tales add some mystic qualities to the main characters’ story. As I wrote, I could see her telling them in my imagination, and I simply recorded what I saw and heard.
Another character from Silver Moon, Oshki, a WWI soldier in the trenches near France, pens Ojibwe tales he heard as a youngster. He includes these stories in letters home to his wife and daughter.
In Blue Moon Harold, a shy tutor and poet, writes a novel and reveals portions of his story to the other characters. The story reflects the main, twin characters and the theme of the plot—forgiveness.
Including storytelling in my novels in this way added another layer, giving the tale as a whole more character. Below, I included one of the storytelling scenes from my upcoming novel, Silver Moon.
Silver Moon Excerpt:
Oshki listened and looked up at the moon smiling down on them. His thoughts drifted from the priest’s words to a tale his great aunt had told him when he was a child. Maang-ikwe’s mellow and slightly nasal voice spilled out the story in his memory . . .
“Now there was Moon whom Gitchi-manidoo made. Moon looked down from heaven. He liked to watch de life of men, but he sad not to gaganoozah, talk, with man. Gitchi-manidoo knew Moon could not talk men’s talk, so he thought of way. He asked Moon question.
“‘Moon, you tired of always being de same color?’ Moon say, ‘’Eya,’ yes. Moon not think of that before, but he tired of gray. So Gitchi-manidoo gave him gift.”
“What did the moon get?” Oshki widened his eyes and asked. The firelight of the hearth danced behind them.
“Moon’s maker say to him, ‘I give you red, orange, blue, gold, and silver to dress in.’
“Moon pleased, but he ask, ‘How I know which color to put on?’
“Gitchi-manidoo tell him, ‘Sun will tell you.’ So . . . Moon listens for Sun and its light to tell him when to dress in a different color.”
“Does the moon have a favorite color?” Oshki asked.
“Is the moon happy wearing different colors?”
Maang-ikwe smiled at him. “It is just so, ingozis. Moon is happy, he wear color so Anishinaabe know when to do certain things.”
“Harvest and thanks. Planting and protect. Joy and laughter. Sorrow and tears.”
Oshki was puzzled. He had an inclination of what she meant, for the moon glowed orange often at harvest time, and he had seen it look golden and full every once in a while. Oshki couldn’t remember seeing the other colors, though.
“Will I see all the colors of the moon? Will the moon tell me when to do these things?” Oshki watched his great aunt. He loved her stories, but he often did not understand them.
Maang-ikwe paused and gazed at him so hard it almost hurt. He wanted to turn away but didn’t.
“What is it?” he finally got up the courage to ask her.
“Ingozis, my son. I see a silver moon.” Maang-ikwe placed a shaky hand on his chin.
“What will a silver moon tell me?” Oshki’s brows puckered together.
She hesitated, sighed, and trailed down the curve of his smooth boy cheek with her wrinkled finger. “Silver a metal that chases away maji-manidoo, bad spirits. The light of de silver moon a cleansing light. It save you from bad things and help you remember Gitchi-manidoo, who protects.”
Maang-ikwe’s hand hovered a few seconds longer at Oshki’s cheek, then she dropped it back into her lap and turned her head to the low, flickering flames.
Oshki looked at his aunt’s profile and wondered when he would see this moon and what he would need protecting from . . .