ORAL STORYTELLING Forget “Show Don’t Tell” – Try This…


In this 3-part bi-weekly series, storyteller Chip Colquhoun shares many of the key lessons authors can learn from the art of oral storytelling.

So far, this series has explored how the practice of oral storytelling can help writers read their work aloud to enthral any listener, and how the development of storytelling can help us craft a plot to enthral any reader.

But in the most recent article, I also demonstrated how my voice as an oral storyteller couldn’t be the same voice I used as a writer. In person, I will typically begin a story in a way that builds rapport with my listeners – so I can use that ‘keyring skill’ we explored in part 1 of this series, and make sure I use language and engagement techniques suited to that specific audience.

On the page, though, that’s impossible, and any attempt to build rapport brings about the opposite effect. It delays the reader coming across the neurological hooks of a good story that we’ve evolved to detect, and so runs the risk of early reader boredom. Remember: “Ok, bored now” is an anagram of “Book downer”…

Is this why we’re often told to “show, don’t tell” in our writing? Does the clash between the language of oral storytelling and that of writing give us a clue as to why many writers struggle with that elusive “writer’s voice”? i.e. they try to write how they speak, knowing they’ve engaged x number of children when doing so, and get confused as to why agents and editors don’t respond the same way?

Possibly. But it probably won’t surprise you to hear that, as a storyteller, I have a bit of an issue with the phrase “show, don’t tell”. If it really was that crucial a principle, that essential a quality of attractive writing, then every writer would need to ensure it was there on page 1, right? After all: “Ok, bored now” is an anagram of “Book downer”, and you don't want your reader to be bored on page 1…

Tell you what, let’s look at a book widely regarded as a modern classic. Michael Morpurgo won the Children’s Award with Kensuke’s Kingdom, and it’s a set text of choice for many a UK school. Since primary teachers are usually the first to tell us to “show, don’t tell” when we write, clearly we’ll have a shining example of that from page 1 here?

I disappeared on the night before my twelfth birthday. July 28 1988. Only now can I at last tell the whole extraordinary story, the true story. Kensuke made me promise that I would say nothing, nothing at all, until at least ten years had passed. It was almost the last thing he said to me. I promised, and because of that I have had to live out a lie. I could let sleeping lies sleep on, but more than ten years have passed now. I have done school, done college, and had time to think. I owe it to my family and to my friends, all of whom I have deceived for so long, to tell the truth about my long disappearance, about how I lived to come back from the dead.

After that paragraph, there’s not much space left on page 1. But pick up a copy and you’ll find there’s no ‘showing’ of any action until a few sentences after the first scene break on page 2.

Morpurgo tells us everything here. As we discovered in the previous article, though, from the very first line he shows us all those evolutionary hooks: something bad, a hint of a message, a relatable character.

It seems Morpurgo is using the technique of telling… to show us something! In this case, telling and showing are the same thing.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting that we should forget action scenes altogether. But the “Ok, bored now” principle can apply to showing too: if Morpurgo had begun with a page showing us Michael, the main character, actually doing school and doing college whilst not sharing a secret with anyone, chances are those “sleeping lies” would indeed sleep on.

But can oral storytelling give us any tip for a “writer’s voice” beyond ensuring those neurological hooks are hinted at on every page? If we’re going to do away with “show, don’t tell”, do we have anything to replace it with?

In part one of this series we explored how the secret of storytelling is to tell the story with your listeners, not to them. One of the reasons is because this encourages listeners to invest in your telling – they are creating the story with you. And as we know from elsewhere in life – e.g. money in property, time in a relationship, etc – when you invest in something, you care about it.

Is it possible to write a story with your reader, not to them? Have another look at the Morpurgo extract above. You’re very quickly drawn into the idea that there’s an important story that needs to be told – even though you don’t yet have any detail to help you imagine it.

You probably have an idea of what the narrator looks and sounds like, too. Serious? Trustworthy? Hesitant? Whatever you imagine, you infer all this from his indirect, somewhat self-deprecating choice of words – and your idea will be different from anyone sat next to you, even if they were your twin. It's your creation now as much as Morpurgo's.

What would writing to your reader look like? For Morpurgo, that might have read something like this:

My name is Michael. Looking into my hazel eyes, you’ll think I’m a trustworthy man. But the truth is, I’ve been lying to everyone around me for more than ten years, ever since I got rescued from that island that everybody thought was deserted. It was a good lie, though, because it kept my promise to my incredible Japanese friend who also lived on that island. I’m only revealing the truth now because this is an important story that needs to be told – and after you hear it, you’ll know what I do: that the greatest respect you can give a man is to honour a promise you make to him.

After reading that, do you feel like this is an important story that needs to be told? You should do – it’s been spelt out for you! You’ve even got the moral there in black and white – you know what you’re going to learn.

Still… is that the greatest respect you can give a man? If you agree, you don’t really need to read any further. If you disagree, you might stick with the story to see if the viewpoint is challenged. But most readers – and certainly most young readers – will likely put the story down and move on, feeling like they’ve been told enough.

Because that’s what this looks like: being told. It’s an exaggerated example, but it highlights the difference between Morpurgo's telling in Kensuke's Kingdom and the telling that people usually mean when they hear the phrase “show, don’t tell”.

That difference is this – my example pushes information at you, forcing you to agree or disagree. And given how clearly the idea is presented, you could easily put the book down at any point without any compulsion to continue to the end.

Morpurgo’s original pulls you in. You will still need to choose whether you agree or disagree with Michael’s decision to honour his promise to Kensuke, but only after you’ve been enticed into the journey with him – which may then leave you questioning your initial assumptions.

The keyring skill of oral storytelling, then, encourages us to swap “show, don’t tell” for a possibly more insightful phrase:

Pull, don’t push.

As with everything in the world of writing, it’s not as final and clear cut as that. There are some award-winning examples of ‘pushy’ writing too – Sarah Cohen-Scali’s Max being one of my favourites. But such examples are rare because the pushiness has to fit the story. In the case of Max, that’s the narrator’s insistence that the Nazi regime is to be admired – and, indeed, our hope that he will learn the error of his indoctrination is the pull factor.

So our final lesson from the world of oral storytelling (at least for now...) is, whether you’re showing or telling, to remember the keyring skill – write with your reader, not to them. Pull, don’t push, and you’ll likely find more readers describing your “writer’s voice” using words like engaging, enthralling, and enriching.

For a more detailed exploration of how imaginative investment can be used in both storytelling and writing to improve listener/reader engagement, find Chip's book All the Better to Read You With in bookshops now  illustrated by Korky Paul and published by Epic Tales.

*Header image: In-house collaboration between Ell Rose and Tita Berredo 


Chip Colquhoun began storytelling for children in 2007 and was asked to write the EU’s guidance on using stories in classrooms in 2015. He became a children’s writer when The History Press commissioned him in 2016 to write Cambridgeshire Folk Tales for Children. He’s since had 22 books published, most as part of the Fables & Fairy Tales series he co-produces with illustrator Korky Paul (published by Epic Tales), and is currently working with the National English Hub and the National Literacy Trust to raise the rate of recreational reading in schools. You can find him at storytellerchip.com


Ell Rose is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures.
Find their work at www.fourfooteleven.com.
Follow them on Instagram and Twitter.
Contact them at illustrators@britishscbwi.org

Tita Berredo is the Illustrator Coordinator of SCBWI British Isles and the Art Director of Words & Pictures. 

Follow her on Instagram and Twitter or www.titaberredo.com.

Contact her at: illuscoordinator@britishscbwi.org

No comments:

We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.