Telling Tales: Strengthen Your Novel Using Oral Storytelling
by Christina Soontornvat
I can’t write a book until I tell it out loud to someone else first.
As with many of my odd habits, my kids are to blame. I have two daughters who have always hated being in the car. I quickly discovered that the best way to keep the whining to a minimum on our commute to school was to tell them a story.
When they were little, I told classic fairytales like The Three Little Pigs or Rumpelstiltskin. But as they got older they wanted something longer and more interesting. And so one day, when I had run through every fairytale and folktale I could think of, I started telling them a story of my own.
That story was the seed for my first novel, THE CHANGELINGS. At the time, I had only written the
When I told the story out loud to my daughters, I found myself fixing those problems in real time. I was killing off characters, adding tension, cutting unnecessary backstory, and I was doing it all on the fly. It was magical. I still had a ton of rewriting to do (like, years’ worth!), but much of what eventually got published was ironed out during those car rides to school.
Since that experience, oral storytelling has become my go-to tool for drafting and doing early revisions on my novels.
Here are some of the benefits I’ve found to using storytelling as part of my writing process:
- The stakes are low. The story exists between me and my listener, and nowhere else. That means that if it completely stinks, it doesn’t matter. I don’t have to move 1,000 words to the trash folder on my laptop (gut-wrenching!). Just forget about it and move on.
- Those low stakes give me the freedom to be more creative. Holding back, self-editing, second-guessing: all of these things kill my creative spirit during the drafting process. But when I’m talking out loud, I don’t have time to edit myself. Words and ideas flow. I have had my wildest, most interesting ideas while I’m telling a story because I’m in a purely creative zone, and not fussed about writing the perfect sentence.
- I get instant feedback of what works and what doesn’t. If my daughters start singing and looking out the window while I’m talking, I know that part is pretty boring. Similarly, if they’re wide-eyed and asking questions, or cringing, or screaming out, “Oh no!”, I know that we’ve gotten to an exciting part.
- I’ve learned so much about pacing, plot structure, “cliff-hangers”, and plot twists by having to utilize them in real time. These elements are a story’s rhythm and heartbeat and it’s easier for me to explore and understand them when I’m speaking than when I’m staring at a jumble of words on a screen.
But what if you don’t have two kids and a long commute? Or what if you’re not ready to tell your own story out loud?
- If you’re not ready to tell your own story, tell someone else’s. You can learn so much by narrating a favorite middle grade book (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory makes for a killer retelling) or a favorite movie. My daughters are too young to see Wonder Woman, but man did they love hearing about it. And that film has a seamless 3-act structure that I didn’t recognize until I told it out loud in the car!
- If you don’t have young (or old) listeners in your life, try recording yourself telling your story (this is different from reading what you’ve written out loud!). Even if you are the only person in your audience, you can still get many of the benefits of switching off your inner editor, learning the rhythm of your story’s structure, etc.
- All writers have heard that we’re supposed to read widely in the genre we write in. But I have also found so much inspiration from experiencing other forms of storytelling as a member of the audience. Music, film, theater, dance – experiencing any of these will strengthen your storytelling muscles.
The thing I love most about storytelling, though, is more primal and less practical than what I’ve mentioned so far. There was a time when human beings learned everything about their history, beliefs, and culture, from stories passed down person to person. Storytelling is a craft and a hallowed art form still practiced in much of the world. As novelists, we’re part of this remarkable tradition, but most of the time we don’t get to share in the experience with our readers. Our writing and their reading of it are usually separate things. And so I love the human connection that happens when I tell a story out loud. And if it makes a long car ride more bearable, that is even better.
Christina Soontornvat is a middle grade and picture book author who lives in Austin, Texas. Publisher’s weekly called her middle grade fantasy, THE CHANGELINGS, “both magical and terrifying”. The sequel, IN A DARK LAND, releases in October 2017 from Sourcebooks. Learn more about Christina at www.soontornvat.com and follow her online at @soontornvat.