Susanna Connelly Holstein
“Once upon a time,” begins the storyteller, “there was a king.” She pauses and sweeps the audience with unblinking eyes. “He was a proud man, a big man.” The storyteller straightens her posture, lifts her chin, and crosses her arms on her chest. She frowns. Her voice drops to a lower key. “Now this king had a young daughter.” Her voice softens; she smiles, and her body relaxes. Her hand reaches out to indicate the princess’s height.
It takes less than a minute for the audience to see the big stern king and his young daughter. Only a few words were needed to describe the two characters.
“Once upon a time,” the author writes, “there was a king. He was a proud man who stood erect and seldom smiled. His hands were always clenched, as if ready for a fight, and he held his head high. He stood over six feet tall, and it took many yards of fabric to make his breeches.” Words paint a picture of the king, and more words will be needed to describe his gentle daughter.
I have been a professional storyteller for over 20 years, sharing stories across the United States at festivals, conferences, workshops, reunions, campfires, and many other events. For the last 15 years, I have been a writer and have often mused about the similarities and differences in these two crafts.
The word storytelling is used today to describe everything from artworks to plays, movies and TV commercials. Filmmaker Ken Burns is often called “America’s Storyteller” and few would argue with that appellation. The word is also used to describe written works, be it novels, creative nonfiction, or historical works. With such broad application, it seems the name of this most ancient art has become as commonplace as generic aspirin. And yet what oral storytellers do is unique, an art with its own tools of the trade.
So what separates storytelling from writing? Are they the same thing, really? Is the only difference the form of presentation, or is there something more? The two artforms certainly have much in common. Both seek a strong storyline, a tale that takes the reader or listener by the heart and leads them to a new place that yet resonates with known experience. Both work to create intriguing characters, dramatic scenes, and a tale that follows the story arc.
Both writers and storytellers usually draft a working outline; the storyteller may never commit a word to paper, but the same work takes place mentally as a story develops. Some storytellers write every story they tell, adding personal notes for gestures, tone, etc., and inserting laugh lines or emotional cues at specific intervals. Some draw their story on storyboards, finding pictorial representation an effective way to commit details to memory. Others learn the key points and scenes only, then tell the story within that loose framework.
Writers and tellers also use another common tool: speaking their work aloud during the creative process. What better way to find redundancy, errors, and ambiguity? Telling the story aloud, even if it is only to the cat or to a wall, helps find areas that need improvement.
Where oral storytelling and writing differ is in the methods each has available to tell a tale. The storyteller has, in many respects, an easier time of it than does the writer because the teller can use physicality and vocal cues: voice inflection, eye contact, gestures and movement, pauses, and other vocal techniques. She can sing, shout, whisper, growl, or coo. She can crouch, spread her arms wide, indicate size with hand gestures. She can hop, walk in place, or move in any other way that helps the listener visualize the story.
The writer must convey everything through one medium: words. Here is where the writer’s skill must blend with creativity to create a powerful story. Dialogue allows the writer to become, in a sense, the storyteller. Descriptions call on artistic ability to create scenes that are clear and compelling. A mantra many writers follow is “show, don’t tell.” An oral artist must show, through movement and voice, because most audiences would be bored to tears with too many descriptive phrases. A writer faces the same threat of being boring if descriptions are too long or complex. While the storyteller must consider and choose both the right action and the best words to describe a scene, situation or character, the writer has only words to work with to do the same task efficiently and effectively.
When telling a story orally, the storyteller can vary the vocabulary and the story’s length; she can build in definitions or use body language to explain something that might be unfamiliar to a particular group, and lengthen or shorten a story to fit time constraints. She can make frightening scenes less scary by smiling or using a softer voice and body language, add humor to lighten the atmosphere, and even engage in conversation with the audience in some settings. The writer is more constrained; when the story is written, it is in a sense carved in stone. It cannot be changed except by future printed revisions. For the storyteller, the tale is constantly evolving, growing, and changing with almost every telling.
I was a storyteller before I thought about trying my hand at writing, and I have seen over the years how each craft informs the other. Storytelling has taught me how to use words and pacing for dramatic effect, and how to discover the heart of the story, the universal truth that will make that tale resonate with people of all ages and backgrounds. Writing taught me to develop strong openings and endings and the importance of dialogue in moving a story forward.
Both writer and teller strive for the same goal: to draw the audience into the story so deeply that the actions, characters and scenes play like a mental video as they listen or read. In the end, the medium disappears; only the story remains.
Writer, poet, professional storyteller, and ballad-singer Susanna Connelly Holstein is from Jackson County, WV. In addition to frequent storytelling performances, she writes the online journal Granny Sue’s News and Reviews, the blog Mountain Poet, and has been a columnist for Two Lane Livin’ magazine for almost ten years. Her storytelling performances include Appalachian stories and ballads, family heritage and history, and tales from West Virginia’s weird and wonderful history. Holstein’s work has appeared in Fed From the Blade, Diner Stories, and Unity: Coming Together, Falling Apart from Mountain State Press, These Haunted Hills and Easter Lilies among other titles from Jan-Carol Publishing, and in many other online and print journals and anthologies. She has produced three storytelling CDs and was a founding member of the West Virginia Storytelling Guild. She holds a BS from West Virginia State College and a MLIS from the University of South Carolina. In 2015, Holstein was named a West Virginia History Hero. When not writing or storytelling, she spends her time gardening, putting up food, and selling antiques.