Stories can be told in many forms.
Visually – on stage or cinema, as a street performance, or via a television screen. They can be told aurally – through songs, where the music is as vital as the words to evoke emotions in the listener. And they can be told through the written word.
I haven’t included the written word in ‘visual’ even though words are read because:
- They may be listened to. Stories are often recorded and played over radio or as ‘talking books’.
- Written stories do not have the other qualities added to truly visual stories such as stage settings or the impact of actors, cinematography, music and other sound effects.
All a written story has is the words on the page.
That makes it both simple and focused.
A reader isn’t going to be distracted by the sight of a stage actor forgetting their lines or acting badly; overly-loud music won’t make their ears hurt. A writer doesn’t have to worry about stage direction or actor interpretation or any other considerations relevant to screen.
But a written story is also difficult, because a reader has to ‘enter in’ to the writer’s world. Viewers of a screen story are passive – they just watch images rolling by, and listen to the sounds. Readers must actively engage with a story. They have to enter in to the imaginary world on the page and create their own images and sound, from the words on the page.
As for the writer, all they have to tell their story is words. How they use the words impacts on story atmosphere, character development, story pacing, reader engagement and response. What this tells you is that how words are used is a vital factor for the writer. It is the craft of the fiction writer. To move beyond a simple telling of a story to using words in a powerful and evocative way.
Writing is linear
In reality it can be incredibly hard to move from a visual style of story-telling to a written (mostly because we watch so many stories). The impact on writers of fiction is a tendency to write what they ‘see’, in regards to the story in their head, but to miss out the details and layers which make the story vivid on the page.
As an example, Jody is passionate about family relationships and wants to tell a story about Maria who, for the sake of her baby son, escapes from her abusive husband. In her mind, Jody sees the beaten woman, her face covered in bruises, hurrying from the house in the middle of the night with her crying baby in her arms. Jody might write something like:
‘Frightened, Maria hurried down the steps. If only she could get away, everything would be all right.’
Not so bad, you might think. But actually, it’s missing all the important stuff. The stuff Jody knows in her head – that Maria is bruised, that it’s the middle of the night that Maria is running from her husband. These are the kinds of omissions that often happen in new writing. Writers will relate events, but forget to surround those events with the necessary description and information that makes it clear and real to the reader. To achieve that, the scene above could be written:
Maria stumbled down the front steps of her house, unable to see in the dark moonless night. Her heart leapt and she clutched the baby in her arms. He wailed thinly and she shushed him. Oh God. Don’t wake your daddy. Her split lip stung as she whispered her baby’s name, and fresh blood ran down her chin. Tears welled in swollen eyes and she wondered, dazed and hurting, why she had stayed with Simon for so long.
I should have left the first time he hit me, she thought.
In a screen story, most of the details added in the above paragraph would be shown visually or through sound. A director might cut from the outside shot of Maria hurrying away to one of Simon snoring in his bed – or even back-flash to the scene where he hits Maria. The baby would be wailing in the background; perhaps we would hear the sound of Maria sobbing harshly. All good visual stuff.
The writer has to show all of that in words.
What this tells you, then is that writing linear. Unlike a screen story which allows a story to be told in several different ways all at once, a writer has to reveal each individual — and necessary — element word by word. A writer must add the necessary layers. Writers must use the five senses — what can be seen, heard, tasted, smelled or felt — and use those senses to create scenes which give all the information a reader needs, and which evokes a response in that reader.
Good storytelling begins with good word skills.
Writers must put aside the image in their heads and think about what the reader needs to know about that scene.