What I have learned so far.
Back when I was a child, I spent time in various parts of rural Ireland. Along with beautiful vistas and cultural oddities there was one thing that always comes back to me. When you met a stranger on the road, you stopped to talk. And there was a time-honored ritual to it. You began with comments on the weather.
It was explained to me that in that, one could learn much of the person they were speaking with; those who focused on the far away clouds on a bright morning, those who saw the little patch of blue sky above the rain, those who knew the value of rain for the crops, those who suffered the heat and cold as part of the great mechanism that was the physical world we inhabited but barely understood.
I grew fascinated with it all and by my early teens, began to experiment with boundaries. I was from the city so the rurals allowed me latitude with a certain sympathy. City dwellers, back then, were more to be pitied than scorned. I would ignore the invitation to talk about the weather and raise the more delicate matters of what, why, and where. Often that ended conversations abruptly as the rural stranger would bid me a good day and wobble off on a bicycle with a few backward glances.
Later, when I was old enough to venture into public houses, I encountered another version of the dialogue dance. Back then, country pubs were places for social gatherings and not always places for excess. Especially during the daytime when people would pop in for a quiet drink—not unlike stopping for a coffee. Farmers, who began their days early and worked late, would often have a lull in the middle of the day and as most of the pubs in rural Ireland also functioned as stores, could enjoy a mini-break while picking up a few essentials. Naturally, if a neighbor happened by there was an opportunity to talk about the weather, the price of livestock, the sad state of the nation, and whatever else might be topical.
It was all very civilized, but like most routines it often needed a bit of enlivenment. Radios and television had not yet intruded on these sanctuaries and the only phone was kept in a booth on the main street. It was down to the storyteller to create diversion.
The best storytellers were those who could read their audience. A quiet afternoon was like a matinee and was best suited to a subtle, controlled approach. Bustling, full-bodied, animated performances were better suited to raucous evenings when a fiddler might pass by. Afternoon conversation had to be engaging, but not so much as to keep the farmer too long as the evening’s chores could not be ignored.
Sitting off in a corner, speaking only when spoken to, politely but succinctly, I could sit back and take mental notes. It was story-telling in its old and time-honored form and something I try to be mindful of when I write.
While the storyteller has the advantage of direct access to the audience—not unlike an actor or a musician—many of the skills are transferable and for the benefit of my own understanding as they relate to writing, I have grouped them as follows:
A good storyteller can quickly gauge his/her audience with aforementioned comments of topical relevance and carefully absorb responses both verbal and physical. From there, it is a matter of drawing the audience along with relatable but not personal observations and before long the teller can spin a yarn for the enjoyment of all.
For writers, they must rely totally on instinct as to how a reader might be responding and the importance of the opening line, paragraph, or page cannot be overstated. Many readers talk about being “grabbed” by a book and this is what they are referring to.
There was a time when writers could get away with a slow start, but as the world gets faster and faster, the pressure is on from the get go.
I once heard someone say that there is nothing worse than a talker who loves the sound of their own voice and while some writers can overindulge in the minutia of detail, most of us have to find the balance. Sometimes we get it just right. Other times . . . not so much. Naturally those elements of detail that resonate with the writer are likely to be more adorned, but staying on plot is vital.
Writers, like all storytellers, must quickly establish credibility with their audience. And it must be done without burdening them with all that you know about the topic. Academics can use footnotes and references, but storytellers must rely solely on the use of language. “Finding you voice,” is a term beginning writers often hear. It must be confident and assured and it must ring true.
Where a live performer can “read” their audience, a writer has to go on instinct—and the opinion of a good editor. It is a trial and error thing and the better way usually becomes most apparent only after the book is published. Writing more books is key, and hoping that you haven’t lost your audience along the way.
While novels can serve many functions; inspiring, inciting, revealing, etc., in the more troubled times many people look for warm comfort. Novels should resonate and have relevance, but they must also entertain and reward the reader. It is no small task and one that can only be learned through a trial and error process. In that, insightful feedback from readers is of vital importance.
So, as I learn to apply all that I have observed from storytellers, I realize what a wonderful journey writing really is.
The Last Weekend of the Summer
by Peter D. Murphy
Genre: Literary Fiction
Published by: The Story Plant
Publication Date: August 28, 2018
Number of Pages: 224
ISBN: 1611882575 (ISBN13: 9781611882575)