Who’s listening?

Ever read a story with an unusual main character, an interesting plot and clever use of language but you find yourself yawning after a few pages? It ought to be a riveting read but, instead of being totally absorbed in the story, you’re thinking about all the housework that needs doing? Housework, for goodness sake! Who needs to be reminded about that? Too often, I come across books and stories that bore me to my back teeth. They certainly make a fine cure for insomnia, so rather than sabotage my valuable pre-bed reading time, I find I’m tossing them aside before I’ve made it through more than handful of chapters. There are way too many great stories out there waiting to be read to persist with something that puts me to sleep.

I think the problem with many boring stories is in the telling. Storytelling on the page is very much like verbal storytelling. Some people are great at telling jokes but others are woeful. One person tells a joke and you’re hanging on every word, desperate to hear the punch-line and laughing yourself silly long after he’s finished. Another person tells the same joke and you resort to nodding politely through all the muddled details, hoping he’ll make it to the end sometime before next Christmas and desperately trying to summon up some sort of forced laugh when he finally makes it to the punch-line. Same joke, same story, but different telling. It makes all the difference to the success of the joke.

Whether it’s a novel or a short story, all stories are meant to be told. They’re not just finely arranged words on a page. They’re not just an assembly of clever images or ideas. If you want to hold the reader past the first few chapters, or even the first few paragraphs, the writer has to find the right voice to tell the story. Every novel or short story needs strong storytelling voice.

Compelling narrative voice is not an easy thing to achieve but I stumbled across a handy trick a few years ago and I think it’s worth passing on. I find it helpful to ask myself “Who is listening to this story?” In other words, who is my narrator telling this story to? There’s no point saying “the reader”, since I have no idea who might read the story. Unlike verbal storytelling, where the audience is right in front of you, readers are too anonymous. So I come up with a plausible listener for the story. I make up a character for my listener and I make sure I know why the narrator is telling him the story. My imaginary listener never appears in the story, he just sits there patiently listening and it gives life to the telling of the story as I write.

Different listeners will change the telling of the story. In one of my stories, Small, I made my narrator tell her story to a sympathetic neighbour who would be sure to keep the information to herself and the voice of the story ended up being truthful but gentle. The neighbour never appears in the story, she was just my imaginary listener while I wrote. In another story, Just A Job, I decided my narrator was telling the story to a journalist and the telling was hard-hitting and defensive, with a lot of information implied rather than stated outright. Again, the journalist doesn’t appear in the story, he was just a device to make sure I had a strong storytelling voice. In Tim Winton’s book That Eye the Sky, the narrator is a young boy named Ort and it feels as if Ort is telling the story to mate at school. It has an honest, casual, innocent feel that is very appealing.

An imaginary listener determines what is told and what is withheld. The listener also determines the mood or tone of the story because the narrator is trying to get some sort of response to the tale. It’s just like telling the same story to a child and then telling it to an adult. You include certain details for one but not for the other. You put a spin on the story to make it appeal to the child and a different spin to tell the same story to the adult. Same story but you use a different storytelling voice for different listeners.

If I imagine a listener for my story, it makes the writing so much easier. It helps me know what to tell and how to tell it. Then, once the story is out in circulation, I hope the reader will step into the shoes of my imaginary listener and feel as if the story is being told just to him/her alone.

Some of the books and stories that bore me are the ones that lack a strong narrative voice – I feel as if I’m just passing my eyes over words on a page. When I’m reading, I want a voice in my head that demands my attention, teases me along and makes me respond. I want a story that makes me forget about the housework!

3 thoughts on “Who’s listening?

  1. This adds a new dimension to reading. I’m going to try to add this to my thought process when I prepare presentations. Not just knowing who the audience is but using a style and words that place the audience in a situation that helps them understand. Thanks Jacqui.

  2. So often I have been reading a story and found my mind wandering, the words just didn’t mean much to me. Inevitably I would read a little more and then forget it. “Life is too short to read bad stories” is something I embrace more as time goes by. It is up to the writer to ensure he/she engages the reader, and your tip is sound advice. I can see how you used it in’Small’ the voice comes across perfectly. And surely in ‘Quirk and Pecadillo’ you must have envisaged one customer telling the tale to another (it couldn’t have been Quirk, he is too discreet to repeat it). ‘Cheeky’ as one of your reviews said! I am going to use your stratefy in the future. thanks jacqui.

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