Home | FAQ | Articles | Books | Storytelling | Story Links | Stories | Gallery | About Tim | Wild Times

Converting Literary to Oral Stories

What's the difference between a "literary" story and a storyteller's story, other than that one is written and one is spoken? How does one convert a literary story to a storytelling story?

Beginning storytellers often wish to orally tell a favourite literary story, but there are big pitfalls. Even experienced tellers can find it hard to do this succesfully.

If you've ever tried to transcribe into text the exact words someone says in conversation, including the pauses, repetitions, stumbles and changes of direction, you'll have realised there is a world of difference between the literary and the oral.

Literary stories have a different style of language use, and different rhythms and pacing. They may spend considerable time describing subtle qualities of atmosphere or allusion, or switching into philosophical ponderings for example. The plot may have virtually no action at all, or have far less structure than an oral tale. Long sections of dialogue may be quoted.

Or none of the above - it's difficult to come up with absolutes in an artform that has lots of variation and innovation. But any literary story relies on the careful use of words, and those words will typically have been honed and revised at least several times to produce exactly the right effect.

But an oral tale depends on less, and more. Oral telling happens in the moment, and whatever language skills a teller has, the precise words can only be spoken once, without revision. The language style may be skilfully used, but oral style is fundamentally different to literary, and so it should be, for oral style also includes far more: subtle pacing, pausing, facial and other expression, many of these being constantly adjusted in response to audience reaction (something completely unavailable to literary authors).

To convert a literary tale to one suitable for oral telling is a difficult art. The first hurdle is that one will probably fall in love with certain parts of the literary language - the phrasing, the style, certain words or effects like alliteration. So one will try and keep these, and hence need to memorise them. Straight away one therefore starts to depart from the flexibility oral telling has, to adjust, and to express one's own heart. There are workable compromises, but for a beginner it often turns into a depressingly difficult task of keeping true to the literary language, which tends to also make the telling rather stilted or rigid as one is anxious about getting things 'wrong'. Simple oral telling can't go 'wrong' like this, one just describes the story in the best words one can think of at the time (over time some of these consolidate into favourite phrases, but most aren't totally essential to the story).

But there are also more subtle difficulties. The 'shape' of a good literary story may be terrible for oral telling, lacking in structure, or unbalanced. It may have little action, but action is the mainstay of oral stories. It may have gorgeous and long descriptions, which can quickly over-burden an oral telling. The task of converting all this may be very difficult and unobvious.

Having said all that, some literary tales are very suited to oral telling - one just has to examine them, and try them out. One simple rule of thumb is that if learning a literary tale is difficult, it probably isn't a good candidate (though experience, skill and hard work can compensate for that). Folk tales fit into the mind as if they were made for it - actually they are. If you can reduce a literary tale to a bare summary of the plot, and it is still interesting and satisfying, it's probably a good candidate for telling.

And there's your method: once you've discovered the bare plot and expressed it briefly, you can add back in only as much detail as is necessary, to make your own oral version, avoiding almost all the literary devices, descriptions and phrasing. Remembering that fairy tales have virtually no specific detail at all, and are amongst the most powerful and succesful oral tales.

But there are no rules about all this. Once you are more experienced at telling stories orally you will understand what a good story and a good telling is, for you, in your own style. And then you'll be able to make a successful telling out of a wider variety of tales than I've suggested, if you work at it. But first tell folk tales and fairy tales - they are your teachers, and they are ancient and wise. Don't come to them later, kneel at their feet constantly and learn what you can. Then you can use your understanding to extract a wonderful story from the most unpromising material.

But there's no one right way to be a storyteller! Ignore everything I've said if you like. Tell what you love and tell often.

If you are a beginner, trying to grasp what storytelling is all about, check first things first - The Storytelling FAQ (frequently asked questions) is a compilation of advice and resources, covering many issues that beginners and developing tellers want to know about, as well as giving useful advice and contacts for professionals. It should give you a good orientation to storytelling, so that you know what questions to ask next.

If you want to grasp the essence of storytelling, I recommend very highly Ruth Sawyer's 'The Way of the Storyteller'- which may not be in print but the internet second-hand book sites can easily find one for you. It is not a step-by-step how-to book, though it gives lots of good advice, but it does give page after page of pure inspiration - poetic and profound explanation of what a storyteller is and does, and why. Read this and at once you'll be on a mission to become a true storyteller.

Tim Sheppard
17 Oct 2001

Home | FAQ | Articles | Books | Storytelling | Story Links | Stories | Gallery | About Tim | Wild Times