Writing Challenges: Storytelling Voice vs. Plot

For today’s post, I wanted to share some writing challenges I am currently having with you, the reader. I’ve learned a lot from teaching The South Shore Writing Initiative, and one of the biggest lessons is that personal anecdotes can be helpful when relevant. Well, given that this is an issue I’m having with my current novel-in-progress – I’d say it’s relevant enough.

I recently taught a class about the importance of finding voice. Specifically, the difference between the narrative voice and the character voice. For those who don’t know, a narrative voice is the perspective from which the story is told – it can be first person, second person, third person; limited or omniscient; reliable or dishonest. This narrative voice is really important as it is the vehicle through which your story will be told.

You can actually have two different stories centered around the same facts. For example, if you’ve ever read this book:

true-story-of-the-three-little-pigs-1-638

Then you know it’s quite a bit different from the fable. But I digress. We’re not talking about narrative voice today. Instead, I want to highlight the importance of a storytelling voice and why it is crucial that you keep it in your head while writing plot.

Writing a First Draft

I’m currently working on a first draft at the moment, meaning much is in flux. While the story has been planned out – I still don’t know exactly how each piece fits. I’m still learning my characters as I write about them, flushing out details that feel important in the heat of the moment while downplaying other notions.

While doing this, it is really important that I keep my book’s overall plot in mind. After all, if I run off wildly in another direction and miss giving my reader crucial information, then a payoff down the road may fall flat or, even worse, the narrative will read as incomplete, confusing my reader and leading them elsewhere.

Yeah, it’s a terrible feeling to reach the end of the chapter and realize that, while what’s there is fun, it doesn’t advance the plot in any meaningful way. So you can see why I’m keeping the sequence of events clear in my head.

By the end of the main story arc, the protagonist must have moved from A to B. This is pretty straight forward.

HOWEVER

I caution all my fellow writers now about getting too wrapped up in plot. While plot structure is great – it is the bones of a story after all – it is usually very simple. Even dazzling stories can be reduced to benign plots. Let’s look at the original Star Wars:

“An orphan teen helps rebel group blow up evil doomsday device.”

That’s it, that’s the plot of Star Wars in a nutshell. Yeah I could mention the Force and the Jedi and Darth Vader, but none are essential to cover the basics of what happens. There’s a teen, he joins a group, he does a thing – que end credits.

What is Storytelling Voice?

As writers, we’re often told to practice our skills through journalism. Many great writers were originally journalists (Mark Twain, George Orwell, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Joan Didion) and it’s easy to see why. Being a journalist can teach you how to quickly lay out a scene, identify its important characters and elements, and write it all in a way that is easily digestible to the reader.

That said, being a journalist is about getting the facts, not telling a story. Let me illustrate this point:

lucy-writing-narrative-unit-51-638

A reporter’s job is to tell the audience what happened. A storyteller’s job is to show the essence of the story in an entertaining way. This, in part, is storyteller’s voice. When you’re writing – you have to keep in mind that you’re not a reporter.

This is currently extra hard for me as my main character of this new book is, in fact, a journalist. Part of his voice leads me toward that dry style of recounting popularized by the journalistic profession. But it’s not great – sometimes, when writing as him, I can get caught up in the facts of the plot.

Here’s where this happens – here’s where that happens – chapter done, moving on! I’m getting the information. It’s all there, but it’s mostly boring. Like a journalist, I am relying on the content of the information to be interesting, making it the sole player supporting the weight of my story.

Luckily, before too much damage was done, I remembered my storyteller voice.

How to Use your Storyteller Voice

Start with the basics: Is this scene interesting. For example, in a recent chapter – my protagonist talks to his uncle for information on the family. You see, my protagonist has been lied to about his family’s past and now needs to uncover the truth. To do this, he has contacted an estranged great uncle – the oldest living member of his family.

There is some natural intrigue there, I feel. It’s always interesting to uncover the real truth of things, to peel back the layers of deceit. Not only is it fun action but it very quickly devolves into character motivations. Who lied about what and why?

Yes – this is all well and good. Want to know how I initially told it: The protagonist goes to the uncle and the uncle tells him…that’s it. Really straightforward when you get down to it. No drama, no conflict, no inherent action. Like I said – I’m counting on the content of the revealed information to provide 100% of the material to keep the reader interested. In short, I’m letting the plot dominate the narrative.

Now that I’ve activated my storyteller voice, the first element I’ve reexamined is the relationship between protagonist and uncle. Originally, it was very static. There wasn’t much that happened between the two of them. They met, were awkward, but things moved forward in a linear fashion.

A good storyteller knows that conflict helps a story thrive – so long as it isn’t forced. Given that uncle and protagonist haven’t met each other before and are two widely different people, I have played this up. The uncle now has a character arc that makes a changing element within the story, naturally buffing the dialogue between him and the protagonist.

Conflict writing
Some helpful hints to make sure your conflict doesn’t feel superfluous.

With a simple change, I feel like I have added a lot of life to this story and, luckily, I did it before the first draft was finished. Granted, I’ll still have to go back during the second/third drafts and make sure everything has been aligned, but this is easier now that the conflicts and characters are clearer in my head.

By using my storyteller voice, I hope I have improved my writing. I’m showing the history of this family now, more than telling it.

So yeah, that’s my lesson for the day – I hope it helps!

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