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Once upon a time . . .
Reflections on storytelling by Sheila J. Williams

We are the storytellers: our days begin with "once upon a time" and end with "tell me a story". We are descended from the folks who sat around the fires at night, describing the hunt for those who stayed behind. Today, the storyteller's role has evolved to tell us which laundry detergent to use or car to buy and how to choose a financial planner. The storyteller makes us laugh during the sitcom. He persuades us by writing political speeches or she entertains us with a story about a woman who runs away from home. The storyteller's job is to inform, educate, entertain, provoke and inspire. Our tools are words. Whether the collection of words becomes a poem, TV commercial, novel or political speech, the storyteller uses many of the same techniques today as she or he did in 1400 BCE.

1. On your first draft, put the editor/censor/minister and OPP (other peoples' opinions) in a closet and lock the door. Don't let them out! Write the story using the words that you want to use, the characters that work for you and the situations that you like. Get your ideas down on paper so that they breathe for you -- then begin the revision process. You can't write a story if you censor yourself or question a character or a point of view because a Puritan minister is leaning over your shoulder. Tell him to get lost and write your story in your own way. Let him back in only if he serves your purposes and the story's purposes, not his.

2. Make it plain. The words can be witty, complicated and suitable for a doctoral dissertation but if the reader doesn't understand the message, you've failed. The storyteller's role is to communicate.  Make sure that you use the most precise language that you can. The simplest words can be the best ones. The second part of this rule is: Make sure that your reader can follow your story. If you drop bread crumbs to show the way, the reader, like Hansel and Gretel, will get lost. Surprises and twists in a plot are great -- but not if the reader has lost the thread of the story.

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. --Robert Frost

3. Make them feel it. Use the words that make you cry or laugh, the words that make you squirm, want to put your fist through a wall or crawl under the covers. Use words that convey smell and texture, light and color. The reader should experience the story. If you feel it when you write it, chances are, the reader will feel it, too.

4. Know your characters. What's in their wallet? You should know your characters intimately even if you don't communicate everything that you know about them to your reader. Create a back story. What is in their wallets? Do they have a lot of credit cards or none? Do they live in an apartment or own a home? Are they neat-freaks? What do they keep in their refrigerator: six packs or soy milk? Are there lots of empty liquor bottles in the garbage can? What's in the bathroom medicine cabinet? Prescription pills or aspirin? How do they dress? Does he or she date? What about children? Your characters should be dimensional: with lives, personalities and dirty socks.

5. When you've hit a wall on a section or character -- write a "test chapter". This suggestion comes from my friend, Lynn Hightower, a Shamus-award winning writer. I've used it many times and it always helps. Example: you've written chapter four using the first person point of view but, in your head, you are hearing a provocative third person voice and you like the way that it sounds. Should you re-write the piece using the third person POV? Split the piece up with a little of each? What to do? Save the chapter that you've written and then write the same chapter using the voice that's in your head. By the time you've finished the exercise, you'll have a pretty good idea which way you'll want to go.

6. There are times when the words don't come, times when the dialogue dries up, the ideas disappear and you couldn't find a "the" if your life depended on it. Some people call this "writer's block" but I think that you need a vacation. Take a walk, go to a movie, get away from the words for awhile and give yourself a break. The storyteller is TIRED! Refresh your body, your mind and your creative spirit, then return to the words and begin again.

Copyright © 2005 Sheila Williams

Author Bio
Sheila Williams is the author of the forthcoming novel On the Right Side of a Dream (April 2005; $12.95US; 0-345-46475-3) as well as Dancing on the Edge of the Roof and The Shade of My Own Tree all by Ballantine/OneWorld. Ms. Williams was born in Columbus, Ohio, and attended Ohio Wesleyan University and the University of Louisville. She and her husband have two grown children and make their home in Northern Kentucky.

For more information, please visit the author's Web site at