Storytelling is a skill that comes naturally to human beings. Granted, some people are better storytellers than others, but we all have a lifetime’s practice of converting our experiences into anecdotes.
- “You’re not going to believe what I saw when I was driving to work this morning…”
- “She said ‘X’ and then I was like ‘Y’…”
- “My reason for returning the item? Well, I when I went to use it for the first time, I pulled it out of the box, and the handle came off right in my hand…”
When I teach writing, it seems I spend half my time encouraging writers to lean into their natural skills as storytellers, as anecdote-spinners. You are a human being who spends time around other human beings who ask questions like “What did you do today?” and “How did you get that scrape on your elbow?” As a result, you have developed storytelling skills that will serve you well in your writing.
But the other half of the time, it seems, I’m encouraging writers not to rely completely on their natural, everyday storytelling skills. When we’re swapping stories over dinner, we do a lot more telling and a lot less showing than readers would expect in a written story; listeners to an anecdote are very tolerant of cliches and verbal formulas that, in a written story, come across as—well, cliched and formulaic. In oral storytelling, tone of voice and gesture cover a multitude of sins that lie stark and exposed in written prose.
Conversely, what comes across as natural and straightforward in written prose would seem stilted and strange in everyday anecdote-swapping over a cup of coffee. Consider these opening sentences from Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None:
In the corner of a first-class smoking carriage, Mr. Justice Wargrave, lately retired from the bench, puffed at a cigar and ran an interested eye through the political news in The Times.
He laid the paper down and glanced out of the window. They were running now through Somerset. He glanced at his watch—another two hours to go.
There’s nothing strange about that story opening…as long as it’s in a book. But imagine how weird it would be if you were at the coffee shop with a friend and she said, “Oh, I’ve got to tell you about what happened to my Uncle Wargrave…In the corner of a first-class smoking carriage, Mr. Justice Wargrave, lately retired from the bench, puffed at a cigar…”
My point is that good writing is always artificial. It takes a lot of artifice to make written prose sound natural. Nevertheless, the skills you’ve developed in everyday anecdote-telling are still the foundation of good written storytelling, both fiction and narrative nonfiction.
Lately I’ve been taking a close look at James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, in preparation for my upcoming Writing with All Creatures class. Herriot is a great example of a writer who the uses “natural,” everyday anecdote form in the service of a properly “writerly” project. It makes sense that Herriot would take this approach: All Creatures purports to be a memoir of a country veterinarian told as a series of anecdotes. It’s true that the author was a country veterinarian (James Herriot was the pen name of Alf Wight, a Yorkshire vet). But the book is at least half fictional, and it’s hard to know which half is memoir and which half is fiction. Be that as it may, the anecdotes are altogether charming, and they are told in a way that owes very much to the kind of storytelling you might hear in a Yorkshire pub.
I briefly mentioned above that anecdotes tend to have a lot more telling and a lot less showing than written stories. Anecdotes tend to be heavy on preamble: Here are some things you need to know in order to get the most out of the rather short, possibly thin (but true!) story that I’m about to tell you. It takes some skill and work for a storyteller to fully engage the reader’s judgment through showing. When we tell anecdotes, we offer little preambles as a shortcut to point the listener’s judgment in the right direction.
- “For two guys who have never meant any harm to anybody in their whole life, my cousins Rick and Sandy have managed to get themselves in trouble with the police more than anybody I know…”
- “Cindy and I go all the way back to kindergarten. I never knew her to say an unkind word to anybody—except when she saw somebody picking on somebody who was smaller or weaker…”
- “Rusty worked on the service plumbing crew, so he got stuck with the nastiest jobs on the docket. I’ve seen him with his arm shoulder-deep in a drain pipe while sewage gurgled all around him. But Rusty was also incredibly fastidious about his clothes and hair. I’m sure he was over-compensating…”
These little preambles point the listener in the right direction, setting an expectation and giving the listener a frame of reference by which to judge what is about to happen. You think you’re about to see Rick and Sandy get in trouble with the police, but you know it’s going to be for something harmless, and you needn’t think badly of Rick and Sandy. You think you’re about to see Cindy let some bully have it, and you’re going to be inclined to take her side. As for Rusty the service plumber, maybe you don’t know what to expect from him. Maybe I’ll tell his story in another Tuesday letter.
Watch how Herriot uses a similar preamble to set up an anecdote about Siegfried, his highly energetic and preternaturally absent-minded boss:
He dashed off the list of calls each morning with such speed that I was quite often sent hurrying off to the wrong farm or to do the wrong thing. When I told him later of my embarrassment, he would laugh heartily.
There was one time when he got involved himself. I had just taken a call from a Mr. Heaton of Bronsett about doing a P.M. [post-mortem] on a dead sheep.
This preamble is all telling, no showing. Herriot is explaining, giving background, setting the table for a story in which Siegfried will almost certainly get a taste of his own medicine, thanks to his haste and heedlessness.
From the preamble, Herriot goes in-scene for a bit of (mostly) showing:
We drove into the village of Bronsett and Siegfried swung the car left into a gated lane.
“Where are you going?” I said. “Heaton’s is at the other end of the village.”
“But you said Seaton’s.”
“No, I assure you…”
“Look, James, I was right by you when you were talking to the man. I distinctly heard you say the name.”
I opened my mouth to argue further but the car was hurtling down the lane and Siegfried’s jaw was jutting. I decided to let him find out for himself.
I said that passage was mostly showing. The telling is that last little bit, and especially that last line, “I decided to let him find out for himself.” Notice what Herriot is doing there: he is widening the gap between what Siegfried understands and what the reader understands.
This letter is too long already, so I’m just going to summarize the rest of Herriot’s anecdote. When he gets out of the car at the Seaton farm, he realizes that he doesn’t have the knife he needs for the post-mortem of the sheep. So he goes to the farmhouse and demands a carving knife. Mrs. Seaton has no idea why a local veterinarian has shown up at her house demanding a carving knife, but she brings him one anyway. However, it’s it’s not sharp enough for Siegfried’s purposes, so he demands a sharpening steel. She bring him a sharpening steel. Siegfried sharpens the carving knife to a razor-sharpness, then he demands to be pointed in the direction of Mr. Seaton. Mrs. Seaton, meanwhile, is clutching her children, hoping this madman with the newly sharpened knife doesn’t do anything crazier than what he’s done already.
We, the readers, have the pleasure of watching from a posture of understanding while this confusion plays out. Siegfried doesn’t know what’s really going on. The Seatons know even less about what is going on. But we readers, along with the narrator, see all and know all.
That gap is what is known as dramatic irony. Just in case you thought dramatic irony was just a literary term to memorize for a literature class, I want you to notice a couple of things:
- Everything funny in this anecdote is twice as funny thanks to dramatic irony.
- Herriot achieves this dramatic irony by way of storytelling methods that you use all the time, offering preambles, carefully doling out or withholding information, etc.
That’s what I mean when I say that Herriot uses the forms of the everyday anecdote in the service of a more “writerly” project. This story begins like a regular anecdote: Here are some things you need to know about the story I’m about to tell… But once he has pointed the reader’s judgment in the right direction, Herriot shifts into a full show-don’t-tell mode that allows the reader to be observer and judge of a scene—or, rather, gives the reader the impression that he is the observer and judge of a scene.