How to handle descriptions in a literary story you want to tell orally

By Limor Shiponi

We moved on to the next text – a story by the Russian and Soviet author Maxim Gorky. I’m not attaching the entire story text; it’s long and you can use any other literary text written by a single author for this purpose. G tells this story for several years now, and he feels something isn’t ‘working’.

Every time I tell Gorky’s descriptions of the woods, something goes wrong. On one hand – the descriptions make you see the picture in a very powerful way; on the other hand, when I tell them, the listeners get lost, and so do I.

I offered G a reading – I will read him the entire story as if I’m telling it. G agreed. “How was it?” I asked after concluding.

The wood’s descriptions just don’t work. I wanted you to move forward already. If I wanted to tell the story fully, the way you told it just now, I’m reconsidering. It has to be more ‘story like’ and help me connect. Maybe I need to lower the language and shorten the descriptions. Some pictures were very good, I could see them crystal clear, and there was action. Reading the story is very effective, listening to it – isn’t.

Unknowingly, G pointed at the main problem around telling literary stories; they were created in writing for the page, not orally.

Moving from a literary story to a storytelling version

When you read a story, all the information you need transfers through words. When you tell a story, two information and expression channels add in – the vocal and the kinesthetic (gesture). Suddenly, you feel there are too many words between yourself and the listener, and you’ll have to edit the text. There are a few exceptions though: texts written in rhyme or meter and sanctified texts. Just remember we are discussing texts by authors, not collected, and edited oral texts like Grimm tales.

In oral texts, there are only two kinds of information units necessary:

  • Actions (what happened next?)
  • Descriptions or information essential for positioning the drama (why do I need to know this? how does it help me establish a better understanding of the drama?)

So for example, if a princess’s beauty is described in length, elaborated beyond imagination – what should you do? if her elaborated beauty has to do with the core of the drama and is the reason for at least part of it, the description needs to stay. If there is a particular detail about her that is essential for the drama, it obviously needs to stay. However, if all that description is just about telling us how beautiful she was and the drama can do well using only the word ‘beautiful’ and adding a gesture or some vocal color that adds a little more about ‘how’ exactly she was beautiful – the elaboration can go. Here too there is an exception: culture. There are cultures where people won’t be satisfied unless you elaborate extensively.

We went through the entire text word by word, phrase by phrase, checking to see whether all the information adheres to the two above rules. We uprooted about 25% of the text. Then I told G the new version and he approved – as a listener, the story worked for him much better.

If you try this, I’ll be happy to read your comments. Next Four ways to prepare literary stories for oral telling

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