At a talk I gave a few nights ago, at the Auburn Library in Maine, one man asked me a great question: “Do you think storytellers are born with that talent?”Â I can’t remember if I’ve covered that topic in my blog.Â I’ve written so many entries that I’ve lost track of which subjects I’ve already touched on.Â But he asked me an interesting question that I think is worth talking about.
I think the ability to tell a good story is fully formed by the time we’re age twelve, at the latest.Â Â I was already writing stories at age seven.Â Age seven, in fact,Â seems to beÂ the same age that many novelists say they knew they were storytellers.Â (Maybe because by that time we know how to read and write, and can finally commit our own stories to paper.)Â
But there are some people who never seem to pick up the knack.Â You probably know people like this, people who are just, well — boring storytellers.Â What makes them boring?Â They get stuck relating inexhaustible details. They focus on things that no one else cares about.Â They don’t know how to build suspense or tension.Â They don’t understand what it is that captures another human being’s attention.Â They don’t have a sense of the dramatic.Â Any and all of these things can doom you as a storyteller.
I like to give, as an example, two people in my own family whom I’ll just call Ben and Maude.Â Let’s say Ben and Maude get in a car accident together.Â Ben will sit down in the kitchen and tell you the story of his accident.Â Â He’ll ramble or tell you way more than you need to know and you’ll be bored to tears.Â Then Maude will come in and tell you the same story — same plot, same characters — and you’ll hang on her every word.Â You’ll laugh.Â You’ll lean forward in your seat, anxious for the next sentence.Â Yes, maybe she’ll include a lot of details but they’ll be interesting details, quirky details.Â
Maude has the knack; Ben doesn’t.
So what made Maude a great storyteller?Â Is it genetic?Â Why do the Irish seem to be born with it?
Well, I don’t know how much is genetic.Â But I do know that early childhood experiences are important.Â If your parents read to you, or tell you stories, orÂ if you read a lot of books, you will integrate the rules of good story structure without even realizing it.Â This is why it seems so many older-generation Irish seem to have the knack; they listened to their parents tell stories, or they listened to stories on the radio.Â Â They absorbed words,Â in ways that you can’t fromÂ from merely watching television.Â (I’m not talking about today’s “Talk radio”, where some blowhard goes on for hours offering his opinions on politics. I’m talking about radio storytellers such as Garrison Keillor, who can spin a tale out of just about nothing and keep you riveted.)
Every so often, I encounter an aspiring writer who just doesn’t have that storytelling knack.Â Their manuscripts are boring, and it’s hard to make them understand exactly what’s wrong with their stories, other than to say “it’s not interesting.”Â Or “it’s not dramatic enough.”Â Often they’ll counter with “well, it isn’t meant to be commercial!Â It’s meant to be literary.”Â Okay, then.Â But even literary isn’t supposed to be boring.
What I’ve found is that many of these boring aspiring novelists turn out not to be readers.Â Yep, you heard me.Â They want to be novelists but they don’t read novels.Â They think they can tell stories, but how would they know if they have no one to compare themselves to?Â I run into a lot of these people at my booksignings.Â They come up to me and want advice about where to send their manuscripts, and how to get published.Â When I ask them which authors they like to read, I’ll get back a puzzled look.Â Read?Â Why, they don’t have time to read!Â They’re too busy!
So is their dream of being a novelist hopeless?Â Should they just give up?Â Are they doomed to forever be boring storytellers?
I don’t know.Â What I do know is that they have a lifetime of catching up to do.Â They need to read.Â They need to absorb all the words, all the hidden lessons in dramatic structure, that can only be found in novels.Â Musicians learn the fundamentals of music by listening.Â Writers learn the fundamentals by reading.
So if you want your kid to grow up to be a famous novelist, start reading to him.Â Tell him stories.Â Instead of turning on the TV,Â turn on aÂ children’s audiobook.Â And give him books.Â Lots and lots of books.Â (And yes, comic books count.)
Maybe he won’t grow up to be a famous novelist.Â ButÂ there’s a better chance he won’t be boring.
And now, a few more shots of my books around the world!
Â Here areÂ Yueying and Terri, with my books in Singapore:
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And here’s one from Wendy in Vancouver:
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Here’s one from Robyn in South Africa:
And from Martina in Croatia:
Thank you all so much for the latest photos.Â Wish I could travel as much as the books do!