STORY TELLING TRAINING MANUAL
(For PEN FAMILY)
BY SADA MALUMFASHI
Sada Malumfashi is a Nigerian writer. he is a Pharmacist by training. His works of poetry, fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Jalada Africa, Deepwater Literary Journal, Oddball Magazine, Bombay Review and Praxis Magazine amongst others. He has been longlisted for the Awele Creative Trust Award 2015 and the Babishai Niwe Poetry Award 2016. You can see more of his work on his blog sadaoverall.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter @sadaoverall.
Morning once again everyone.
I would have to say, firstly I am primarily a creative writer of both fiction and non-fiction. So I have been made to understand that this is a gathering of journalists, and as such I will assume, we will be more interested in content creation, that is, the non-fiction aspect.
Storytelling as a field is so diverse that we can never cover it. We have been telling stories and been told stories from time immemorial. From the tales of our grandmothers, to peer groups storytelling, to watching home movies, dramas and even cartoons. All these are aspects of storytelling. So now when we break these so called "stories" down, we begin to have various sub groups. Say maybe, written stories, oral stories, physical performances, and even sign-language stories. Now in the written form or what we call written literature, we also have poetry, prose and scripted drama. I believe as journalists, our interests can be in any aspect of the above storytelling means. But today, I would like to dwell on the Prose and in the prose form, I think we will focus more on the Non-Fiction aspect.
Naturally, our brains have an irresistible desire to turn events into stories, an example is this: I was invited to this Tech Startup Hackseries yesterday, and I saw lots of amazing programmers. So all i've been thinking of since then is how to let everyone know about this geniuses: In A Story Form.
As much as possible, journalists try to present events as factual as possible, but it is especially so difficult to produce a straightforward account or bit by bit account of events. If we do that, our stories become boring. A storyteller, should be creative, and as such should never bore his readers. Kahneman said: “It is the consistency of the information that matters for a good story, not its completeness.” So first and foremost, you don't need to give all the details of an event. We don't care what is the colour of the shoe of the presenter, unless it really matters in the story. We shouldn't bother about unnecessary details, just concentrate in the juicy parts.
Also, in as much as you are writing, be careful with your choice of words, too much adjectives and adverbs make stories lazy and boring. Adjectives and adverbs tell stories. But what you need to do is "Show" the audience. Don't spoon feed them, let them be inside the story too.
What do I mean? Don't just tell us Jamylah is attracted to Faisal, show us that Jamylah's heart leaps out of her chest at the sound of the footsteps of Faisal approaching.
"telling" is the reliance on simple lazy narrations: Mary was an old woman.
"Showing," on the other hand, is the use of evocative description: Mary moved slowly across the room, her hunched form supported by a polished wooden cane gripped in a gnarled, swollen-jointed hand that was covered by translucent, liver-spotted skin.
Why is showing better? it creates mental pictures for the reader, it forces the reader to become involved in the story, deducing facts for himself or herself, rather than just taking information in passive form.
Another thing with every story is, its made of a plot and a character, and its ultimately the character that makes the story.
So its very important that you develop your character really well, and that he fits into the plot of your story perfectly. It is very important to make your readers care about your character. Care here is in a loose way. They can love him/her, hate him/her, or the character annoys the reader, bottom line is, the reader cares about the character. If the character is Shekau, make sure your reader finds him annoying and evil. If its the Chibok girls you are writing about, the emotional connection has to be there. Make the readers cry.
The plot may be interesting, the setting could be exotic, the dialogue compelling, but if you don't have any empathy for the main character, the audience will soon stop reading. So always create a bond between the reader and the character. Whatever sort of bond. Let it be there.
Just look at this New York Times report of Ms Ali, a rescued Chibok girl, and focus on the emotional connection being made with the plight of the character:
On Thursday, Ms. Ali stepped, crying infant in her arms, from a black S.U.V. as security guards kept back a surging crowd of cameramen. Accompanying her were her mother and brother, a nurse and Ms. Usman, the activist.
Ms. Ali waited in a conference room, her face covered by a black sequined shawl as journalists scrambled to get photos of her and her family. Government officials and relatives occasionally huddled with her, talking in inaudible tones. At one point, Ms. Ali put her head down on the table.
Mr. Buhari eventually emerged to greet her. She removed the shawl from her face and handed her crying infant to him.
This is also a perfect example of showing and not telling. I guess time is almost up and we could go on and on about storytelling, but we can never exhaust it.
So just always remember: Great stories have an intriguing beginning to hook you; a middle that moves it forward and keeps you wanting more; and a conclusion that leaves you satisfied, and wanting to tell everyone about it.
Adjectives and adverbs usually add little to whats on the page. That means in a story, they have no business being there. Many writers throw in “pretty” words to make their prose more dramatic and meaningful. But such cosmetic touch-up often turns out to be redundant or simply uninspiring. Take adverbs such as “lovingly” or “speedily” or “haltingly.” They each point to some circumstance or emotion or movement, yet do they offer solid impact?
He whispered to her lovingly…
She zoomed around the oval speedily…
He stuttered haltingly..
These are not really necessary, and they do little to the work but rather even add an awkward cast
The stone sank quickly…
The fire truck bell clanged loudly…
How else would a stone sink but quickly? How else would a fire truck bell clang but loudly?
He whispered words of love … my sweet, dear lover, my angel … he purred his contentment, his joy …
No adverb here, and the drama is enhanced. I'm sure we can come up with better descriptions than this.
Mark Twain had it right: “As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.”
OPEN FLOOR SEGMENT:
QUESTION: On characterisation in non fiction and how to create good characters since the character is already factual. Or do you mean something like the Ms Ali's story?
RESPONSE: Yes something like that. It is true though that there is no room in creative nonfiction for fabrication or manipulation of the facts. Usually in non-fiction, the character has been made, you are not making him up, so all you need do is complete the character. Which is not easy. So what you can do, is use action to influence your character. As we saw in the case of Ms Ali, emotion was the action used to complete her characterisation. Even though if you notice she did not say a word all through, but it felt like we know what she's feeling and whats going on in her head. Thats the power of characterisation. An exercise that we can all try is to write about out father or mother, and complete them to somebody that has never meant them before.
NB: don't write what you want your father or mother to be, be objective, and show them for what they really are.
QUESTION: what is your advice to a beginner of a nonfiction writing
RESPONSE: First advice as always is read, read and read loads of non-fiction. Then write and edit, and edit and edit.
Helon Habila told me something at a workshop last year: "Writing is re-writing". So don't just write that first draft and think its cool because your friends said its cool. No, keep editing and re-writing it, till its smooth and flawless. A good non-fiction read I would also suggest is Binyavanga Wainaina's book, One Day I Will Write About This Place.
It plays with language in a beautiful way.
QUESTION: what can the writer who always find it difficult to give his prose piece an ending do to solve this deficiency?
RESPONSE: Alright. I think thats what I would call plot problem. You are most likely unable to end the piece because your plot is faulty.
What I would advise is yo try heightening the ending you already have. Add passion or violence, or both.
A solution that always works for me, is to kill someone 😄.
Your work should not always have a happy ending, but what your plot should always have is a complication. And your aim as a writer is to resolve that complication. Once your plot is too straightforward with no complication, then you cannot resolve it and definitely you wont have a great ending.
Think of The Great Gatsby. It’s memorable not only because Jay Gatsby fails to get what he really wanted, but because he gets shot to death in his pool.