Read at least a portion of your work aloud!
Stories were once upon a time primarily told orally. Not surprisingly, the cadence of what we consider to be an appealing story derives to great extent from what sounds good to our ears.
Also not surprisingly, a good number of excellent literary storytellers honed their skills by telling their tales aloud. It emphasizes the need to entertain an audience, to string sentences together in a pleasant way, and sometimes to let the story find its own way.
Richard Adams, for instance, spun an emerging story to his children on a series of car drives, till they began to ask regularly for “the rabbit story.” It became the bestselling book Watership Down.
Roald Dahl spun many of his fantastic tales to his children as he leaned against their bedroom’s doorframe.
Alice in Wonderland was created in 1865, in first draft in a boat, to entertain three children – the Liddell sisters, ages eight, ten, and thirteen – as Rev. Charles Dodgson and another minister rowed the children on a outing up the Thames near Oxford. To pass the time, Dodgson began a story about a little girl named Alice (the middle girl’s name), looking for an adventure. Pleased with the tale, young Alice asked Dodgson to write it down for her, and the reverend obliged with a manuscript that eventually became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Brian Jacques, author of the popular Redwall series, began it as a story for students at a school for the blind in Liverpool, where he delivered milk and volunteered as a storytime reader. For that audience, he knew he had to develop a style that would read well out loud: funny dialect voices, beautiful descriptive passages reminiscent of some of the loveliest elegiac moments in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and lots of swashbuckling action.
As a teacher, Philip Pullman told stories from the Odyssey & the Iliad to his students. He chose not to read the stories, but instead to “stand up and tell them the stories face-to-face,” which he did week after week, for twelve years of teaching young teens.
[T]he real beneficiary of all that storytelling wasn’t so much the audience as the storyteller. I’d chosen – . . . [for] good educational reasons — to do something that, by a lucky chance, was the best possible training for me as a writer. To tell great stories over and over and over again, testing and refining the language and observing the reactions of the listeners and gradually improving the timing and the rhythm and the pace, was to undergo an apprenticeship that probably wasn’t very different, essentially, from the one Homer himself underwent three thousand years ago.
As I wrote in How To Write Your Best Story:
Oral tellers have an unfair advantage. They can see immediately if their story is holding an audience’s attention. As needed, they can modulate their voice, vary the pace, exaggerate gestures. They whisper or growl; they slow down or spring into sudden action. And they watch to see if their delivery technique is working; if it isn’t, they modify it on the spot.
Good writers have to learn to do the same. You can’t literally watch, but you can try to do this in your mind’s eye. One helpful technique to is to read your work out loud. Let your characters fill the room with their arguments and passionate speeches – it will help you visualize a reader taking in your written words. Will they be sitting on the edges of their chairs? Or might they squirm in boredom?
In a 2003 interview, crime-novel author Harlen Coben explained his choice of career by saying what writers should hold dearest to our hearts: “I love stories.” And he offered his image of professional motivation:
“When I’m writing, what I pretend subconsciously is that we’re cavemen, we’re sitting around the fire, and I’m telling you stories. If I bore you, you’re probably going to pick up a big club and hit me over the head.”
– from How To Write Your Best Story
[I think, by the way, that’s an image lifted from E.M. Foster’s work, Aspects of the Novel.]
In any event, consider reading at least some extended passages of your writing out loud. Read the first three pages. Choose some other bits at random.
By reading aloud, you’ll appreciate the real value – cost vs. benefit – of each word. It pays to choose the right word, the most brilliant image, the ringing cadence. And you’ll stumble over the misplaced or mischosen or unnecessary words.
As you do . . . remember that caveman, reaching for his club.
(For more on writing a great piece of fiction, see the book How To Write Your Best Story.)