Most storytellers quickly
learn that giving characters voice – whether expressing
inner thoughts aloud or speaking to other characters in the story
– enlivens a telling and provides opportunity for vocal variety.
But how many of us allow characters time to listen?
In a play, actors portray
characters. When the characters engage in dialogue, wonderful
actors listen to each other and react. Poor actors simply wait to
speak their lines. The same scripted dialogue is believable when
handled by wonderful actors, yet seems fake when handled by poor
In real life, we don’t
know our lines. We improvise based on our reaction to what
came before. In arguments words often fly fast and furious with
no one really listening. In more thoughtful conversation, people
listen, react, and respond.
Because storytellers speak
for both characters involved in a conversation, most of
the listening happens while the teller speaks for the other character.
However, in real life reacting happens both while we listen and
after the other person stops talking. In the telling of a story,
a character needs time to take in that last bit of what he/she just
heard. Then, the character can believably react and respond.
Unless our characters are
interrupting each other, we need to allow them varying
lengths of time (depending on the nature of the conversation and
the personalities of the characters) to react to one another before
Our allowing characters
time to take in what they’ve just heard also provides
our audiences with time to imagine how they might respond before
our characters speak.
Next time you work on a
story, don’t focus solely on how characters talk,
pay attention to how they listen too.
Mary Hamilton has earned her living telling stories and pondering
how the art of storytelling works since 1983. Learn more about her
work at http://www.maryhamilton.info
Hamilton, Professional Storyteller
65 Springhill Road, Frankfort, KY 40601-9211