Writing Excuses 9.45: Tools for Writing from Oral Storytelling
Key Points: The hat pitch starts at the beginning, and is seeded all the way through. You want your climax, your “hat pitch,” to be the same way. Seed the little things early to inform your ending. Set the audience’s expectation, then beat it. Avoid jingles, so beware cliched phrases and make sure you vary the sentence structure. Rhythm, pacing, voice and body language help the storyteller direct the audience’s attention, in fiction, you can do the same thing with punctuation, sentence structure, paragraphing, and what the character pays attention to. Especially, pay attention to the way punctuation can enhance or break a sentence. Read your text out loud, to make sure it works. Notice how often people tell each other stories? Do that to help make your stories come to life, too.
[Mary] Season Nine, Episode 45.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, tools for writing from oral storytelling.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star M. Todd Gallowglas. Say hi.
[Brandon] I met Michael, as I call him, about years and years and years and years ago. Tell them how we met.
[Todd] So we met at the World Science Fiction Convention in Boston, NorEastCon. It was the very first panel, the very first day, Brandon was on his very first panel as a pro before his very first book came out and they were talking about magic systems. Brandon, he was on a panel with four other panelists that vehemently disagreed with his viewpoint on creating magic systems and took potshots at the neo-pro the whole panel long. I saw Brandon deathly deflect and go, “Well, they didn’t bite or anything like that.” I was like, “I want to know that guy.” We spent like the whole convention kind of hanging out, running into each other. He gave me some tips as a hopeful neo-pro at that point, and 12, 13 years later…
[Brandon] Here we are.
[Todd] We’re still buddies. I remember I told you the last time we interacted that someday we’re both going to be names and we’re going to be on a panel together. And, my first panel is with Brandon Sanderson on Writing Excuses.
[Brandon] I told that story…
[Todd] Have you?
[Brandon] So many times about me versus the whole panel. It’s one of the kind of foundational experiences in my pro experience. But we’re… Why don’t you tell them just briefly about your books and where they can get them, and then we’re going to go into the topic.
[Todd] I’m going to backtrack a little bit. Before my books, for different parts of my life since I was 17, I’ve been a traditional oral storyteller at Renaissance fairs. That’s kind of where I launched my book career. I am primarily a fantasist. I’ve written my all ages series, the Halloween Jack series, which is the continuation of my favorite Irish legend about Halloween with a steam punk upgrade. My Tears of Rage series I call Game of Thrones meets Three Musketeers, because I like swashbuckling adventure with guns. Then my Dead Weight serialized novel about the United States going to war against the Unseely Court of Irish Fairie because that’s going to end well for everyone.
[Howard] Now for those of you who are familiar with Renaissance fair storytelling, I’m here to assure you that we will in fact be maintaining for this episode our iTunes clean rating. Right, Todd?
[Todd] Oh, absolutely. Because, as I tell people at my Renaissance fair shows, if your children get all of my jokes, whose fault is that, really?
[Howard] So Todd and I had dinner last night, in which he started talking about Ren fair storytelling, and I realized that the things he did as an oral tradition storyteller were hugely informative upon the things that he wrote, and in fact, were starting to impact the things that I was going to write. I insisted that he come here today and talk to us about oral storytelling. So I’d like to lead with that question. If you had to pick a single thing, Todd… Are we calling you Todd or Mike?
[Todd] Yes, you’re calling me Todd.
[Howard] Well, I am calling you Todd. If you had to pick a single thing from the oral tradition that has been informing your writing, what is it?
[Todd] One single thing. I think it goes back to what we were talking about last night, was the hat pitch. All right, so, this is for all of you, the hat pitch is a technical term that street performers use for that bit at the end… And I’m doing the air quotes… At the end of the show, where you ask people to put money in your hat. That’s the difference between the professional story… Or not storytellers, but professional street performers that really make a decent living at it and people that just do it as kind of a hobby to get a few extra bucks. The amateur performer will do their hat pitch at the very end of their show and basically it amounts to, “Would you please put money in my hat?” The professional, their hat pitch starts at the beginning of their show. Don’t tell anybody else that I told you this, because I’m going to be in trouble, because this is kind of a trade secret.
[Mary] So all 20,000 of you listening right now…
[Howard] Just listen and then don’t say anything.
[Todd] So the people who… Like myself and my colleagues, our hat pitch starts at the beginning of our show, and we seed it in throughout the whole show, until the… And then we do, at the very end, a very short little thing as opposed to the amateur, he usually does this really big long hat show. By the time that happens, everybody’s kind of checked out and they’re walking away without putting anything in the bag or the hat or whatever you’ve got. How that informs writing is when you’re telling a story, whether it’s a flash fiction piece, whether it’s a short story, a novella, or like a huge Brandon Sanderson level epic, you have to seed the little things that are going to inform your end so that the reader truly buys into how you solve the big huge problem and everything wraps up satisfyingly so that in hindsight, people go, “Oh, yeah, that’s cool.” Just like in the… At a show… At the end of the show, people go, “Yeah. This guy was great. I should give him money, so he can support his kids.”
[Dan] I get this question a lot about writing like “How can you make sure that your ending works in order to fulfill or exceed the audience expectation?” The answer is, “Well, you set their expectation for them.” You set up exactly what you want them to think, so that then you can… Then you can beat it.
[Todd] Right. The same thing happens… So, the way I do it when I’m writing, is I have the end in mind, I write my rough draft, and then in… When I’m doing my polishing and my rewriting and my editing, I go… I work my way backwards through the story. The same thing is how I approach my storytelling show is, I get to the end and I go, “My end result is I want people to put money in the bag and buy my books at the end of the show,” so then I have how my story… And I have a bunch of them. In each story, I specifically target special points during that story as I perform, where I do little digs or little like tweaks to the story that remind people that at the end I’m going to be asking them for money, so that they still put the money in. But I do that with my fiction, too, so that at the end of my story or my novel…
[Mary] They give you money?
[Todd] Well, sometimes.
[Todd] No, but they’re satisfied with the end and they don’t think, “Oh, well, that’s kind of… Oh, well. All right.” Just as the same thing as at the end of the show, they’re like, “Yeah, I loved that. Here, have something,” as opposed to “Well, it was all right. Here, have a couple pennies.”
[Howard] In a sense, what you’re talking about is the difference between “buy my book” and “you bought the ending, you’re going to buy my next book.”
[Todd] Right, exactly.
[Howard] I mean, you were happy enough with this, you bought this, therefore…
[Todd] Right. That goes back… Because people have come and seen this show in the different… Even though they’ve given me money at the end, I want them to give me money at the end or when they buy my book, give me money and then read it and then come to the next show and be like, “Yeah, we love this. Have some more.”
[Dan] I think what you’re also talking about there is the difference between “I need to give this guy money” and “I love this so much.”
[Dan] I would be happy to support it in any way.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Our book of the week this week is the Name of the Wind, which is a book that we on the podcast love and have talked about a lot. But we’re going to let Todd talk about why he likes it.
[Todd] I love Name of the Wind because Kvothe… However… I think that is pretty close?
[Mary] That’s correct.
[Todd] Kvothe is a street performer. He comes from sort of a gypsy, street performer family. The other thing that I love is you have the story within story within story, which is both an ancient Chinese tradition of storytelling and an ancient Irish tradition of storytelling, so that you keep the story within the story within the story so that people will always… They want to know what happened with the last story with the last story with the last story. When I was reading it for the very first time, I was reading this, and I said, “Oh, this Rothfuss guy gets it.” So that’s why I like it, because it’s framed as a… Even though it’s fiction, it’s written fiction, it’s framed from like old traditional storytelling techniques, and that’s why I love it. And the main character is a street performer.
[Howard] audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Start a 30-day free trial membership and get a copy of the Name of the Wind absolutely free.
[Todd] So… Can I… Can I…
[Todd] Can I talk… Because that’s kind of your hat pitch…
[Howard] Oh, crap.
[Todd] For the show.
[Howard] Are you saying I didn’t do that right?
[Todd] I don’t want to say that you didn’t do it right, but I think you could do it maybe a little better.
[Howard] Okay. No no no. This is good.
[Todd] So… You’re rushing it. You’re just rrrrrr. I know it’s 15 minutes, and everything like that, but I think that you could take rather than 10 seconds, maybe devote like 20, 25 seconds to it and put some… Because it’s just like words, wordswordswords, just words, wordswordswords.
[Todd] Because you said it so fast that I couldn’t even really pick up the words you said.
[Dan] The great thing about this… This is the second day in a row, someone’s told Howard he’s doing that wrong. So…
[Todd] I… Please don’t put words in my mouth. I did not say Howard is doing it wrong.
[Howard] No. Those were the exact words that just came out of your mouth. Howard is… You just said that’s…
[Mary] All right. So how would you do it? If you were going to pitch the audible podcast?
[Todd] All right. So you guys use the same words on the audible podcast pitch every time?
[Mary] He does it every single time that way.
[Todd] All right. So what you gotta do, is you can’t use the exact same words every single time because if you do the exact same words every single time, it sounds like a jingle. So then… When people hear jingles, it’s like they fast-forward on their TiVo or they switch the channel on the radio station. So vary it a little bit, and also modulate your tone of voice.
[Mary] So this is comparable in fiction to…
[Howard] You have just made that so hard.
[Todd] Welcome to my world.
[Mary] But in fiction, this is comparable to avoiding clichéd phrases and making sure that you have varied sentence structures.
[Howard] And making sure that people… I mean, the whole point of getting the hat pitch right is so that instead of just passing around a little tiny hat, you can push a grocery cart.
[Brandon] Let’s move off to something…
[Howard] No, no, no. That’s fine. I just… Neat.
[Brandon] I want to drill down in this, because I’ve seen oral storytellers, and one of the things they’re great at doing is controlling an audience. They are good at… In the same sort of way that a puppeteer is, except they use more their voice and where they’re moving in order to draw the audience’s attention, and to make the emotions of the audience match the way the storyteller’s body language is going in the way they are using their tone. Has this informed your fiction?
[Todd] Ooo… Maybe?
[Brandon] Not to put you on the spot.
[Todd] Well, no… It… Not that I would consciously be aware of. I do have… It does inform how I approach one of my particular pieces, my Halloween Jack books. Because it ties into one of the stories that I tell. When people come up to me and they’ve read more than one of my things, they tell me my Halloween Jack books… When they’ve seen the show and they read the books, it’s like, “When I read that, I hear your voice in my head.” Which even though they may have seen the shows like with my Tears of Rage and some of my other stuff, they haven’t… They don’t necessarily come up to me. That is a very conscious choice, that’s when I’m writing the Halloween Jack books, I’m very conscious of the language that I’m using. That I’m using the same sort of sentence structure that I use with when I’m telling a story. I don’t necessarily do that with like Tears of Rage or Dead Weight.
[Brandon] I would say that this is a writing methodology that newer writers don’t get. That once you start transitioning into professional level, learning how you can control your reader’s attention by the way you’re varying your sentence structure, by the way you’re breaking down your paragraphs, by what the character’s attention is on. This sort of next level prose is a very important thing to get a hold on, either instinctively or consciously, as you’re writing professional level fiction. So that reminds me a lot of the way that an oral storyteller will control an audience. Mary, you had something.
[Mary] One of the things… Because I also do the audiobook narration, and one of the ways that it has wound up influencing me is that dialogue… 20 years of life in theater, dialogue was the part that I never had to think about when I was writing. I’ll bet that it’s the same for you. That’s the part that’s easy. But what I realized is that part of it, very specifically, is that I am conscious of how I am using breath and rhythm and the way I use punctuation and sentence structure to control the audience’s perception of a character without having to use a lot of said book-isms in order to convey tone. I’m doing it with the way that dialogue is structured. For me, because what I’m doing as an audiobook narrator is I’m taking a printed page and I’m converting it back into oral storytelling, it makes me very conscious how other people’s punctuation can enhance or totally make a sentence flat.
[Howard] One of the things that I learned from Mary, and I think this may have been last year at the writing retreat or maybe before then, was the technique of proofreading something by reading it out loud. I found when I started reading what I had written on the page out loud that what I had put on the page was wrong because I couldn’t say it. The breath and the rhythm was… It didn’t sell itself.
[Brandon] One thing… I would end here. We’re running out of time, but I want to mention is… Go through your day and see how many stories people tell each other in a given day’s experience for you when you’re interacting with people. Whether the story is, “Oh, I went to the store and this happened,” or “This is what happened with my grandfather when I was young…” I think you’ll be surprised at how often we as human beings use narrative naturally. This can help you with your writing, I think, because I don’t think enough writers put this in. It’s one of these things that makes a book feel only driven by a plot, is the fact that the people don’t act like real people, because we tell stories. It’s what we do.
[Brandon] We are out of time. Dan, you have the writing prompt.
[Dan] Yes, I do. Cloudy. Okay. So. What I want you to do is, I want you to take the book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Okay? The book, not the movie. Where it is an ongoing, permanent, normal thing, rather than a crisis. I want you to present a world, the nitty-gritty realities of how that society could actually function if like giant pancakes fell out of the sky every day and we just have to deal with it.
[Brandon] All right. Thank you again, M. Todd Gallowglas for being on the podcast. Thank you, Fantasy Con, for hosting us, and Fantasy Con crowd, for listening.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.