Hey folks. Do you say “folks” where you live? Honestly, even though I live in the south, I don’t really use this word when speaking. But I use it when writing. Because . . . I just do.
What is unique about the written word that separates it from the spoken word? Why aren’t they always the same thing? In my former English teacher days, I’d always have to remind my students that they couldn’t write an essay the way they’d speak it.
A spoken story is way different than a novel, the same way a spoken answer to a question is often much different than a written one. This is true in fiction as well.
The origin of epic hero stories was through oral tradition. Beowulf was a spoken story before it was a written one. In general, written words and spoken words have different structures. However, the audio revolution is fusing the two in a fascinating way.
Humans love story. Not just stories but story. The concept of story. The experience of story. The hope of story. The paradoxical truth of story. Everywhere humans are, story is too, both written and spoken.
Written stories and spoken stories diverged in our culture for a while (think of the difference between a Dickens novel and a story told out loud by a real person in Dickensian London). For some interesting reasons we don’t have to discuss here, the written word rose above the spoken word as the “elite” form of storytelling.
But story is changing.
We’re at an odd place, a shifting back toward the spoken word. Social media and the internet in general have caused our written words to be much more like our spoken words. Writing is changing to fit closer and closer to how we would say things. It’s a fascinating shift (and an English teacher’s nightmare, sort of). Try grading essays that use “like” as a filler word and contain the acronyms “idk” and “irl” in them. I mean, really, folks?
We have “stories” on social media where we can use written words or not. Stories are becoming more visual, more real-life focused, and less reliant on written words. Audio is taking over our experience with story. We absorb more words through audio than we ever have, and this trend will continue to rise. Audio books, podcasts, video content, and music are how we get our stories these days.
Yes, we still read, but now the things we read have to convert well into audio also. Some stories are audio first, meaning that the written part comes after the spoken. What we’re reading will trend closer and closer toward what works best on audio, not perhaps what works best as a written story.
So, is there really a difference?
I once assigned my AP Lit students the task of telling an oral story. They could make it up or talk about a real event. Their only parameter was to craft it in such a way as to make the listener listen. Not an easy task, they discovered. The problem was, they couldn’t just write the story and then be done. They had to speak the story and make it worth listening to. Not always the same as writing a good story.
So, will stories shift toward being audio first? Best on audio and then transcribed to the page? How will this affect story?
It’s nothing to be afraid of. I don’t think authors or grammarians or book lovers should fear this shift. It’s where we began, after all. People have always told stories. In fact, the original Story, the one that both makes us lovers of story and capable of creating them, began as a spoken story. Moses didn’t write Genesis as it was happening. Those truths were kept alive via oral tradition (and of course the revelation of God when it came time for Moses to pen them). People knew the story of the garden because they heard the story from their parents or a friend or a teacher or a priest. People knew the story of the flood because they heard it. Only later were people blessed with the text to read about those stories.
So, you may ask, is there a difference between telling a story that is true and one that is made up? In the sense that the material is different and meant to be absorbed in different ways, yes. But the craft of telling a story, whether true or fiction, is much the same. Fiction or nonfiction, the goal is still to get the reader or listener to connect with the story. (The Bible doesn’t have to try in this department. It’s the one story that our very souls want to hear.)
The shift back toward oral storytelling is one that will be interesting to watch. Will it affect the length of stories? You may be surprised to find that longer audiobooks tend to sell better than short ones, but that’s partly (or mostly) due to the value someone wants to think they’re getting from an audiobook purchase. A 12-hour book doesn’t seem as valuable as a 27-hour book, especially when you can “buy” them both for the same amount of credits. Then again, the stories of social media and podcasts and songs are short. We get the emotional bang we want and can move on to another story.
I’m not downing these stories, because crafting a short story is often much harder than writing a really long one, considering each word matters so much more. The rise of flash fiction has shown that even prestigious writing groups understand the difficulty of creating emotional connections with readers in 100 words or fewer. And there are people who do it on Instagram every single day. I’m rather in awe of them.
God knew his image bearers would love to hear stories. He knew we’d crave epic tales of heroism and salvation and redemption and love. Ever since the garden, we’ve been craving those things (and unfortunately looking in the wrong places for them). He knew we would all be searching for the story that tells us the truth. God gave us that story in His Word. And, wonder of wonders, He gives us the ability to weave the truth into tales we make up.
We can weave truth into an Instagram story. We can weave truth into an epic fantasy novel. We can weave truth into a song. We can weave truth into spoken word poetry. And every time we do, our stories will resonate with listeners or readers in a way the other stories will not. Because the reason we love story is because we are all searching for the Story. When a book we read or a song we hear or a video we watch communicates part of that Story, we’ve gotten one step closer to the Story we’ve always been wanting to hear. Whether speaking or writing, a huge part of getting the audience to care is by communicating truth (whether they know this or not).
Christian, you are so blessed to know that Story. Never forget what a privilege it is, what a grace it is, to know the Story everyone else is still searching for.
This week, take a minute to look at the stories around you. The Instagram stories. The songs. The TV shows. The books. Which ones are spoken? Which ones are written? How many stories do you consume on weekly basis that are not written down at all? Consider how, or if, this is changing your idea of what story should be. Do you find it harder to sit down to read a whole novel? Do you prefer video or audio content? I’d love to know. Post a comment and tell me your preferred way to take in stories!