8th November 2018
Brace yourselves because I’m about to make two contradictory statements. Here goes the first:
It is my passionately held belief that the essence of storytelling has not changed over the millennia. It can’t change because we haven’t changed. Our species emerged around 200,000 years ago and stayed stone age until about 2000 BCE. We’re Stone Age beings in a space age era. So what was a great story then, also works now.
That’s why we can continue to read and appreciate not just Shakespeare but further back than that, to the Mahabharta in the 6thc BCE and further to the Illiad, in the 8th c BCE. (Let’s leave the Bible out of this as I don’t have the time to block the fruitcakes who will descend on me like a plague of locusts.) Instead, check out the Sumerian poems of Gilgamesh which date back to 2100 BCE, to the dawn of recorded history. In other words, as soon as we figured out how to write, we wrote a story. And it’s a thriller grappling with the big issues of life.
A good story is a good story is a good story.
Now I’m about to contradict myself so buckle up.
The way we tell stories has changed. And that change alters the story itself. Gilgamesh was carved onto clay tablets. Try curling up with that. The Illiad was oral and meant to be recited to large groups; it was the ultimate party piece. The development of not just widespread literacy but also cheap paperbacks that could literally slip into your pocket as you commuted to work, produced pulp fiction: short, explosive stories with stock characters and ludicrous plots. So the means by which the story is communicated shapes the story itself.
Here’s the most recent example: audiobooks.
Audiobooks place different demands on the writer as the experience of absorbing the story is different.
Let me give you an example. I published a political thriller called Term Limits. Its political message was subsumed by the mounting body count and the chase to catch the murderer. It’s a great little gritty page-turner. Better still, it’s written in short snappy chapters, occasionally just paragraphs, rarely longer than a few pages. These little bon bons of suspense drove the reader on. As one reader told me, “I stayed up all night reading this because I kept thinking I could read just one more chapter.”
But Catherine O’Brien of Essential Audiobooks rejected it. The chapters are too short of audio, she told me. What adds suspense while reading dissolves suspense while listening. What is a page-turner in a book is an off-button on audio.
And also, uh-oh.
So we tweaked the book until it worked for audio. We kept the story, the plot, the good guys and the bad. We kept the suspense, the action, the chase. We just…. reshaped it to be appropriate to the audiobook age.
This meant, in practice, longer chapters, a shorter intro, fewer letters, more dialogue.
Turned out that Catherine O’Brien was right. The resulting audiobook is chilling, nerve-wracking and powerful. A great story told brilliantly.
My next challenge: tweaking Term Limits so it can be carved onto a clay tablet.
Katie Isbester, Claret Press