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How to do storytelling – 4: Adjust the vocabulary

by on July 6, 2015

4. Adjust the vocabulary

Often our English translations are written in ‘literary’ English: proper, bookish language. It’s not the way people talk. Your story might sound quite stilted if you use that language.

We need to turn it into ‘spoken’ English. That involves changing the word choices into more everyday words.

Note: storytellers often go wrong here and take out all the interesting or unusual words and phrases. But these are the very things that make your story memorable and colourful. If you’re not careful you could end up with a bland, generic sounding story. Make sure you keep any colourful, interesting or intense words, any action words or adjectives – they stick in people’s minds and help them stay interested.

For example: At the end of Genesis 2 we read:

So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh.  22 And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.  23 Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones

and flesh of my flesh;

this one shall be called Woman,

for out of Man this one was taken.” 

24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.  25 And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed. 

This is not at all the way we talk normally: let’s try to make it more like spoken English.

So the LORD God put the man to sleep. While he slept, God took out one of his bones, and closed up the hole. From that bone he made a woman. He brought her to the man, and he said, “At last someone really connected to me! I’ll call her Woman, because she came out of Man.”

(This is why a man leaves his parents and lives with his wife, and they become a family.)

Neither of them had any clothes on, but they didn’t feel embarrassed.

That’s much more like the way people talk. It sounds more natural out loud. Trouble is, it’s blandified. All the interesting words are gone. It’s lost its colour. It’s lost its song. That’s not a story that’s going to inspire or fire the imaginations of the audience. To be blunt, it’s boring.

Let’s try again, and I’m going to put in bold all the words I’m deliberately keeping for their colour and vividness:

So the LORD God made a deep sleep fall on the man. While he slept, the LORD took out one of his ribs, and closed up the wound with flesh. And that rib taken from the man, he made it into a woman. Then he brought her to the man, and the man said:

“At last! Flesh of my flesh! 

Bone of my bones!

I’ll call her Woman

She came out of Man.”

(This is why a man leaves his father and mother, and clings to his wife. And the two of them become one flesh.) 

And the man and his wife were both naked, but they felt no shame.

Some of this is not how we talk everyday. But in every case the words in bold are more interesting or stronger or more vivid than the bland alternatives in my first attempt. I’ve put the song back in, too. These are the things that hook people in to listen and enjoy the story. They make this story unique and memorable, and unlike any other story. Where else can you hear, “Bone of my bones!”? Only in Genesis 2! I’ve sacrificed a bit of everydayness for the sake of colour. But overall, it’s still more ‘spoken English’ than the NRSV text we started with.

From → General

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