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Writing Novels vs. Telling Tales

March 13, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified March 13, 2015

The prompt for this article came from several sources that recently had me thinking about the differences between tales and novels.

In a book I was reading, a character was telling a story to others, even calling it a tale. And that reminded me of Tales from of the Arabian Nights, which I’d recently pulled from one of my shelves while working on a manuscript about genies.

At their most basic, tales are very different from novels and other long fiction. They differ in scope and in impact; they differ in approach and in purpose.

It’s not likely that you’d write tales rather than chapters of a novel if you were actually working on a novel, yet I have seen some scenes and chapters that read more like tales than novels.

Yet the two are very different story-telling types. And the characteristics of tales don’t serve novels very well.


Tales—A Few Observations

~  Tales are a short form of storytelling. The tale is usually contained in a few pages, no chapter breaks necessary.

~  The focus typically switches from location to location or character to character  with transitions written out in the text rather than provided through scene breaks.

~  Tales are often told as a means of portraying a lesson or moral, to warn listeners/readers that a similar fate might befall them if they don’t watch out or don’t learn the lesson of the tale.

~  Tales often portray something specific about a culture or religion, maybe as a means of keeping members of the group on the same page with cultural norms.

~  A tale may be used to correct or direct behavior.

~  Important moments in tales may turn on coincidence and happenstance, something that should never happen in novels.

~  The emphasis is on narration and summary, and tales are light on extended action and dialogue.

~  Tales come from an oral tradition, and the words don’t have to be exact—it’s the plot, actions, and morals that stay the same—exact words don’t really matter.

~  In tales, events “happen” to characters, and while characters may fall into one dilemma after another, events don’t necessarily have to be linked in the causal way that they’re linked in novels.

~  Tales are heavy on telling, light on showing.

~  Certain key details may be quite specific, but tales are not loaded with description and detail.

~  Word choices and style don’t get the same attention that they get in long fiction.

~  Tales are often quick summaries rather than a detailed unfolding of events.

~  In tales, many characters aren’t named or are referred to by title or profession; characters aren’t fleshed out.

~  Back story and character motivation are often laid out with a single line of explanation. Readers are told why a character behaves as he does; they don’t glean reasons by searching the text or drawing inferences.


Differences between Novels and Tales

~  In novels we aren’t merely telling tales, hitting the high points of some event; we’re drawing worlds with words. We create everything—the world and all its components; the characters and their backgrounds, emotions, and relationships; and the events that take place given the components of that world and the characters that people it.

~  In tales we often get only sketchy details of the story world. The original audience for a tale is usually quite familiar with not only the story world but the types of people who live in it, allowing the tale-teller to offer only the hint of details.

~  In tales we get a snippet, one event from a world that is otherwise ignored. In novels we get a full picture of a world and of the forces that combine to create the perfect storm of conditions necessary to develop our story.

~  A novel is full and fat (even when it’s lean) in comparison to tales. A novel deals with the complete picture, background and foreground and history that lead to the moment on the page as well as the consequences and implied consequences that follow that particular moment.

~  Novels encourage reflection and can change lives. Novels can make readers feel true emotions. Tales don’t bother to engage the reader’s emotions (though they can make us laugh). Tales might also make readers think, especially if a reader is part of the audience a tale was aimed  at.

~  Tales have their pluses, but a single event or series of events ending with a teachable moment or moral is at the heart of tales.

~  Tales are filled with reports about a character to whom events happen, with action events reserved for the most important story moments. That is, many events are reported via summary rather than scene. Novels include the actions and reactions of characters playing out in real time on the page.

~  In novels, we create images and emotions and events that take place—as if real—in front of the reader. We don’t merely talk about what happens. We put the actual events in the setting where they take place. We allow readers to watch the events unfold, to step inside the story world if they choose to. Readers see and feel repercussions as they play out. The emotions and results of actions are clear and significant.

~  In tales, the narrator repeats events that he’s heard or maybe knows firsthand. But there’s little painting of the world, just a few lines to sketch in important details. There’s no fullness.

Tales give us a report of events rather than the events themselves. Tales give readers an unmistakable lesson, a lesson imposed by someone else, while novels allow us to draw conclusions and truth for ourselves from events and the characters who live those events.

~  Tales read like made-up stories devised to showcase a lesson or moral. That is, the story is created to give a reason to highlight the lesson. Novels, on the other hand, especially well-crafted ones, feel like real events that happen to real people. The story line in novels doesn’t feel like a string of imaginary events created to meet the need of the story’s ending. Instead, the ending feels like a logical result of what happened to a set of people at a specific moment in their lives.

Characters, events, and the fictional world of a novel feel real, as if the people could have lived, the events could have happened. The events and characters in tales feel fake, as if made up on the spot in order to teach a lesson.

With few exceptions, novels are not tales and are not made up of tales.


Mixing Tales with Long Fiction

Not only are novels not tales, but except in very special circumstances, we should not plop tales into our long fiction. When we stop to allow a character to tell a tale, the whole story stops. There’s no forward motion, even if we put the characters into physical motion as they listen.

I’ve come across this device in manuscripts many times. I’ve even tried it myself.

Now, you may be able to enfold a short tale inside a scene when you need to slow the action. But keep in mind that tale-telling doesn’t just slow the story’s action, it stops it. Still, if a character were to tell a tale to companions who were otherwise not engaged or who were able to listen while they continued on with their duties, you might be able to make it work.

But don’t do as I did, refusing for a long time to accept that a tale told midstory didn’t work.

In my first novel manuscript, I interrupted my characters’ journey to allow one of them to tell the story of how he’d met another character. I intended the story, told over a fire at night, to reveal both the personality of the storyteller and the character he was speaking about. And that was successful, in its way. I even included actions and dialogue between the listening characters so the entire chapter wouldn’t be only the telling of the tale.

I also included plenty of action and emotion in the events of the tale itself, making it exciting. Or as exciting as a secondhand report, told years after the events took place, could be.

Plus, I told myself, tale-telling is what the characters in my story actually did to pass the time. Thus they were acting in character when they sat around a fire to tell stories.

But despite my intentions, the tale-telling still stopped the forward motion of the real story. At the end of the chapter, the characters weren’t any closer to where they’d been headed. One character—and the readers—did have more information about two characters than they’d had before, but I could have accomplished that same result in a more economical way, in a way that also accomplished other story purposes at the same time.

One astute beta reader wondered why I’d dropped such a tale into the middle of my novel.

In other words, she wanted me to get on with the story.

I admit it took me a long time to conclude that yes, I should cut the entire chapter and include the information another way. Even knowing that I’d stopped the forward motion and that at least one beta reader had called me on it—meaning readers would get antsy and bored reading that chapter—I still didn’t want to make a change.

I resisted doing what my head knew was right.

But you don’t understand, I wanted to say. I did all of it on purpose. I wanted to reveal character and touch the reader’s emotions. And I included dialogue and the movements of the characters so that the scene wouldn’t be static. I painted pictures of the world of my tale so readers would be able to see and touch it. I included all this other stuff so that a story-stopping tale wouldn’t feel like a story-stopping tale.

Yet while those other elements did accomplish their jobs, so did the tale. And its job was to stop the main story dead.

May I suggest that you forgo including tales in your fiction? You may not call them tales, but if characters sit around and tell of events from the past, they’re telling tales. And while they’re spinning their yarns, your main story goes nowhere. (You can always include a well-written tale, cut from your text, on your website.)

When I suggest not including tales in your novels, I’m talking about going beyond simple back story here, which can be added in a variety of ways. I’m talking about pausing the main story in order to allow a character to actually tell another story.

Including a tale inside your novel is not the same as writing a book full of tales, but including such stories in your novels and long fiction can create problems. A tale, by its nature, is different from the elements of a novel; a tale isn’t organic to a novel. It will stand out as something other (which, by itself, isn’t always a negative thing). But it will always feel like something other. And it will always stop the forward motion of the story.

If you do a lot of this, putting characters together—literally or figuratively sitting them down to listen to another character tell stories—in order to explain the past or reveal another character’s personality or to simply pass the time, some readers will get bored. Maybe all readers will be bored. I’m not saying that one short instance of tale-telling will be enough to turn off readers and have them flipping ahead, but one time might be enough. Especially if that one time is as long as a scene or chapter. Telling tales multiple times, especially in back-to-back scenes, could be catastrophic. At least in terms of holding the reader’s attention.

Unless you’re creating something akin to The Arabian Nights or The Canterbury Tales, collections of stories much different from most novels of today, you don’t want to gather characters repeatedly and tell them stories. That might work if you were actually sitting around a campfire and entertaining listeners, but readers want more. They deserve more. They deserve the whole expanse of a novel—the setting with its mountains and towns, its culture and politics, its history and religion and laws; the characters with their quirks and movements, their backgrounds and dreams; action in all its power and dynamism taking place in Technicolor right on the page. Readers deserve emotion and conflict and the sense of anticipation. They deserve the richness and depth of a complete adventure with its character arcs and miscommunications and rising and falling action.

Readers deserve more than a moral or the presentation of a lesson at the end of a cute tale—they deserve truth that soaks into their bones and saturates their minds to such a degree that they have trouble escaping the story’s impact, trouble getting away from the what-ifs that plague them after finishing a great novel or even just a great scene.

Readers of novels deserve all the power and strength of novels.


Telling a tale in the middle of your novel could work. Include a tale if you can accomplish all the positives without creating too many negatives. Without creating one big negative that destroys everything you worked so diligently to create. But if a tale stops a story cold, if the inclusion of something other detracts rather than adds, distracts rather than focuses, then consider cutting out that tale.

No matter how many buts you add to your argument—as I did to mine—if the story, chapter, or scene is better off without an intrusive tale, don’t include one.  Maintain the integrity of your novel and leave the telling of tales to other writing endeavors.

(Exceptions, of course, if you’re actually writing a book of tales.)



Tags: , , ,     Posted in: Beginning Writers, Craft & Style

6 Responses to “Writing Novels vs. Telling Tales”

  1. MK says:

    I have written for 30 years, and I am amazed at how often you discuss something I have not considered. Excellent advice. I think it also is wise advice to consider as one looks at pacing and forward movement in a novel. Thank you!

  2. Barb says:

    Absolutely what I needed right now. Here’s a big, big hug.

  3. Meaghan says:

    Hi Beth! Great piece as usual. But I am wondering, what if a character is describing the reason someone else behaved the way they did? In my WIP, my main character had an affair. Her husband finds out and confronts the woman who helped raise his wife, asking her if she knew… etc. As they talk, the woman realizes the husband is nearly clueless about his wife’s emotional state. She sort of opens his eyes to see his wife in a different light, thus giving him a better viewpoint. His character is somewhat detached, a little cold. Would this be an example of the above? She doesn’t just narrate anything. The two converse but she does delve into/describe his wife’s emotional state.

    • Meaghan, there are times when you might have to do some explaining, where you’ll have to tell a bit more than at other times. Yet do so knowing that too much of people sitting around and talking can have readers skipping ahead. Keep the telling brief. Make it interesting. And don’t forget about what’s happening while the characters talk: do they move around? are there outside sounds and other intrusions? does the character who is listening have appropriate reactions? does the telling create or increase conflict?

      And follow a scene of little movement and straight telling with something very different.