If you sat down by a fireside with a good friend on a winter’s evening to tell that friend a story that you felt was deeply important, what would you have to have clear in your mind?
Certainly, if you wanted to hold your friend’s attention, you wouldn’t be introducing anything superfluous to the story you wanted to tell. Even if you used colourful language or related something that was apparently not significant at first, the listener would soon be made aware that the language and the diversion were in fact highly relevant.
In talking with your friend, you would never lose sight of the point of the story. However witty or clever you wanted to be with dialogue, however you ‘put the voices on’ of various characters, however you hushed or raised your own voice, everything you were saying would be to do with keeping your friend focused on the main matter at hand.
What each character said would be important, because it would be the listener’s way of understanding that character and its role in the overall story. Rather than using adverbs, you would show your friend the significance and attitude of the people involved in the tale, by acting things out a little or through intonation or a subtle nod.
In fact, as your story progressed, you would be performing an illusion, a magical disappearing trick: you as the speaker would be fading from view and your friend would be seeing and hearing only the story. You wouldn’t have to over-describe anything; the listener would be painting in the backgrounds with his or her imagination, for the most part, after one or two well-placed brushstrokes from you.
Telling a story, after all, isn’t about you, no matter how passionate you are about telling it. The more you can convey through the viewpoints and dialogues of the characters, the less you will appear, the less your shadow will fall across it all, and the less obtrusive the entire act of story-telling will become. Ideally, your friend, while remaining entranced by your every word, will feel that he or she is dreaming the story that is coming out of your mouth, and not hearing it from you at all.
The main viewpoint through which you vanish is the protagonist. This central character takes over from you and should do so fairly swiftly. He or she is the one who tells your friend what is happening, picks out important details, indicates where attention needs to go.
Sitting by the fireplace, quietly speaking to your friend, you would never lose sight of the always-looming finale. At the end, as your voice falls silent, almost everything that you have said will be seen to have been pointing directly at that finale. Your friend will gasp; a thousand pieces will fall into place. They will slowly emerge from the conversation to hear the wood crackling in the hearth again. After a truly great story, even that sound will seem somehow different, as though the tale they have just listened to has changed their perception of the world outside itself.
Do all this properly, and it will have.