Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Art of Storytelling

I first fancied myself a teller of stories when I worked on Boy Scout camp staff during my teen years. It seems that stories get told whenever people sit around a campfire at night. This common ritual predates recorded history and spans every culture.

But storytelling exceeds hearth and campfire settings. Indeed, it permeates our lives. We tell each other stories during breaks at work and around the dinner table. Some of the most popular songs encapsulate stories. The entire motion picture industry exists to tell stories. We tend to remember information better if it is attached to some kind of story.

It is true that we tell stories to connect, inform, entertain, educate, and convey moral values. But perhaps the main reason we tell stories is to transmit culture. This is particularly true of intergenerational storytelling.

Storytelling seems to be an innate part of us. We all tell stories. We all appreciate a good story. But sometimes we have difficulty telling good stories ourselves. What elements make for a good story?

Telling Good Stories
Delose Conner, who was my camp director when I worked at Camp Loll years ago wrote and self published two books about storytelling, the first in 1980 and the second in 1992. Eventually, he published both books bound into a single 136-page paperback titled Folk and Campfire Stories. He privately sells the book for $10. If you are interested, please email me and I will happily provide contact information.

Delose’s book includes 27 stories that range from comical to scary to inspirational. Some are tailored hand-me-downs, while others relate personal experiences. The stories are a treasure by themselves. But another great trove is comprised in the storytelling tips Delose provides. Only a few of these tips are contained in the book’s initial concise instructions. Many of the best tips are scattered throughout the book in copious footnotes.

I have learned a thing or two throughout my own years of storytelling. In my mind, there are two major things that make for a good story. Most other factors can, I think, be classed under these two headings:

  • Own the story.
  • Practice to perform.
Make the Story Your Own
A good story comes from inside the storyteller. That happens naturally with personal experience. But it is also fine to take someone else’s story and make it your own.

I need to qualify that last statement a bit. You need to know your setting and audience. There are settings (rarely around a campfire) where failing to give credit to a story’s source could be construed as plagiarism.

It’s usually fine to embellish, tweak, or filter story elements when you’re entertaining or when you make clear that you are merely using a partially or wholly fictitious story as a teaching tool. But you must never stretch or diminish accuracy when credibility is important. Otherwise, your personal trustworthiness could be permanently compromised. True and credible stories can be entertaining and/or educational. But not all entertaining/educational stories are true and credible.

To make a story your own, you need to internalize it. That doesn’t mean that it has to be in first person, although, that is an attention grabbing approach. Think through the details and be ready to drop these elements into the story as necessary. It is more important that you have the details internalized than that you actually voice them.

Think about the different characters. What is each feeling at any given moment? What does each notice in the scenes where they appear? What are their various perspectives? What kind of movements do they make? How does Charlie’s face feel when his friend embarrasses him? What is Charlie doing with his fingers at that moment? What is the hair on the back of the dog’s neck doing when it senses the snake?

Think about the objects in the story. What do they look like? What are they doing? How do the dappled shadows on the north side of the old shack look in the light of the last quarter moon? Is the glass in the shack’s windows thick and rippled? How does the smoke curling up from the fire inside the old chief’s tipi move? What is hanging from the chief’s lodge pole? How do the horse’s leather reins feel in your hand when you loop them around the saddle horn? What does it feel like inside your shoe when your foot sinks into the mud?

Little details like this add spice to a story and give it an air of reality. Even if you don’t voice all of these details, knowing them implies a sense of authenticity that helps draw your audience into the story. In effect, they become part of the story. They become invested in it.

A very important part of the art of storytelling is knowing just how much detail to give to an audience. Nothing makes a story better for a listener than filling in bits and pieces from their own imagination because your listeners’ imaginations are better than your words. Listeners themselves make the story funnier, scarier, or more inspirational, as the case may be.

Too much detail robs the listener of this experience. Too little detail prevents them from having enough to germinate the process. Getting it right takes practice and skill development. It may need to be tailored to the audience.

Delose says to picture an old master storyteller in your mind. What does he do that makes his stories so good? Focus on those points, and then become the old storyteller yourself by employing those factors in your stories.

Practice and Perform
Storytelling is performance art. A storyteller “performs” a story every bit as much as a singer performs a song. A good singing performance is usually preceded by a lot of preparation and practice. A singer will drill on general technique and will practice a song over and over again before performing it. Good storytelling requires the same level of preparation.

This will come across as strange to some because many swear that the stories I tell seem to come so naturally. I prepare to tell stories by “performing” them for myself in my office and in the bathroom in front of the mirror. When I am ready, I perform for a small audience, usually family members. Not only do I solicit critique, I find out during this telling how people respond to different points. I find things to tweak.

Stories as performance art are more than just words. How you say the words is important. When a character says something in an exasperated tone, you need to say it in an exasperated tone. When tenderness or harshness is expressed, the audience needs to hear it in your voice. If a character has an accent, mimic that accent. It also takes practice to deliver a subtle punch line with just the right inflection.

Facial expressions, hand motions, and other body language actions are a vital part of each story. Act out the motions of the man with his pants down around his ankles trying to run away from what he thinks is a ghost in the outhouse. When Jane slaps Tony, you can act out both the part of both the slapper and the slappee. When the tough guy realizes that what he’s got in his mouth isn’t berry pie, you demonstrate his facial expression. When the miner brushes away the rock chips to see if he has found gold, you act that out.

Another part of preparation is story organization. If you’re picking up a story created by someone else, this is likely already done for you. But even in these cases, you can choose how you will develop the story, which elements to emphasize, and which elements to soft peddle.

When creating your own stories, consider what you are trying to achieve. Are you going for a punch line that will draw laughs, a climax that will elicit screams, an eerie ending that leaves the audience anxious, a specific educational point, internalization of a moral value, or a soaring inspirational sense? Are the elements of your story laid out in such as way to achieve that goal and to get the most bang for your buck?

Don’t forget to plant seeds along the way to the conclusion of your story. If the punch line of a story revolves around a man eating his hat for losing a wager, drop little hints along the way. For example, you might give hints from different angles about how valuable the man’s hat is. Or maybe the thing is filthy and soaked with years of perspiration.

Setting is something over which you don’t always have control, but you should try to get the best setting possible for your storytelling performance. An evening around a campfire is often ideal, but even then there can be distractions that you have difficulty controlling. Just do what you can. And remember that a well told story can often overcome an imperfect setting.

Storytelling can be a lot of fun. But it can also be a serious matter in the right context. Even in these circumstances, practice helps to get your message across more effectively. This is so even for tales that are completely true. Good story organization is important, but the presentation of a story is at least as important as the plot.

Good storytellers rarely just happen. They develop their stories and hone their presentation skills. Chances are that you will have the opportunity to tell a story fairly soon. Maybe it will be around a campfire this summer. If you want to make the best of it, start working on your storytelling right now. You will enjoy the experience a lot more that way, and so will your audience.

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