The art of storytelling

Storytelling is one of our oldest arts. If you want to become a great storyteller, there are several techniques you must become familiar with.

Storytelling is our oldest art form.It probably developed when hunters came back from the hunt; in fact, language may have developed from a need to tell stories.Stories have always been threefold in purpose: to tell a tale; to teach lessons; and to transmit wisdom.

Oral storytelling developed long before written language.One might imagine the grandmothers and grandfathers of a tribe sitting around the campfire each evening telling tales from their childhoods.These stories grew over time, eventually developing into the myths and legends we're all familiar with.Not until writing arose in ancient Egypt andBabylon were the stories were written down, preserved even though the storyteller might perish.Oral stories are not single dimensional; there is an element of change to them, as they are fresh and new with each retelling, each storyteller, and each audience.

When stories were written, they lost much of their magic.Instead of changing and developing, written stories are snapshots, more like slices of what the story was at one telling rather than an accurate recording of the whole story.This is why even today there are marvelous storytellers still spinning their magic webs.

Telling a Story

If you want to be a storyteller, the first thing you need to do is listen to those who tell great stories.An excellent place to start is with standup comedy; it's an easily accessible form of storytelling and demonstrates all the basic elements in a story.Our comic raconteurs are among the masters storytellers of today.If you can tell a funny story so that it's even funnier, you probably have a gift for storytelling.

Watch comics as they tell their stories.They don't simply tell a story with words; their faces, their tone of voice, their timing, and even their bodies are the tools with which they deliver their stories and make us laugh.Each comic has a different style; the true masters don't dress flamboyantly or move around; rather, they let the story be larger than they are.Instead of trying to be funny people, they allow the story to take center stage.The comic is there to deliver the story in a funny way, rather than to be a funny person.

Comics understand the elements of good storytelling.You must start with a good story.It doesn't have to be your own, but it should do two things: it should tell a tale that no one has heard before or an old one with a new twist; and it should have a message behind it - not necessarily a lesson, but it should say something beyond just the story.If you pay close attention, most stories told in comedy satisfy these requirements as well as being funny.

Second, and more importantly, you must develop an excellent sense of timing - hold the audience in suspense until exactly the right moment to drop the punch line.This is why it's so difficult to be a comic; it's almost impossible to learn timing.You have to have a gift for it.The good news is that most people do have that gift.They just have to learn how to access it.

The third thing you need to do to tell a story well is to vary your tone of voice in a way that emphasizes your timing as well as the best parts of the story.You've heard of reading with inflection - this is the same thing. It's not at all like normal speaking, though you've probably been told at some point it is; rather, it's an exaggerated form of speech, one in which you put emphasis strongly on elements that support your story, and de-emphasize other elements.

Finally, you must understand how to use your body the same way you use your words.Keep your body movements close to the center, and move in short bursts, to build tension, and use sudden, sharp, or sweeping movements when you reach a climax.

Putting a Story Together

When you are comfortable with the idea of telling stories, you are ready to put together your own stories.In oral storytelling, character is nowhere near as important as plot.This is because the function of character in a story it is to give readers someone to identify with.In oral storytelling, the audience identifies with the storyteller.This means you're free to not worry about character.

You do have to worry about plot.Every story can be divided into three distinct parts: the beginning, the middle building to climax, and the sudden drop of action to the end.At the beginning of a story, you must set the scene.A compelling question has to be present to grab the audience's attention, and that question must be answered by the end of the story. The first compelling question can be replaced by another, if the story requires it; there should be one unanswered question at each point in the story, and all questions must be answered by the end.And you have to let the audience know by your tone of voice and by your physical movements whether you're telling a ghost story, a funny story, or a touching dramatic tale.Now, all of these may have elements of the others.But it must be clear which one you're using as a basis.

By the middle of the story, you have set the scene; now it's time to build tension.Throughout the middle of the story, with repetition or other dramatic devices, you must make the answer to the initial question more and more important.By the end of the middle, your audience should be on the edges of their seats.

As soon as you reach the climax, the dramatic turning point of your story, the end begins.A good end is quite short, answers the initial question in the last line, and delivers any messages your story may have held.

Let's take the story of Little Red Riding Hood as an example.LRRH is not a deeply drawn character.In the beginning, it's clear that her story goal is to deliver a basket of goodies to her grandmother's.The question inherent in the beginning of the story is: will she be able to deliver the basket of goodies?In the middle of the story, LRRH is approached by a wolf; encounters with dangerous creatures always build tension.The wolf finds out where she's going, and races to beat her there. The question has changed to, will the wolf eat LRRH?He either eats or hides grandma, and is waiting disguised when LRRH arrives .The point at which she figures out that grandma is really the wolf in disguise is the climactic point.

At the end of this story, depending on which version you follow, LRRH is either eaten or manages to kill the wolf, releasing her grandmother.This is a very short action taking up maybe three or four sentences; it also answers the active question posed by the story.

Becoming a Storyteller

If you want to be a storyteller, be aware first that the most lucrative storytelling career is that of a stand-up comic - and fewer than 1% of stand-up comics make enough money to support themselves. Storytelling is more a passion than a career path, except for a few very fortunate people.

Most storytellers keep a core group of about fifteen stories they regularly tell, switching them out at the rate of one or two per month. Storytellers practice storytelling, rehearsing in whatever way works for them: in front of the mirror, in a dark room, telling stories for small groups like children or seniors, or whatever else works. Stories are best when they come from your own background or childhood; you learn what stories work best by listening to other storytellers. If you don't have any stories from your own background, you can find good ones by haunting the folklore section of the library.

Don't tell stories that are still under copyright; stealing stories from other storytellers or books is copyright infringement. The best rules to follow when using stories that come from other sources is not to use well-known stories except when telling fairy tales to children; to only tell stories from sources more than 75 years old; and look for stories that you really like. Your own enthusiasm and interest will come through in your telling of the story.

Never, no matter what, point out the moral of your story. If it doesn't come out in the story anyway, the story doesn't work.

Attend storytelling festivals regularly, and seek out other storytellers who can give you feedback and guidance. Your great personality is your biggest asset, both for entertaining your audience from the stage and for networking and working your way into the rather small world of the storyteller.

Learn to use your body movements to support your story. Practice them in tandem with your story; don't expect them to come out naturally, but rather rehearse your movements until they become natural. Look directly at your audience during your storytelling; vary the person you're looking at frequently.

Remember that storytelling is largely ritual; in fact, its history is entangled in mysticism and religion. There's something magical about a story. For this reason, you should consider the venue of your story as seriously as everything else about it. You want a quiet, relaxed setting, somewhere everyone can be comfortable, and somewhere that feels right. A kitchen, for instance, is wrong; outside around a campfire, or in the living room with the lights out during a thunderstorm, are right. And fire always makes the mood, whether it's a campfire, a fireplace, or just candles.

Just like in written stories, keep your audience in mind. Children are going to want a different story from adults; and watching your audience's reactions will tell you precisely how well you're doing. By paying attention to your audience's communication to you, you'll learn to improve your storytelling. For beginning storytellers, look for short stories with repetitive phrases. One of my best beginning stories was The Three Little Pigs; it was easy to remember, and had lots of room for dramatic interpretation and the repetition of elements like the huffing and puffing.

Characteristics of a good story:

- A clearly defined theme, and only one theme.

- A well developed, clear, and simple plot; avoid stories with subplots. Linear stories like fairy tales will work the best.

- Lots of descriptive words, vivid word pictures, pleasing sounds and rhythm; you can incorporate these things yourself into stories that don't have them, but it's easier if you find stories that already do.

- Characterization - even if you don't have a well-defined character, your main character should be someone who will appeal to your audience, someone they can identify with.

- Dramatic appeal - stories with lots of drama are going to work better than flat stories.

- Appropriateness to listeners - don't tell a children's story to an adult audience, and vice versa.

- Short length - for most venues, stories shouldn't be longer than 20 minutes, and if they are that long, they should have enough fire and brilliance to spellbind your audience for that length of time.

When you tell stories, or when you listen to stories being told, you're participating in one of the oldest forms of entertainment, and one of the oldest forms of ritual, known to man. Approach it with the respect it deserves. Don't assume that you're going to ace it; work for it, and respect the story and the audience. With practice, you can become a great storyteller.

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