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Tellng-Storis-art - 6/14/13


"Telling Stories in the SCA" by Mistress Dervila ni Leanon, O.L.


NOTE: See also the files: bardic-msg, Bardic-Guide-art, Bardic-Swap-art, Entrtng-n-SCA-art, Five-Miracles-art, Hornbook-art, Story-Toolbox-art, storytelling-art.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



Telling Stories in the SCA

by Mistress Dervila ni Leanon, O.L.


Last update 2007




People come up to me all the time and ask for my help with storytelling. The question they always ask is "Dervila, where do you get your stories?" - and I've never been able to give them a good answer. And so this article was born. It started out as an attempt to tell people where I get my stories, but quickly developed a mind of its own and finally covered the whole process from start to finish. The purpose of this new, improved article is to take people who want to tell but don't know where to begin and get them standing in front of people and telling. I've also included stuff for the more experienced tellers, but I've tried to keep the emphasis on the beginner.


The structure of this article is based on the steps I go through myself in storytelling:


o    Finding your story

o    Working up your story

o    Rehearsing your story

o    Performing your story

o    Getting feedback


While I've based this on years of experience telling stories and research into how the process works, it's nowhere near the last word. If there's something in here that doesn't work for you, don't use it. The only thing that applies to all storytellers is Dervila's First (and Only) Rule of Storytelling:


If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right.


Finding Your Story


You can find stories anywhere - books, songs, friends, other tellers, history, poetry, real-life events. (Books are the most common, so I've put an annotated bibliography in another file in Stefan's Florilegium) Expose yourself to as many stories as you can until you find one you like - one you really like, one that you can't wait to tell. Preparing a story takes work; life is too short to put all that work into a story you don't like and won't enjoy telling.


If you have trouble finding stories you like, ask yourself these questions:


o    What do you like to hear, and why do you like it? What characteristics appeal to you? Funny versus tragic, real life versus folktale versus myth, quiet versus boisterous, flowery speech versus plain speech versus alliteration and rhyme, - what do you like? Once you figure out what characteristics you like, look for a story with those characteristics or upon which you can impose those characteristics


o    Why do you want to tell? Look for stories that fit your answer.


If this is your first SCA story, keep these things in mind while you're looking:


o    First, do no harm. While you don't have to be able to document your stories, your stories should at least do no harm to the medieval atmosphere of an event.


o    Less is more. Short simple stories are easier than long complex stories. Avoid stories with sub-plots, stories that require a lot of explanation, or stories that are more than five pages long.


o    People like to laugh. If comedy has any appeal to you, try a funny story.


o    Ask permission before telling another's story. If you got your story from another storyteller, get their permission before you tell it. If they say no, and it's an original story, don't tell the story. If they say no, and it's a traditional tale, just work up your own version. No one owns folktales or myths.


o    Ask permission before telling a story about someone. If the characters in your story are recognizable as individuals in the Society, ask their permission before you tell it. You might find it funny to tell how Duke Sir Bigshot only takes blows that crease his helm, or how Lady ButterFingers dumped hot soup all over the visiting royalty, but the people involved might find your story embarrassing or even insulting.  


In short - find a story you like that you think you will enjoy telling - and if this is your first try, shorter is better


Working up your story


There are two ways of remembering stories: pictures and words. Some people (like me) memorize stories completely as a series of images. Telling the story is then just a matter of "rolling the film" and describing what happens. Other people memorize stories word for word. Telling the story is then just a matter of "starting the tape" and letting the words pour forth. Most people use both techniques to some extent. Your method of working up a story will depend to some extent on how your memory works best. Remember, there is no wrong way - if it works for you, do it.


I work up stories in successive drafts. The first draft is the rough draft where I answer only the most general questions: Why am I telling this story? What is the general plot? What style will I use? Once I get everything roughed in, I start refining, cutting, re-working, polishing - and telling it.


For beginning tellers


o    Write down an outline. If you memorize visually, try dividing the story into scenes, as if it were a play. Or you can even try drawing pictures.


o    Read several versions of the story. Keep what you like, discard what you don't like. There are several folklore indices such as Margaret Read McDonald's Storyteller's Sourcebook that can help you find different versions of a story. Ask your librarian for others.


o    Forget the unimportant stuff. Read the story a few times, walk away from it for a few days, then write down whatever you remember about the story. Whatever you can remember is probably worth keeping. Flesh the story out from there. This works particularly well with over-long stories.


o    Write down the bare bones. Try writing down what it would take to tell someone about the story. If you take that, read it, and time it, you also have a minimum performance time for your story. If the bare bones is longer than two or three minutes, you may want to consider another story.


o    Keep your hand moving. Start writing about the story. Write anything that comes to mind, just keep your hand moving. It doesn't have to make sense, it doesn't have to be in order, it doesn't have to be any good, it doesn't even have to always be about the story - just keep your hand moving. You can cut stuff out in later drafts - the idea here is to get the "censor" part of your brain to shut up and go to sleep. Once that happens, you'll be amazed at what comes out.


For more advanced tellers:


o    Modify traditional tales. Modifying, combining, or even re-writing folktales and myths is fun, and figuring out how to change a tale that is the product of hundreds of tellings without 'breaking' it will teach you a lot about how and why stories work. Just remember - it's not as easy as it looks!


o    Research your story. If you're working on a folktale, myth, or legend, look into the culture that produced it. If you're working on a realistic story, look into the time and place in which the story is set. You'll discover the most amazing things, and both your understanding and your telling of the story will be richer for it. This is also a good way to add depth and texture to a story that just seems too 'flat'.


For later drafts of a story


o    Be brief. Your first story, and most stories, should be between five and ten minutes long. When you start editing, ask not "Why should I throw this out?" but rather "Why should I keep this in?"


o    Be specific. Sycamore, not tree. A Viking berserker, not a warrior. Just after dawn, not morning. Harrumphed, not said.


o    Talk the story out. What reads well doesn't tell well, and what tells well doesn't read well. If you're like most people, you write for a reader, not a listener. As you write a story down, run the words through your mouth so you can hear what you're writing. To work out a section that sounds bad, stop writing and talk it out until you get it right - then write it down. More advanced tellers can try working out a story on tape, but be warned - it takes a while to get used to how you sound on tape.


o    Wing it. Work on it until you have the minimum you need to tell, then get up in front of a group of your friends, tell it, and see what happens. You will have no doubt as to what works, what doesn't, and which areas need the most attention. My definition of "the minimum I need to tell" is to have the first lines, last lines, and outline of the story memorized (see below) and the point of the story. I've also noticed that this only works once per story for me - the first time I do it, I'm terrified enough to become very inventive; after that I think I know what I'm doing and the story goes flat.


In short - figure out the first line, last line, outline, and point of the story.


Rehearsing Your Story


Whether it's in front of people, a camera, a tape recorder, or a stuffed animal, rehearse the story. Be sure you've told it all the way through without stopping at least once before you take it out in public.


For beginning tellers


o    Rework the spots you get stuck on. Rewrite the words, flesh out your images, whatever works for you.


o    If you mess up, improvise. The audience will never know you made a mistake unless you tell them. If you've forgotten something unimportant, skip it. If you've forgotten something important, stick it in where you are.


o    Memorize your first lines, your last lines, your outline, and the point of your story. Knowing the first lines cold will get you over that "deer-in-the-headlights" feeling that hits when you first stand up. Knowing the last lines cold will give you a target so you don't wander off into the ozone. Knowing your outline cold will get you from beginning to end without too much floundering. Knowing the point of the story (for me it's always "What emotion am I trying to get my audience to experience?") will get you through humps and bring forth those occasional flashes of brilliance that are so wonderful to experience.


o    If you memorize your stories, try starting at the end. This way you know the end best, and you're moving towards familiar territory as you tell, not away.


o    Use your normal speaking style. If you normally speak with your hands, tell with your hands. If you normally speak with no body language, tell with no body language. Use your normal accent, and your normal manner of speech. You can change your style, and take on accents and different speech patterns, but it's a lot of work. Save it for later.


o    Be intelligible. Speak slowly, project, and enunciate. Be warned - most people speak quickly and sloppily when nervous. If you use body language, make sure it matches your words. Don't be like George Bush who said "The deficit is growing larger and larger" while bringing his hands together.


o    Work on one thing at a time. There's a lot going on when you tell a story - words, vocal inflection, remembering what happens next, enunciation, timing, rhythm, gesture, facial expression, and so on, and so on. You can't work on all of that at once - pick one thing and work on it. Once you've got that to the point where it no longer takes all of your attention, move on to something else.


o    Time your story. With a clock. If you've never done this sort of thing before, you'll be amazed at how long it really is. Doing this will help you tell it through without stopping, and it will let you know just how much time you're taking. If it's too long, cut it. Don't try talking faster, that just makes you hard to understand.


For more advanced tellers


o    Use silence. Don't feel like you have to fill every second with speech. Stories, like music, are made up of silence as well as sound, and a well placed silence can do more than reams of words.


o    Populate your stage. If you use any body language at all, keep track of where you put things and characters. If you put a glass down on your right, pick it back up from your right. Polishing a story can actually include blocking, where you record the movements of all the important characters and objects on your stage for each scene. Doing this makes it easier for the audience to build a consistent mental picture of your story.


o    Use stage memory. Basically, every event leaves an emotional "charge" in the area of the stage where it took place. The stronger the event, the stronger the charge. For instance, if the love scene takes place in the same area of the stage where someone was murdered, the love scene is more sinister than if it took place in another, less negatively charged, area of the stage. This is very subtle, and requires enough space for you to clearly define areas of your stage, but it can be fun to play with.


Whatever methods you use to get your story ready to tell, make a record of your final product! There's nothing more frustrating than going through all the effort of working up a story only to lose it in a few weeks because you don't have any records. (Trust me, I know.) Try to make your records as complete as possible - not just the words you use, but also how you use your voice, your face, and your body. Some people find it easier to record themselves on tape, but I just write down the words with notes on blocking, vocal inflection, timing, character mood, etc.


In short - go through it once before you take it in front of your audience. Make some sort of record of what you end up with so you don't forget it.


Performing Your Story


At last! You're ready to go! I always find that performing is the easy part, the fun part. Here are some thoughts on performing:


For beginning tellers


o    Stage fright? Just tell yourself this - "I am not afraid - I am excited!" Use the fear as a source of energy, don't let it freeze you. Believe me, these people want to be entertained, and you're just the person to do it!


o    Consider your audience. Don't tell bawdy stories in front of moderns and children. Don't tell thoughtful tragic stories in front of rowdy drunken fighters.


o    Consider your setting. Don't tell to the entire feast hall - people want to talk to their friends; there's no way you can make yourself heard over the din. Tell at places where people want to hear stories. Tell to people who are bored, such as those waiting in the looooong line to check in at Pennsic.


o    Don't tell the audience how bad you'll be. They just might believe you! Give yourself and your story a chance.


o    Be clear about when the story starts and when the story ends. Bowing is a good way to end. A pause to gather eyes is a good way to begin.


o    Be intelligible. Project and enunciate. Keep your head up. Speak slowly.


o    Open your eyes. When you close your eyes (or even look down at the floor) you "disappear" and your audience will be more easily distracted. If you can't make eye contact, look out just over people's heads.


o    Don't apologize for your performance. Someone may have enjoyed your story; apologizing insults their taste.


o    Don't explain the story, tell the story. The story should explain itself. If you use strange words, define them the first time you use them, and move on. If you use strange concepts, explain it by the context of the story or with a short phrase. If a story doesn't stand on its own without introductory explanations, then it probably needs more work.


o    Give credit where credit is due. If you got the story from another teller, whether through a book or a performance, say so. Doing this reflects well on both you and the other teller.


For more advanced tellers:


o    An introduction can change the mood. Sometimes if you tell an audience what to expect, they'll follow along. I use this mostly to go from a rowdy mood to a quiet one; it's not necessary when going in the other direction.


o    Make eye contact. This is amazingly difficult, but it creates a powerful connection between you and the audience. Try to bounce around from person to person instead of using the "corn-cob" approach. Maintain eye contact with any given person for at least three seconds so you actually connect.


o    Consider your setting - acoustics, lighting, and nearby activities. Try to tell in quiet, calm, places, where people can see your face. If your style relies on facial expressions and gestures, avoid being backlit.


o    Avoid meaningless gestures. This means no fidgeting! Everything you do while telling a story should be done on purpose.


o    Avoid expectations. Just because you don't get the reaction you expect, or you don't get a reaction at all, doesn't mean your audience isn't paying attention to and enjoying your story. Different people get different things out of a story at different times. Set your stories out like a banquet, and let your audience take what they want


Dealing with hecklers and other distractions


o    Ignore it. Sometimes if you stay focused on the story, the audience does too. If you allow yourself to be distracted, the audience will definitely be distracted as well.


o    Work it in. This takes improvisational skill, and seems easiest to do with comedy (perhaps because comedy derives in part from absurd juxtapositions)


o    Don't antagonize your audience. Don't interrupt your story to harangue people and call them names. The story is much more enjoyable than any insults you could hurl.


o    Just stop. Maybe you were wrong and they don't want to hear your stories. Don't get mad, just calmly indicate that you're done. And if there are people who want to hear your stories, they're now mad at the hecklers for depriving them. My mother (who teaches first grade) calls this "applying peer pressure".


In short - have your first line, last line, outline, and the point of the story memorized. Keep your head up and your words clear. Never apologize, never explain. Tell where people have gathered to hear stories.


Getting feedback


The best way to get better is to get good feedback.


For beginning tellers


o    Ask your friends. If your friends don't perform, prime them with specific questions beforehand, like "Is there anything you really like? Can you hear me? Am I talking too fast? Can you tell which character is which? Do I keep my head up? Do I have any distracting nervous twitches? Did you notice when I got lost?"


o    Ask other storytellers. Try to get both types of feedback, what to keep and what to change. It's all too easy to focus on what's wrong. we also need to acknowledge what's right. Whenever you give feedback, always say what you liked before mentioning what you would change. Remember, people's fragile egos are involved here - no fighting, no biting.


For more advanced tellers


o    Tape yourself. This is not for the faint of heart - people are always dismayed at how they sound on tape. But once you get over the shock, you can get a lot out of listening to yourself tell a story. After all, you're the only one who really knows what you're trying to do, so only you can see what's working and what isn't. Another plus: you can do this while driving. If your style involves a lot of body language, you can even videotape yourself.


In short - find a way to improve. Just plain rehearse, record yourself, ask for feedback, whatever.




I hope this article helps you all become wonderful splendid storytellers. Please feel free to contact me with questions, advice, feedback, comments, or anything to do with this article in particular or storytelling in general. You can get hold of me at:

                              Physical mail:   Amerie Helton

                                                            P.O. Box 272

                                                            Canton, NC 28716

                              Email:                  dervila at pobox.com


In short - find a story you like that you think you will enjoy telling - and if this is your first try, shorter is better


Figure out your first line, last line, outline, and the point of the story


Go through it once before you take it in front of your audience.


Make some sort of record of what you end up with so you don't forget it.


Have your first line, last line, outline, and the point of your story memorized.


Keep your head up and your words clear.


Never apologize, never explain.


Tell where people have gathered to hear stories


Find a way to improve.


Just plain rehearse, record yourself, ask for feedback, whatever


And always remember Dervila's Only Rule of Storytelling:

If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right


"Snip, snout, My tale's told out"



Copyright 2002-2007 by Amerie Helton, P.O. Box 272, Canton, NC 28716. <dervila at pobox.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, please place a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>


Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org