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storytelling-art - 6/13/94


Storytelling techniques by Yaakov.


NOTE: See also the files: storytelling2-art, poems-msg, p-stories-msg, bardic-msg, Hornbook-art, Bardic-Guide-art, story-sources-msg.





This file is a collection of various messages having a common theme that I have collected from my reading of the various computer networks. Some messages date back to 1989, some may be as recent as yesterday.


This file is part of a collection of files called Stefan's Florilegium. These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


I have done a limited amount of editing. Messages having to do with separate topics were sometimes split into different files and sometimes extraneous information was removed. For instance, the message IDs were removed to save space and remove clutter.


The comments made in these messages are not necessarily my viewpoints. I make no claims as to the accuracy of the information given by the individual authors.


Please respect the time and efforts of those who have written these messages. The copyright status of these messages is unclear at this time. If information is published from these messages, please give credit to the originator(s).


Thank you,

    Mark S. Harris                  AKA:  THLord Stefan li Rous

                                          Stefan at florilegium.org



From: HAROLD.FELD at hq.doe.GOV

Newsgroups: rec.org.sca

Subject: On Storytelling.....(long)

Date: 2 May 1994 14:58:09 -0400


          Unto all who read these words, greetings from Yaakov.


          I have, betimes, spoken with the Chancellor of the Atlantian

          University, the good Lord Henry Best.  I have said that

          storytelling, like harping or calligraphy, is a skill that

          may be taught.  He therefore did make me an offer, including

          all the strictures that my religion does impose, to teach

          the art at the upcoming Atlantian University. Alas, an

          unbreakable conflict prevents me from accepting his fine



          Yet, as I mused upon this turn of fate, it seemed to me that

          I might set my thoughts down, writing what I might have said

          (and might yet say, if chance presents itself). So,

          therefore, do I offer to the readers of these words my own

          thoughts upon the art and practice of storytelling.


          Those who have heard my tales know my worth.  To those who

          have not, what assurances could I give?  Awards are vain and

          foolish.  If you will not be satisfied, I shall say that I

          have won some few prizes, and have received from some

          gracious lords tokens of their regard.  Yet no king has

          called me before court to award me a scroll for my tales.


          Do not think that I should presume to set down the one true

          way of the storyteller.  If such a thing could exist, I am

          not the one to draft it.  Better tellers of tales there are,

          and of greater fame.  Yet I shall put forth here all those

          secrets, tricks, and words of advice that I have found

          served me well.  IF you find, upon trying them, that they

          serve you not, abandon them with speed!   For surely there

          are as many means of telling tales as there are tellers, and

          other yet undreamed by any who have gone before.


          Nevertheless, these are the tricks, devices, and advice that

          I have found useful.  I give it to the world, and let the

          winds carry it where it may.  All I ask is that, if the

          matter be told over, that I be given due credit (or blame),

          for a storyteller must earn his bread by his words and his




          Despite what many have said, the art of storytelling, like

          any art, can be taught.  True, there be some (and they are a

          curse to the rest of us!) who posses a natural in-born gift,

          and no sooner do they learn to speak then they can fascinate

          all who come within range of their voice.  So too are there

          those who, no matter how long they labor at the art, cannot

          seem to acquire even the least skill, and do torture all who

          come within their reach with long, drawn out stories poorly



          From this, some have come to think that storytelling is all

          talent, that one is either born with the gift or doomed to

          keep silent.  Yet in this is storytelling different from

          any other art?  No sooner do some take up the pen then they

          can calligraphy, yet others may not create a passable work

          despite years of labor.  For the most part, as it is in

          storytelling, one can develop the knack in time. There is

          some measure of talent, it is true, but above all is the

          willingness to practice at the art until it is perfected.


          As part of this, one must also be willing to look ridiculous

          at first.  How many novices at calligraphy produce a

          passable letter, let alone a scroll?  Yet, if they labor

          dilligently, they come to the point where they may hope to

          see their work displayed in court to the awe of the crown.


          This, therefore, brings us to our first lesson: *practice*.

           In no other art do people seem to think that they may leap

          into the fray with no more preparation than the briefest

          familiarity with their subject.  Does the novice fighter,

          clad in his first armor, drilled but briefly in sword and

          shield, rank himself with the highest peer and enter the

          crown lists?  Yet, time and again, we do see one who has but

          heard a tale once or twice, never even having told it

          before, putting forth his first efforts for all the populace

          to judge.


          When you find a story you wish to tell, first learn it to

          such an extent that you know all of the details. Recall

          that when you stand before your audience, there will be no

          prompts for you.  Nor will you read from a text. You must

          *know* what comes next.  Do not count on intuition, or

          passing familiarity with the plot, to save you.


          (Later we shall discuss by what measures the storyteller may

          recover in the event of a mistake, but the first rule is

          plain: make sure such mistakes do not happen.)


          Second, practice the actual telling of the story, so that

          you have a feel for its rythms.  A storyteller should feel

          no shame in telling a story to oneself.  Indeed, if you

          cannot keep yourself interested, it will be difficult indeed

          to intrigue another!  Further, it may be advisable to time

          oneself, so that you may know how long your story will run.

           Time, as the philosophers have said, is fluid. I have, of

          my own experience, been so wrapped up in a tale I told that

          I did not know how long it ran.  That the audience endured

          such a tale is a tribute to the generosity of the peoples of

          the knowne world, but it is not good to rely on such

          generosity too often.


          By this I do not mean that long stories should never be

          told.  Rather, that one should only tell them deliberately,

          and fully cognizant of what one must now ask of the

          audience.  Further, it would be well for the novice to avoid

          lengthy tales, until such time as one is sure of one's




          Techniques of Telling


               --The Body


          There are those whose voices are so musical that they

          captivate the heart.  Mine is not such a one. There are

          those with voices and personalities so compelling they

          demand our attention.  Again, mine is not such a one.

          Furthermore, I am a most lazy and indolent fellow, so I have

          developed all manner of cheats and tricks to assist me where

          nature has so ingraciously failed to provide.


          First, when telling a story, I stand.  This serves two

          purposes.  First, it allows me to pull air more easily into

          my lungs and to use my voice with greater precision (we shal

          return to the matter of the voice later). Second, it draws

          attention to me.  This is especially true when the rest of

          the company remains seated.  Storytelling is not for the

          shy.  If you desire to tell a story, something within you is

          deaply desirous of having all the attention of the company

          fixed upon you.  Having given into this urge, you must have

          no second thoughts.  You must indulge it to the utmost.

          Revel in the attention.  Seek it as small child does its

          mother.  When you stand, your movement and sudden prominence

          will fix all eyes upon you.


          Further, if you sit, others may not see you.  I am one of

          those who finds it most disconcerting to hear a voice and

          know not from whence it comes.  Why fight such distractions?

           Finally, if the company cannot see you, you cannot use

          these other tricks that I shall set forth below.


          Now that you are standing, and all eyes of the company are

          upon you, you must launch into your tale.  You must approach

          the company as a man wooing, with fine words and courtly

          gestures.  When young men go wooing, and make their

          protestations, do they speak only with their mouths?  Nay!

          They use their eyes, to look longingly and meaningfully upon

          their mistress.  With their hands they sigh and swoon.

          Their legs kneel, or stand tall.  All of their body is bent

          upon this intercourse, and in the achieving of the

          satisfaction of their one desire.


          So too the storyteller wooes the audience.  Yet here the

          task is different.  The storyteller must guide the listener

          to the proper feelings and sensations, working upon their

          imaginings the images he seeks to convey.   Therefore every

          gesture of the storyteller must be bent upon that purpose.

          The hands, the eyes, the face, all these speak as poignantly

          as the mouth.  Failing to use them is like going into battle

          with the legs and right hand bound: a worthy warrior may

          pull it off, but why endure such handicaps?


          Yet, herein lies the danger.  Recall that you are a

          storyteller, and not an actor in a comedia.  Too forward a

          motion may afright the audience, as too forward a gesture

          afrights a young maiden.  Rather, by gentle suggestions that

          work their way upon the imagination and the sympathy, should

          you win over your audience to your desire.  The sharp

          gesture of the hand may suggest the sword-stroke of your

          hero, and its curtness leave all the more to their

          imagination.  Rest assured, the imagination of your audience

          shall prove more horrifying or wondrous to each one than

          anything you could make plain.   So too, the slightest

          tremble of the lip suggests more than a river of tears, or

          the stamp of a foot do more to startle than the troop of a

          hundred horses.


          (As with all rules, their is exception.  If you desire

          comedy, some baffonery is not out of place. Particularly,

          if your characters are stock, you may make use of such

          conventions as are known to all.  Yet these things are a

          spice, sprinkled by the best cooks in subtle moderation, for

          the wit that feeds upon such things quickly becomes surfeit,

          and turns delight to revulsion.)


          Also, you must recall that the voice and body work as one.

          IF you put too much effort into your gestures, you shall

          steal the attention from your words.  One must support the

          other, building each upon the latter, as the different

          instruments of a consort.  What happens when the lute

          outplays the tabor?  Leaving Iosef of Locksley and his long

          campaign to win respectability for this benighted

          instrument aside, all would agree that the piece as a whole

          suffers, and the audience is driven to distraction.

          Therefore you must seek balance between these points.  For,

          as the philosophers have said, when all is in balance, then

          perfection is achieved.



               --The Voice


          Thus we turn to the voice.  The voice is to the storyteller

          as the potters wheel to the sculptor: upon it we must take

          rough clay and shape it into figures of fancy. One's voice

          need not be dulcet sweet, nor capable of commanding armies.

           As with any tool, it lies within the craft of the artisan

          to make it work.


          Storyteller, recall the magic that you work! With aught but

          words you must make your audience see wonders and be amazed,

          or frightened, or amused.  So therefore chose your words

          with care.  Does the lover, when he wishes to woo, use the

          same words as he does when he hangs about the tavern with

          his friends?  Nay!  Rather, he chooses such soft words as

          shall appeal to her sympathies, and as will suggest to her

          the images that he desires to share with her. Yet he dare

          not puch his suit to strongly, for fear he will afright her.

          Even if the maid be willing, rarely indeed can he phrase his

          desire so boldly as he might like.


          So too with your audience.  Like a lady, the fact that they

          have admitted to receive you shows some willingness upon

          their part to help you with your errand.  Yet you must not

          presume upon that good will.  Rather, you must shape your

          words to meet the needs of the moment.  Survey your

          audience, as a lover does the object of his affections.

          Gauge their mood.  Sometimes they will seem hardly willing

          at all, and will need strong words to call them to you.

          Sometimes they will be all eager to hear, and but the

          faintest suggestion upon your part shall do.


          I shall speak more of words anon, for in this matter only

          general admonitions and advice can be given. Rather I shall

          turn to the instrument itself, your voice. This, too, is

          part of your wooing.  It must at first be inviting and

          gentle.  Then, when you are in full play, you must use it to

          suggest the images you desire the audience should concieve.

           Does your hero's horse gallop?  Let your voice be fast and

          clipped.  Does a storm rage?  Let your voice show its

          strength.  Does the maiden falter?   Then let your voice

          carry the hint of hesitation.  So too, when you speak the

          part of a man, let your voice be a bit deeper. Of a woman,

          let it be gentler.


          Again, I must warn you that you seek to suggest only.  If

          you become carried away, you may afright your audience.  No

          one desires to be shouted at for hours on end, or even

          briefly if it be painful.  Keep your full strength leashed,

          but the strength of the leash will suggest the power of the

          passion to the listener.  Furthermore, use such tricks as you

          can to draw the audience to your tale.  As the lover drops

          his voice to a whisper when proclaiming his adoration, you

          too may lower your voice to build drama before a climax.

          Or, to show the shocking nature of a thing, your voice may

          describe a commonplace thing with alarm or dismay.


          Above all else, do not hesitate.  No lover wrote a sonnet

          with the word "um."  Become so familiar with your tale, or

          so confident in your telling, that you eliminate the hateful

          word from your speech.  Nothing so turns a lady from

          affection to disdain as to see a lover hesitate in pressing

          his suit.  Nor does anything so discomode a lover as, being

          in the full press of adoration, to suddenly cry halt.  So

          too in storytelling willing nothing discomode your audience

          more than a verbal stumble and a flagging spirit.


          These, then, are the basic tools.  As the discourse grows

          overlong, I shall put off until some future time discussion

          upon specific words and devices, and how stories may be

          tailored to the individual.


          In service to storytelling,

          Yaakov HaMizrachi


<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