storytelling-art - 6/13/94
Storytelling techniques by Yaakov.
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.
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Mark S. Harris AKA: THLord Stefan li Rous
Stefan at florilegium.org
From: HAROLD.FELD at hq.doe.GOV
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
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
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
(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.
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,