On Storytelling...

From: HAROLD.FELD@hq.doe.GOV
Newsgroups: rec.org.sca
Subject: On Storytelling.....(long)
Date: 2 May 1994 14:58:09 -0400
Message-ID: <M101152.001.6v550.3781.940502185328Z.CC-MAIL*/O=HQ/PRMD=USDOE/ADMD=ATTMAIL/C=US/@MHS>
To: sca@mc.lcs.mit.edu, storytellers@world.std.com, hamizrachi@aol.com

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 offer.

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 foubnd 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 fame.

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 told.

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 talents.

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 wonderous 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 delieght 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 cammanding 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 freightened, 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 deaper. 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 listner. 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 speach. 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 strytelling 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

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