Telling tales is very different to writing stories. And I’m not talking about tittle-tattle about others. I’m talking about telling folktales vs writing original fiction. I guess I knew this sub-consciously – but when I did an intermediate course in Storytelling with Ben Haggerty, the point came home, the other shoe dropped, the penny dropped and the realization hit me. Apologies, force of habit, addiction, obsession to repeat every key word three times – because that was one of the things we learnt in the course.
As a storyteller who is just starting out, whose first language is not English, even though I think in English, there are a number of things to master and mastery of storytelling comes only from telling more stories – perhaps badly to start with and then slowly getting better and better at it. Like any skill, practice makes perfect and perfection is a dream.
Seated between an experienced storyteller on one side and a puppeteer on the other, I opened myself up to a new experience in the two day workshop. I had rediscovered storytelling recently and I was overjoyed to find out that it not only complements my vocation in children’s books very well but also helps me to write better.
Like in improv classes, Ben’s classes always have a warm-up session. Not for the body but for the mind. But it is also physical – it involves feet-tapping and head-scratching. It is all about thinking on your feet and that means you have to be on your feet.
So what are the things I took away from this two-day workshop that would make me a better storyteller in more ways than one?
Spoken language that varies
I talk a lot- at work, in pubs and buses and trains. I live alone and I also stay quiet for long periods of time either reading or watching others talk in real life or on TV.
But talking to friends in pubs and parties is quite different to cultivating the spoken language – that is enriched with words that sound good and are varied enough to ensure the listener doesn’t go to sleep.
If I want to tell a story about an animal, referring to it as the animal throughout the story might be boring. So the storyteller has to insert beast, creature to substitute for the word animal.
That’s what the synonym game allows you to do. It helps you practice different words for the same meaning quickly and in a hurry. That’s how you’d need it when you tell stories.
As a writer I can look up a thesaurus, dictionary and even edit it many times. As a storyteller I am here and now. The word needs to come into my head quickly. So I need to cultivate my memory to auto-associate and come up with other words I could spontaneously use.
Spoken language that is rich
Spoken language is like performance poetry. If you want the lull the reader into the story then the language has to be lyrical where required. It needs to have the fluidity of the words, the lithe and grace of a cat.
Ben taught us to play alliteration games. Where each storyteller would say a sentence in alliteration. The made-up story was surreal – but the task of coming up with alliterations heated up our brains.
The trick is to keep practicing it all the time, so that when you begin to tell a story, the brain can pull the words together that are now used to alliterate.
Similarly we did rhyming exercises. These are not elaborate poetic rhymes. We made up rhymes as we walked a story through our circle. We never made sense. We rhymed a bag of rice with a pair of dice. We rhymed flowers with lovers. But the purpose is – to learn to think of rhymes for often repeated sounds. The trick is to learn the spontaneity of producing rhymes – even if that sounds like an oxymoron.
Ben did warn us though – we want to be better storytellers, not bad poets. The aim is not to create rhyming stories on the go, but have a rhythm and a lilt to the spoken language so that the words don’t jar, the lines don’t end in jagged edges and the listener is not jolted out of the story with bad rhyme.
Pace and rhythm, tone and overtones.
We learnt to tell stories very fast to a wall. We told stories to each other in normal pace. We walked as we talked and we told stories standing up.
Sometimes when the time was limited we ended up telling the story fast. But then Ben taught us that cutting description is better than telling the story fast – because a story is not a race.
How did this affect my writing?
As I writer I’ve now learnt to look at a story from a different lens.
When I read a folktale that I want to learn and tell to others, I am thinking of how to pace this story when I write. I am constantly evaluating them to see if they’d fit the format of a picture book and whether a child would like to read a story.
I am also reading these folktales, adventure tales and wonder tales to find out what sustains them. How did they last this long? What are the components of such a story? Where is the rise and fall in action? How does it keep the listener enthralled? How did travel so far and wide and so long?
That lens gives me an insight into what makes a story a classic. I can look at my own stories and see if I have enough action, am I pacing it right? If I tell my own story, would I have the same flow of rising action?
So when I am writing a new picture book or even a chapter book, I’m thinking about telling it. I am trying to see if my stories will stand the telling for 30 minutes. Will it bore the audience? Do I have too much detail? Do I have very little happening?
This conscious evaluation from a storyteller’s viewpoint has greatly enhanced the writing. I’m not wallowing in descriptive mud a lot. I’m not filling space with words, I want to write a story that I can tell without people dying of boredom. I do not want to be the first person who is jailed for murder by storytelling.
And I am reading/telling my own picture books in story-time in libraries and schools. And I can see which books work and which one does not. I can see which one has lent itself to lots of interactive fun and which one is less playful.
Now I think when I finish a picture book I’ll try and tell it to an audience. My editing is going to be more from telling than from reading and that I think is a great improvement of my craft. And if I am working on a chapter book I’m going to read it to kids to see if it reading aloud causes squirms or squeals.
Some of us are bravely venturing into the world and telling stories. I’ll be telling stories both from my books and folktales in many venues over the coming months. Please check this page for details.
I’m also blogging folktales that I love on my story site. Click here for free stories to read.
If you want to find out more about Ben’s storytelling courses, please visit www.crickcrackclub.com.