Story Telling




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by Ernest Thompson Seton

 The art of story-telling combines the principles of short story writing and of successful acting. The four elements in the art may be listed as the audience, the setting, the story and the speaker. Let us consider them in order so far as a few simple rules may be of help.

First, of the audience: Be as close physically to the audience as you can. Human voice, expression, personality, magnetism, etc., have their limits of reach, and are strong, of course, in proportion to the closeness of contact.

No man can thrill an audience that is so far off that it barely hears his voice. The story that is gripping when told in a little home circle, may fall flat in a great opera house.

Have your audience as close together as possible as well as near you. Elbow to elbow is best. Every gap seems to rob the spell of power,--seems to unmake the medicine. Always address the back rows. If you are reaching and moving them, you may be sure that the nearer ones are taken care of.

An audience crowded into a small hall is far easier to win and hold than that same audience scattered over a big hall. They must also be one group. A second group in gallery or standing looking on, is a discordant, hindering element.

Your audience must be physically comfortable. If the seats are hard and without backs, or if your hearers are seated on the floor, you cannot grip them as easily as when so perfectly seated that they are unconscious of their bodies.

The audience must be protected from extraneous noises and sights. A baby, a dog or a bell or a late arrival, can ruin the best story ever told. I have known the song or sight of a bird even to break the magic of a Council Fire tale.

Atmosphere is as important as it is elusive, and it is conjured up as much by smells as by sights and sounds. Sounds of any kind you do not want. A background of tense silence is the perfect setting for the story teller. It is far easier to create one's atmosphere when environed with a helpful smell, such as that of pine trees, wood smoke or incense, than when one's nostrils are assailed by odors of gasoline, onions or soup.

Nevertheless, this is largely individual; for smell has such --a grip on the memory that each one responds to the smell that has most cherished associations for him, without regard to its intrinsic merit.

Skunk smell, because of its associations, has always made a pleasant appeal to me.

The suitability of the story to the time and place must always be considered. Certain tales maybe perfectly proper in a man's club and all wrong in a boys' camp. A ghost story is likely to fall flat if told in garish daylight, and a comic story, however good, may be absolutely unacceptable in a group of persons assembled for some serious purpose. In other words, timeliness is a large consideration.

The length of a story is important also. Never tell a thirty-minute story when you are down on the program for ten minutes. It is much wiser to stop at nine minutes. Leave them hungry for more.

If a disturbance takes place, ignore it if possible. If not, treat it lightly and pleasantly. Remember that the audience will attach exactly the same importance to it that you do. If you take it as a joke, they will; if you get fussed, they will.

For choice of story, whenever in doubt, go to some of the old standards, like Grimm, Chaucer or La Fontaine. They are simple, human, interesting, and have stood the test of telling for many generations, which shows them possessed of the vital qualities.

Use poems committed to memory if the desired effect must turn on verbalism; if it turns on the thought, use prose.

Always tell the story in terms of your audience. If you want a crowd of Bowery children to appreciate the goodness of the widow in the parable, do not say: "She, having little withal, nevertheless gave two mites." Tell them that she was behind in her rent, had no coffee for breakfast, and yet gave her last nickel to help a fellow who was up against it.

Every professional story-teller keeps a list of stories in some handy place, entering them only by catch titles. Some keep this list in a little pocket notebook, some keep it on the shirt cuff, some, especially politicians, carry it in the hat, so that they can glance at it without being caught.

The Indian story-teller used a skin on which each story was recalled by some pictograph. Among some peoples, tally sticks are used, and the knotted cords or quipu, of the Peruvians, are said to have served the same purpose.

It is just as hard to make a good story-teller by correspondence as it is to make a good actor. Nevertheless, there are certain basic principles by which all should be guided in story-telling.

The first is, never, never read a story to your audience! There is no magnetism, no contact of your personality with theirs during reading. It would be the same thing if an actor were to carry a paper and read his part. The printed page between is an absolute non-conductor. It would be nearly parallel if you recited the story while you were invisible behind a screen. There are readers who read well, but that is another art, a lower art; they are not storytellers.

Carefully foster applause and study its reaction. I have seen an unwise story-teller flatten his audience and spoil his "medicine" by suppressing the first attempt at applause. Remember that applause stimulates the audience as well as the speaker. You must deliberately lead up to the moment of applause, make quite clear that it has come by bowing, smiling and leaving a gap. Some speakers deliberately stop and pretend to drink from a glass, so as to give the audience a chance to clap. But however it is done, the applause must be skillfully nursed, not suppressed. Remember, applause does not necessarily mean hand-clapping. It is manifest approval,--usually, by clapping, but perhaps by laughter or smiling or nodding, and may even be silence. Dead silence is the real tribute of deep emotion.

Next, you must be simple, in plot as well as in language. AEsop and Bunyan can be told without change, but James and Thackeray would need a lot of condensing and predigesting.

Personalize and dramatize your story, make it your own as far as possible, by variants, by your own coloration, by impromptu intensification, by acting it.

If you say "The wolf howled," it is not nearly so compelling as if you say "The wolf did this:" then add a howl.

Tell it with your hands, feet, face and whole person. Use gestures whenever helpful,--and that is, most of the time. But only if you can make every gesture mean something. There are times to stand absolutely still.

The great Greek orator said that there were three essentials in reaching an audience. The first was sympathy, and the second was -- sympathy, but the third was SYMPATHY.

Be sure that your climax comes in the last paragraph; if possible, in the last sentence,--even in the last word. It is ruinous to your effect if you provoke applause before you are ready, at a time, indeed, when it smothers the final essential thought.

A rounded, perfect story begins with a thought, around which it plays during the relation, and at the end again proclaims that thought,--yes, with even greater emphasis. This is sticking the serpent's tail in his mouth.

See Also: 

Campfire Story Telling

F. Haydon Dimmock's Good Story Telling

A. E. Hamilton's Stories by Firelight and Emberglow

Bibliography for Camp Fire Stories

Reference Books
AROUND AN IROQUOIS STORY FIRE, by Mabel Powers. Stokes Co.
LEGENDS OF VANCOUVER, by E. Pauline Johnson. Thomson Stationery Co., Vancouver.
INDIAN DAYS OF THE LONG AGO, by Edward S. Curtis. World Book Co.

The Birch Bark Roll






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Last modified: October 15, 2016.