Down to the Bare Bones
Marilyn A. Kinsella
Storytellers often talk about paring a story down to its "bare bones." Here are some ways you can do that. Mainly, we pare down a story that is a folktale. Once you love a particular story, try to find other variants of the story. In the library there is a folk tale index that will help you find variants from other countries. The Internet is becoming a vast resource for finding folk tale variants. See http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/folktexts.html Try to read three or four of those variants. Which of the stories appeals to you the most? Perhaps, you may want to combine some elements.
Take out most of the dialog. Say what was said, but not in the exact words of the character. Ex. One day, Br’er Rabbit met Sandy and said, “Sandy, the next time you go down to the swamp I want you to fall over dead. So, dead your legs are stickin’ straight up in the air; so dead that your mouth is wide open; so dead your tail is a stiff as a poker. Do I make myself clear, Sandy?” Bre’er Rabbit told Sandy that he had to play dead.
If names are not important to the story just say – little girl, old man, young man, little animal, big animal, etc. Ex. One day Gretchen walked into the forest to meet up with Frau Holle. One day a young girl walked into the forest to meet up with an old crone. However, names can be important to the story. If you want to keep the story from a particular time and country, then keep the names. Frau Holle is a folkloric figure in German mythology. If you are saying that this is a German folktale, then keep the names. If you are adapting the story to modern times and place (see below), say that it is adapted from a (German) tale. Sometimes, it’s better to never name the characters. Names have a lot of connotations. You can spoil the images of your listeners by naming. This is a storyteller’s choice – to name or not to name…that is the question.
Simplify the story by taking out descriptive passages that are not important. Ex. Long ago in the dark places, the gloom places, there lived a critter named Tailypo. When Tailypo came out of the swamp he was hoppin’ and dancin’. He’d dance to the right and the tailypo’s left. He’d dance to the left and the tailypo’s right. Just a hoppin’ and dancin’ havin’ himself a good ole time, when he looked up the mountain and saw a cabin.” Tailypo came from out of the swamps and climbed the mountain to the cabin.
Sometimes, it’s helpful to say to yourself, “Let me tell you about the story.” That allows yourself to trust your memory of the story but not the details.
Try to get the story down to 10 sentences. Try to get it down to five, if you can. Write those sentences out. This is your bones of the story. This is your story path. To learn the story path you can 1.) Draw a storyboard; 2.) Draw a story path; 3.) Outline the story; 4.) Act out the story; 5.) Record the bones and listen to it. I have found that with limited time, it is the better choice to do the story map. It allows the workshop attendees to have something solid to hold onto as they begin the process of fleshing up the story.
After you do this, visualize the story. See the settings and everything in the picture. Watch as your characters enter the scenes. Right now do a "walk-through."
Now, without looking at the original story (as much as humanly possible) start telling the story to yourself silently and then out loud. Let the characters come to life by seeing them and hearing them in your mind’s eye, then through your picture words. and finally your voice. What do they look like? What do they sound like? What do your surroundings look like? You will notice that you are beginning to flesh-up your story with your dialog, your characters’ voices, your descriptions, and your setting. Your body language will also evolve, as the words you choose to tell the story become apparent. Some stories will sound like the original, some may change somewhat, some will become whole adaptations of the original.
Sometimes, the story will be pretty much as you first heard it or read it. That is okay. That means the story spoke to you just the way it is, and you want to pass it on. But, oftentimes, the story starts to "morph" taking on a new fresh approach. Here are some ways it may (or may not) change.
Localizing a story. Change the setting of the story, if the rest of the story is not harmed by the change. Ex. “The Peddler of Swaffam went to London Bridge that crossed the Thames River.” The peddler man went to the Eades Bridge that crossed the Mississippi. See an adapted version HERE However, telling a Mike Fink story (he’s a riverboat captain) and relocating it to the Sahara desert won’t fly…or in this case…float.
Change the time of the story. Most everyone knows the story of Little Red Riding Hood. It is set in the middle of the forest probably happening a long time ago. What if she lived today (what would her name be?) what if she lived in a big city (who would the wolf be?) what if it was a modern story in yesterday’s newspaper (how does this change the story?)
Fracture the story by telling the story from another character’s point of view or by telling what happened after the end of the story. See my paper on telling Fractured Fairy Tales.
The story is now your version. You will have it permanently imprinted on your brain. You will never forget it. These are your pictures that you painted from your experiences. Trust me…they will remain with you. If, perchance, you do have a brain glitch…you always have that original story path that is etched indelibly on your brain. Go back to it, if need be, tell about the story… until you find your words once again.
As you tell the story over and over, new layers of the story will unfold, your feelings about a character or event may evolve over the years, you change…the story will change. Sometimes, it’s such a subtle change that you don’t even notice it. Sometimes, it’s an epiphany that suddenly lifts a curtain and the story changes, too.
Your stories are written in stone – but water, sun, use, rain – will add a patina to the stories. They become richer and more polished each and every time you tell them. What started out as a rough nugget, will now be a precious stone becoming even more precious as it is taken out and told over and over.
Here are some story bones ready for you to flesh up!
The Shoemaker and the Elves
Shoemaker who makes beautiful shoes leaves leather out one night to make shoes. In the morning he finds a pair of shoes completed and beautifully done. Someone buys shoes and pays a good price. Shoemaker buys even more leather with money. He lays it out the night before and again shoes are made. More money. This happens again and again as his reputation spreads – more customers. Becoming rich. One night he and his wife wait up to see is doing this. See two naked (or shabbily dressed) elves. Wife agrees to make clothes for them to thank them. Lays out the tiny clothes. The elves are so delighted they sing and dance. They never have to work again. From that day on the shoe business thrived.
For a version of this story, developed in the workshop, click HERE
The Three Wishes
Woodcutter goes to chop down tree. Wood nymph pleads for him not to. He agrees and she give him 3 wishes. But must not wish for all wishes to come true – too greedy. When he got home he told his wife. Delighted. Decide to eat first and then decide wishes. She serves some very bland food. Disgusted he wishes for a sausage (or other food). Sausage appears. Wife harps on that wish. So angry he wishes for the sausage to grow on the end of her nose. Oops. Now has to use third wish to get rid of sausage. Riches lost.
For a version written in a workshop, click HERE
The Magic Purse
Irishman discovers a leprechaun. Excited for they have a magic purse with a single coin inside. When taken out another appears. Grabs Leprechaun. Argues about the purse. Finally gives him the purse, laughs, and disappears. Goes to bar to buy drinks for everyone. But when he took the coin out another did not reappear. He didn’t realize that leprechauns keep 2 purses – one magic and one not – just in case they get caught. No money to pay for drinks so he is arrested. Judge says he will believe his story only if the leprechaun verifies it. Otherwise 30 days of hard labor. Does his time and never tries to catch a tricky leprechaun again.
For a version of this story, developed in a workshop, click HERE
Reynard and the Fisherman
Monsieur Reynard-the-Fox went down to the river for supper and saw fisherman packing a long string of fish into his cart as he was leaving. Reynard saw his supper! As fisherman is guiding his horse-drawn cart home, the fox follows in the bushes so he’s not seen. Then the fox runs ahead of the cart and plays dead along road. Horse stops. Fisherman sees dead fox. Excited he throws the fox in the back of the cart and starts thinking about what he will do with the fox pelt: Sell the pelt, use money to buy cow, cow will have calf. Sell them and buy flock of sheep. (meanwhile fox eating the fish). Goes on: Sheep will have lambs, sell to buy a house, make it into an inn, so much money will buy a big store. (still eating fish) Goes on: So rich from the store – rich as the king – so buy a castle. Never have to fish with all the servants and cooks. Eat off silver and gold plates. (Reynard finishes fish) Reynard says – “since I helped you become so rich , I trust that you will invite me to share your kingly spread. Astonished fisherman says, “But I thought you were dead!” Reynard: “Then I must go home and tell my old mother, she will be sad to hear it.” And runs into woods. Fisherman: “Come back, thief! You are robbing me of my castle and my servants”! Fox: “And I thought I was only robbing you of your fish!” Sly grin, full stomach goes home.