MARILYN KINSELLA


There are two components to the value of language in telling a story.  Both of them combine so the listener will be present in the story.

First, there is the language used when writing-to-tell a story.  To begin, the storyteller will pare down the story to its "bare bones".  That is, writing the sequence of events in simple sentences.  "Rumpelstiltskin" will be used as an example throughout this paper. 

1. Young woman upset that she has to turn straw into gold to be married or she will lose her head.

2. Funny man turns straw into gold for a promise of a baby.

3. Young woman marries king and has child.

4. Funny man decides woman can keep child if his name is guessed.

5. After three tries the woman guesses his name. 

Now, beef up the story.  Go to the library and search for different versions.  Take what you like from these versions. Decide whether you want to be true to the first version or, if you want to modernize it, fracture it, tell it from another point of view, tell it seriously or humorously.

After that, choose a setting - a time and place for the story.  Visualize the characters.  Is the young girl pretty, smart, determined, mealy-mouthed?  What does the funny man have on?  What does his voice sound like?  After you "see" the characters give them as much dialog as possible to keep the story moving.  When audiences listen to dialog, they feel as if they are listening in on a private conversation. It is much more compelling than constant narrative.

The following hints can spice up the story: 

Alliteration: "...all weathered and worn."

Onomatopoeia: "The door (creaked) open." He disappeared with a (pop)."  "She cried (boo- hoo - hoo)."

Imagery:  One of the main differences in writing a story to tell as opposed to writing a story to read has to do with imagery.  While writing a story for a book, you can lavish it with many similes, metaphors, personifications, descriptive passages and cute turn-of-words.  But writing a story-to-tell can quickly become bogged down, if it becomes too flowery.  Yes, a few of these can make a story blossom, but too many, and it's dead on the vine.  Audiences like the action to move along.

I'll give you two examples.

1.  The funny little ole man sat at the spinning wheel and he began to spin..."

2.  The funny little ole man paraded around the room gathering up the multitude of straw, examining every piece thoroughly as if looking for gold in its very fiber. Finally, he meandered over to the ancient spinning wheel which hadn't seen much use in the last hundred years.  It was coated with its own spun silk from generations of spiders..."

It is fun to read such passages, but not to listen to them.  I often use the analogy of a paint-by-numbers set.  You, as the storyteller, must give your listeners a carefully sketched outline of the scene.  They must in turn take their experiences and color it in.  They are then using their imaginations and becoming a part of the storytelling process. This is storytelling at its best.

Using commons senses:  Anytime you can put in a touchy-feely word, do it.  It makes you and the listener react to the story. Anything that smells, tastes, feels, etc., is good.

Participation:  For younger audience - max. 8-9 yr. olds - you can add the following and have them participate as a group.

Rhymes - "Spinning, spinning the wheel goes round.

                 Spinning, spinning without a sound."

Nature noises - snapping fingers for rain, clapping noises for thunder, swishing hands for the wind, etc.

Rhythms - snap fingers, clap hands, etc.

Mouth noises -"pops", "raspberries", whistles, etc.

For my final point in the value of language for stories written- to-be-told, I would like to stress the use of metaphor.  The most powerful personal stories that I tell or have heard rely on the metaphor that is carried throughout the story.  In "Sunday Visits" the metaphor is the treasure box.  It is first introduced as my grandmother's memory box; then it becomes a gift from my grandfather; finally, it becomes my memory - my treasure box.

The second component to the value of language is in oral tradition.  In storytelling the word is passed on orally not through reading. The most beautifully crafted story can fall flat if the storyteller can't breathe life into the words. This includes all the tools learned through public speaking. And all of them must be used - good eye contact, gestures, tone, accents, timing, pacing - all of it combines to enliven the story. Given those basic tools each storyteller develops his or her own style.  This may be very dramatic or it could be simply sitting in a chair and keeping everyone captivated.

Probably, the most important aspect of telling is to be present in the story. If the story is around you, if you are in it, the magic of the words will transport you and your listeners on an unbelievable journey.

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