Once upon a time...
One of my day jobs—I have a few, it's exhausting but means that I don't get bored—is being the Education Officer for a theatre company. To be honest, I do a whole heap more than my job description, but when I'm being the Education Officer, I write workshop sessions that fit in with our plays (sometimes I even get to deliver them), I produce teachers' notes about our productions, I liaise with schools, libraries, and museums, and I dream up ridiculous activities to engage, entertain, and hopefully somehow educate children and young people. I get to be creative, and I get to work in an educational setting; when my boss isn't driving me spare, it's a pretty cool way to earn a living.
One of the activities that I'm due to unleash on an unsuspecting audience of 12 to 14 year olds next month is a story-telling project. I'll be honest, developing a story-telling project was an epiphany in a sea of desperation. I needed to create something that explored entertainment in the Gypsy/ Romany/ Traveller community. Nothing was sticking, until it occurred to me that the Travelling community are marvellous story-tellers. Years ago, story-teling was a source of income for some Travelling families: yarn-spinning and word-weaving, exotic tales from far-away lands seemed to be in their blood.
But the more that I thought about it, the more that it became obvious to me that story-telling is critical to just about every culture I can think of. Even if these stories have been written down now, which culture doesn't have a catalogue of traditional tales that, once upon a time, were related by word-of-mouth? That they used to be spoken is why there isn't usually a definitive version of any of these tales.
Only, story-telling is something that we now do less and less. It's a bit of a dying art, really. Teaching people how to tell stories, therefore, seemed to be a plan.
Where to begin? Well, you begin at the beginning.
... there were people who liked to tell stories...
People tell stories for lots of different reasons, but the first and most important one is that stories are fun. They serve to entertain. Back in the day before radios and televisions and the intergoogles and Wiis, telling a story meant having an episode of Eastenders live in your living room, or it kept people amused after dinner, and even now we regale our adventures sitting around camp-fires when there isn't any other means of occupying ourselves.
For people who are illiterate, or perhaps cannot afford to buy books, story-telling demands nothing more than memory, or imagination, to cast a spell and enter another world.
But story-telling does more than just keep people entertained. Stories relate history and social mores; they tell people about their ancestry; and they can fill gaps in the unknown and explain the unexplainable.
If you look at a story such as The Aeneid, it wasn't just about giving people something to listen to after they'd enjoyed their stuffed dormice and tipsy cake. It told the story of the origins of the Roman state. (And it also leant legitimacy to Augustus' rule, not forgetting that Vergil wrote it for Augustus.) It's a history lesson.
And The Odyssey is a lesson in appropriate behaviour, as well as some kind of history, too. It taught young Greek men how to treat their families and their guests, how to behave as a guest, how to conduct battle with honour, and how important the gods were in their lives. But it was still entertainment.
During the shiva for my grandfather, we sat around telling stories about him. Mostly, these tales brought us comfort as we found laughter in the shrouds of misery; but they were also about the preservation of his memory as we shared what we knew about him, and as we sat and spoke and listened, it brought us together, too. When you tell stories about people, or about yourself, you bring people together, you share wisdom and experiences, you help to cement bonds and ensure memories are not forgotten.
Last of all comes the idea of using stories to explain the unexplainable: why are we here and how did we get here? You might not interpret the Bible as a religious text, and you might now see its attempts to explain the origins of the universe as obsolete, but its a rollicking good story and it most certainly served a purpose when it was first told. It tried to give people a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose.
Along with plenty of other stories, the Bible has helped people to forge an identity and given them a means to understand who they are and how they got here. These are stories that would have been passed on from generation-to-generation, spoken and sung before anyone wrote them down. They were important, and they entertained.
... some were better at it than others...
It's all very well knowing why people tell stories, but how should people tell stories? In some respects, telling a story is similar to writing a story. But there are some differences, too.
First comes the plot. Just the same with a written story, you need a beginning, a middle, and an end. The story has to have a purpose and build to a punchline. However, in an oral story, there isn't room for sub-plots. Those are stories for another time. Keep it direct and to the point.
Your characters need to be just as well-formed in a spoken story as a written story. Remember: when you narrate a story, you can use your body-language to help the listeners see the character better; you can use your voice to help them hear her or him better. There's so much to work with in a spoken story: push it to its limits.
Pace. A quick story is a good story!
There's something about the oral tradition that allows you to embellish with impunity. Storms can be more ferocious, clothes can be skimpier, attacking enemy hordes can increase in number. Keep people captivated with excitement and drama!
Whatever your reason for telling a story, the listeners need to have some ability to relate to it. There must be some purpose to them listening, something that engages them with the tale. It's the same as with a written story, but if someone puts down a book or clicks away from a writeup, you won't feel so bad as if they tell you to be quiet when you're telling a story. Make sure your audience knows why they want to listen to your story.
Finally. Don't drone on in a monotone. Use your voice, and do it more than just for different characters. Know when to speak faster and when to whisper. Think about how pauses can build suspense and run-on sentences can make people feel breathless. Imagine how it might look if it were a scene in a film, or how you'd see it in your mind's eye if it were a chapter from a book. Remember: you're an entertainer.
...but anyone can do it!
Tell me a story!