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The Difficulties Of The Story

I propose to deal in this chapter with the difficulties or dangers which beset the path of the story-teller, because, until we have overcome these, we cannot hope to bring out the full value of the story.

I propose to deal in this chapter with the difficulties or dangers which beset the path of the story-teller, because, until we have overcome these, we cannot hope to bring out the full value of the story.

The difficulties are many, and yet they ought not to discourage the would-be narrators, but only show them how all-important is the preparation for the story, if it is to have the desired effect.

I propose to illustrate by concrete examples, thereby serving a twofold purpose: one to fix the subject more clearly in the mind of the student, the other to use the art of story-telling to explain itself.

I have chosen one or two instances from my own personal experience. The grave mistakes made in my own case may serve as a warning to others who will find, however, that experience is the best teacher. For positive work, in the long run, we generally find out our own method. On the negative side, however, it is useful to have certain pitfalls pointed out to us, in order that we may save time by avoiding them. It is for this reason that I sound a note of warning.

1. There is the danger of side issues. An inexperienced story- teller is exposed to the temptation of breaking off from the main dramatic interest in a short exciting story in order to introduce a side issue which is often interesting and helpful but which must be left for a longer and less dramatic story. If the interest turns on some dramatic moment, the action must be quick and uninterrupted, or it will lose half its effect.

I had been telling a class of young children the story of Polyphemus and Ulysses, and just at the most dramatic moment in the story some impulse for which I cannot account prompted me to go off on a side issue to describe the personal appearance of Ulysses.

The children were visibly bored, but with polite indifference they listened to my elaborate description of the hero. If I had given them an actual description from Homer, I believe that the strength of the language would have appealed to their imagination (all the more strongly because the might not have understood the individual words) and have lessened their disappointment at the dramatic issue being postponed; but I trusted to my own lame verbal efforts, and signally failed.

Attention flagged, fidgeting began, the atmosphere was rapidly becoming spoiled in spit of the patience and toleration still shown by the children. At last, however, one little girl in the front row, as spokeswoman for the class, suddenly said: "If you please, before you go on any further, do you mind telling us whether, after all, that Poly . . . [slight pause] . . . that . . . [final attempt] . . .

Polyanthus died?" Now, the remembrance of this question has been of extreme use to me in my career as a story-teller. I have realized that in a short dramatic story the mind of the listeners must be set at ease with regard to the ultimate fate of the special Polyanthus who takes the center of the stage.

I remember, too, the despair of a little boy at a dramatic representation of "Little Red Riding-Hood," when that little person delayed the thrilling catastrophe with the Wolf, by singing a pleasant song on her way through the wood. "Oh, why," said the little boy, "does she not get on?" And I quite shared his impatience.

This warning is necessary only in connection with the short dramatic narrative.

There are occasions when we can well afford to offer short descriptions for the sake of literary style, and for the purpose of enlarging the vocabulary of the child. I have found, however, in these cases, it is well to take the children into your confidence, warning them that they are to expect nothing particularly exciting in the way of dramatic event. They will then settle down with a freer mind (though the mood may include a touch of resignation) to the description you are about to offer them.

2. Altering the story to suit special occasions is done sometimes from extreme conscientiousness, sometimes from sheer ignorance of the ways of children. It is the desire to protect them from knowledge which they already possess and with which they, equally conscientious, are apt to "turn and rend" the narrator. I remember once when I was telling the story of the Siege of Troy to very young children, I suddenly felt anxious lest there should be anything in the story of the rape of Helen not altogether suitable for the average age of the class, namely, nine years. I threw, therefore, a domestic coloring over the whole subject and presented an imaginary conversation between Paris and Helen, in which Paris tried to persuade Helen that she was strong-minded woman thrown away on a limited society in Sparta, and that she should come away and visit some of the institutions of the world with him, which would doubtless prove a mutually instructive journey[1]. I then gave the children the view taken by Herodotus that Helen never went to Troy, but was detained in Egypt. The children were much thrilled by the story, and responded most eagerly when, in my inexperience, I invited them to reproduce in writing for the next day the story I had just told them. A small child presented me, as you will see, with the ethical problem from which I had so laboriously protected her. The essay ran: Once upon a time the King of Troy's son was called Paris. And he went over to Greace to see what it was like. And here he saw the beautiful Helener, and likewise her husband Menelayus. And one day, Menelayus went out hunting, and left Paris and Helener alone, and Paris said: "Do you not feel dul in this palis?"[2] And Helener said: "I feel very dull in this pallice ," and Paris said: "Come away and see the world with me." So they sliped off together, and they came to the King of Egypt, and he said: "Who is the young lady"? So Paris told him. "But," said the King, "it is not propper for you to go off with other people's wifes. So Helener shall stop here." Paris stamped his foot. When Menelayus got home, he stamped his foot. And he called round him all his soldiers, and they stood round Troy for eleven years. At last they thought it was no use standing any longer, so they built a wooden horse in memory of Helener and the Trojans and it was taken into the town.

Now, the mistake I made in my presentation was to lay any particular stress on the reason for elopement by my careful readjustment, which really called more attention to the episode than was necessary for the age of my audience; and evidently caused confusion in the minds of some of the children who knew the story in its more accurate original form.

While traveling in America, I was provided with a delightful appendix to this story. I had been telling Miss Longfellow and her sister the little girl's version of the Siege of Troy, and Mrs. Thorpe made the following comment, with the American humor the dryness of which adds so much to its value: "I never realized before," she said, "how glad the Greeks must have been to sit down even inside a horse, when they had been standing for eleven years." 3. The danger of introducing unfamiliar words is the very opposite danger of the one to which I have just alluded; it is the taking for granted that children are acquainted with the meaning of certain words upon which turns some important point in the story. We must not introduce, without at least a passing explanation, words which, if not rightly understood, would entirely alter the picture we wish to present.

I had once promised to tell stories to an audience of Irish peasants, and I should like to state here that, though my travels have brought me in touch with almost every kind of audience, I have never found one where the atmosphere is so "selfprepared" as in that of a group of Irish peasants. To speak to them, especially on the subject of fairy- tales, is like playing on a delicate harp: the response is so quick and the sympathy so keen. Of course, the subject of fairy-tales is one which is completely familiar to them and comes into their everyday life. They have a feeling of awe with regard to fairies, which is very deep in some parts of Ireland.

On this particular occasion I had been warned by an artist friend who had kindly promised to sing songs between the stories, that my audience would be of varying age and almost entirely illiterate. Many of the older men and women, who could neither read nor write, had never been beyond their native village. I was warned to be very simple in my language and to explain any difficult words which might occur in the particular Indian story I had chosen for that night, namely, "The Tiger, the Jackal and the Brahman."[3]—at a proper distance, however, lest the audience should class him with the wild animals. I then went on with my story, in the course of which I mentioned a buffalo. In spite of the warning I had received, I found it impossible not to believe that the name of this animal would be familiar to any audience. I, therefore, went on with the sentence containing this word, and ended it thus: "And then the Brahman went a little further and met an old buffalo turning a wheel." The next day, while walking down the village street, I entered into conversation with a thirteen-year-old girl who had been in my audience the night before and who began at once to repeat in her own words the Indian story in questions.

When she came to the particular sentence I have just quoted, I was greatly startled to hear her version, which ran thus: "And the priest went on a little further, and he met another old gentleman pushing a wheelbarrow." I stopped her at once, and not being able to identify the sentence as part of the story I had told, I questioned her a little more closely. I found that the word "buffalo," had evidently conveyed to her mind an old "buffer" whose name was "Lo," probably taken to be an Indian form of appellation, to be treated with tolerance though it might not be Irish in sound. Then, not knowing of any wheel more familiarly than that attached to a barrow, the young narrator completed the picture in her own mind—but which, one must admit, had lost something of the Indian atmosphere which I had intended to gather about.

4. The danger of claiming coöperation of the class by means of questions is more serious for the teacher than the child, who rather enjoys the process and displays a fatal readiness to give any sort of answer if only he can play a part in the conversation. If we could in any way depend on the children giving the kind of answer we expect, all might go well and the danger would be lessened; but children have a perpetual way of frustrating our hopes in this direction, and of landing us in unexpected bypaths from which it is not always easy to return to the main road without a very violent reaction. As illustrative of this, I quote from the "The Madness of Philip," by Josephine Daskam Bacon, a truly delightful essay on child psychology in the guise of the lightest of stories.

The scene takes place in a kindergarten, where a bold and fearless visitor has undertaken to tell a story on the spur of the moment to a group of restless children.

She opens thus: "Yesterday, children, as I came out of my yard, what do you think I saw?" The elaborately concealed surprise in store was so obvious that Marantha rose to the occasion and suggested, "An el'phunt." "Why, no. Why should I see an elephant in my yard? It was not nearly so big as that—it was a little thing." "A fish," ventured Eddy Brown, whose eye fell upon the aquarium in the corner.

The raconteuse smiled patiently.

"Now, how could a fish, a live fish, get into my front yard?" "A dead fish," says Eddy.

He had never been known to relinquish voluntarily an idea.

"No; it was a little kitten," said the story-teller decidedly. "A little white kitten.

She was standing right near a big puddle of water. Now, what else do you think I saw?" "Another kitten," suggests Marantha, conservatively.

"No; it was a big Newfoundland dog. He saw the little kitten near the water.

Now, cats don't like water, do they? What do they like?" "Mice," said Joseph Zukoffsky abruptly.

"Well, yes, they do; but there were no mice in my yard. I'm sure you know what I mean. If they don't like water, what do they like?" "Milk," cried Sarah Fuller confidently.

"They like a dry place," said Mrs. R. B. Smith. "Now, what do you suppose the dog did?" It may be that successive failures had disheartened the listeners. It may be that the very range of choice presented to them and the dog alike dazzled their imagination. At all events, they made no answer.

"Nobody knows what the dog did?" repeated the story-teller encouragingly.

"What would you do if you saw a little kitten like that?" And Philip remarked gloomily: "I'd pull its tail." "And what do the rest of you think? I hope you are not as cruel as that little boy." A jealous desire to share Philip's success prompted the quick response: "I'd pull it too." Now, the reason of the total failure of this story was the inability to draw any real response from the children, partly because of the hopeless vagueness of the questions, partly because, there being no time for reflection, children say the first thing that comes into their heads without any reference to their real thoughts on the subject.

I cannot imagine anything less like the enlightened methods of the best kindergarten teaching. Had Mrs. R. B. Smith been a real, and not a fictional, person, it would certainly have been her last appearance as a raconteuse in this educational institution.

5. The difficulty of gauging the effect of a story upon the audience rises from lack of observation and experience; it is the want of these qualities which leads to the adoption of such a method as I have just presented. We learn in time that want of expression on the faces of the audience and want of any kind of external response do not always mean either lack of interest or attention. There is often real interest deep down, but no power, or perhaps no wish, to display that interest, which is deliberately concealed at times so as to protect oneself from questions which may be put.

6. The danger of over illustration. After long experience, and after considering the effect produced on children when pictures are shown to them during the narration, I have come to the conclusion that the appeal to the eye and the ear at the same time is of doubtful value, and has, generally speaking, a distracting effect: the concentration on one channel of communication attracts and holds the attention more completely. I was confirmed in this theory when I addressed an audience of blind people[4] for the first time, and noticed how closely they attended, and how much easier it seemed to them because they were so completely "undistracted by the sights around them." I have often suggested to young teachers two experiments in support of this theory. They are not practical experiments, nor could they be repeated often with the same audience, but they are intensely interesting, and they serve to show the actual effect of appealing to one sense at a time. The first of these experiments is to take a small group of children and suggest that they should close their eyes while you tell them a story. You will then notice how much more attention is given to the intonation and inflection of the voice. The reason is obvious. With nothing to distract the attention, it is concentrated on the only thing offered the listeners, that is, sound, to enable them to seize the dramatic interest of the story.

We find an example of the dramatic power of the voice in its appeal to the imagination in one of the tributes brought by an old pupil to Thomas Edward Brown, Master at Clifton College: "My earliest recollection is that his was the most vivid teaching I ever received; great width of view and poetical, almost passionate, power of presentment. We were reading Froude's History, and I shall never forget how it was Brown's words, Brown's voice, not the historian's, that made me feel the great democratic function which the monasteries performed in England; the view became alive in his mouth." And in another passage: "All set forth with such dramatic force and aided by such a splendid voice, left an indelible impression on my mind."[5] A second experiment, and a much more subtle and difficult one, is to take the same group of children on another occasion, telling them a story in pantomime form, giving them first the briefest outline of the story. In this case it must be of the simplest construction, until the children are able, if you continue the experiment, to look for something more subtle.

I have never forgotten the marvelous performance of a play given in London many years ago entirely in pantomime form. The play was called "L'Enfant Prodigue," and was presented by a company of French artists. It would be almost impossible to exaggerate the strength of that "silent appeal" to the public. One was so unaccustomed to reading meaning and development of character into gesture and facial expression that it was really a revelation to most of those present—certainly to all Anglo-Saxons.

I cannot touch on this subject without admitting the enormous dramatic value connected with the cinematograph. Though it can never take the place of an actual performance, whether in story form or on the stage, it has a real educational value in its possibilities of representation which it is difficult to overestimate, and I believe that its introduction into the school curriculum, under the strictest supervision, will be of extraordinary benefit. The movement, in its present chaotic condition, and in the hands of commercial management, is more likely to stifle than to awaken or stimulate the imagination, but the educational world is fully alive to the danger, and I am convinced that in the future of the movement good will predominate.

The real value of the cinematograph in connection with stories is that it provides the background that is wanting to the inner vision of the average child, and does not prevent its imagination from filling in the details later. For instance, it would be quite impossible for the average child to get an idea from mere word-painting of the atmosphere of the polar regions as represented lately on the film in connection with Captain Scott's expedition, but any stories told later on about these regions would have an infinitely greater interest.

There is, however, a real danger in using pictures to illustrate the story, especially if it be one which contains a direct appeal to the imagination of the child and one quite distinct from the stories which deal with facts, namely, that you force the whole audience of children to see the same picture, instead of giving each individual child the chance of making his own mental picture. That is of far greater joy, and of much great educational value, since by this process the child coöperates with you instead of having all the work done for him.

Queyrat, in his works on "La Logique chez l'Enfant," quotes Madame Necker de Saussure:[6] "To children and animals actual objects present themselves, not the terms of their manifestations. For them thinking is seeing over again, it is going through the sensations that the real object would have produced. Everything which goes on within them is in the form of pictures, or rather, inanimate scenes in which life is partially reproduced. . . . Since the child has, as yet, no capacity for abstraction, he finds a stimulating power in words and a suggestive inspiration which holds him enchanted. They awaken vividly colored images, pictures far more brilliant than would be called into being by the objects themselves." Surely, if this be true, we are taking from children that rare power of mental visualization by offering to their outward vision an actual picture.

I was struck with the following note by a critic of the Outlook , referring to a Japanese play but which bears quite directly on the subject in hand.

"First, we should be inclined to put insistence upon appeal by imagination.

Nothing is built up by lath and canvas; everything has to be created by the poet's speech." He alludes to the decoration of one of the scenes which consists of three pines, showing what can be conjured up in the mind of the spectator.

Ah, yes. Unfolding now before my eyes The views I know: the Forest, River, Sea And Mist—the scenes of Ono now expand.

I have often heard objections raised to this theory by teachers dealing with children whose knowledge of objects outside their own circle is so scanty that words we use without a suspicion that they are unfamiliar are really foreign expressions to them. Such words as sea, woods, fields, mountains, would mean nothing to them, unless some explanation were offered. To these objections I have replied that where we are dealing with objects that can actually be seen with the bodily eyes, then it is quite legitimate to show pictures before you begin the story, so that the distraction between the actual and mental presentation may not cause confusion; but, as the foregoing example shows, we should endeavor to accustom the children to seeing much more than mere objects themselves, and in dealing with abstract qualities we must rely solely on the power and choice of words and dramatic qualities of presentation, and we need not feel anxious if the response is not immediate, nor even if it is not quick and eager.[7] 7. The danger of obscuring the point of the story with too many details is not peculiar to teachers, nor is it shown only in the narrative form. I have often heard really brilliant after-dinner stories marred by this defect. One remembers the attempt made by Sancho Panza to tell a story to Don Quixote. I have always felt a keen sympathy with the latter in his impatience over the recital.

"In a village of Estramadura there was a shepherd—no, I mean a goatherd— which shepherd or goatherd as my story says, was called Lope Ruiz—and this Lope Ruiz was in love with a shepherdess called Torralva, who was daughter to a rich herdsman, and this rich herdsman ——" "If this be thy story, Sancho," said Don Quixote, "thou wilt not have done these two days. Tell it concisely, like a man of sense, or else say no more." "I tell it in the manner they tell all stories in my country," answered Sancho, "and I cannot tell it otherwise, nor ought your Worship to require me to make new customs." "Tell it as thou wilt, then," said Don Quixote, "since it is the will of fate that I should here it, go on." Sancho continued: "He looked about him until he espied a fisherman with a boat near him, but so small that it could only hold one person and one goat. The fisherman got into the boat and carried over on goat; he returned and carried another; he came back again and carried another. Pray, sir, keep an account of the goats which the fisherman is carrying over, for if you lose count of a single one, the story ends, and it will be impossible to tell a word more. . . . I go on, then. . . . He returned for another goat, and another, and another and another—— " "Suppose them all carried over," said Don Quixote, "or thou wilt not have finished carrying them this twelve months!" "Tell me, how many have passed already?" said Sancho.

"How should I know?" answered Don Quixote.

"See there, now! Did I not tell thee to keep an exact account? There is an end of the story. I can go no further." "How can this be?" said Don Quixote. "Is it so essential to the story to know the exact number of goats that passed over, that if one error be made the story can proceed no further?" "Even so," said Sancho Panza.

8. The danger of overexplanation is fatal to the artistic success of any story, but it is even more serious in connection with stories told from an educational point of view, because it hampers the imagination of the listener, and since the development of that faculty is one of our chief aims in telling these stories, we must leave free play, we must not test the effect, as I have said before, by the material method of asking questions. My own experience is that the fewer explanations you offer, provided you have been careful with the choice of your material and artistic in the presentation, the more the child will supplement by his own thinking power what is necessary for the understanding of the story.

Queyrat says: "A child has no need of seizing on the exact meaning of words; on the contrary, a certain lack of precision seems to stimulate his imagination only the more vigorously, since it gives him a broader liberty and firmer independence."[8] 9. The danger of lowering the standard of the story in order to appeal to the undeveloped taste of the child is a special one. I am alluding here only to the story which is presented from the educational point of view. There are moments of relaxation in a child's life, as in that of an adult, when a lighter taste can be gratified. I allude now to the standard of story for school purposes.

There is one development of story-telling which seems to have been very little considered, either in America or in our own country, namely, the telling of stories to old people, and that not only in institutions or in quiet country villages, but in the heart of the busy cities and in the homes of these old people. How often, when the young people are able to enjoy outside amusements, the old people, necessarily confined to the chimney-corner and many unable to read much for themselves, might return to the joy of their childhood by hearing some of the old stories told them in dramatic form. Here is a delightful occupation for those of the leisured class who have the gift, and a much more effective way of reading aloud.

Lady Gregory, in talking to the workhouse folk in Ireland, was moved by the strange contrast between the poverty of the tellers and the splendors of the tale.

She says: "The stories they love are of quite visionary things; of swans that turn into kings' daughters, and of castles with crowns over the doors, and of lovers' flights on the backs of eagles, and music-loving witches, and journeys to the other world, and sleeps that last for seven hundred years." I fear it is only the Celtic imagination that will glory in such romantic material; but I am sure the men and women of the poorhouse are much more interested than we are apt to think in stories outside the small circle of their lives.

Reference book: The Art Of The Story-Teller

Tags: Speech, public speaking, story telling, stories, ,

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