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The Artifices Of Story-Telling

By this term I do not mean anything against the gospel of simplicity which I am so constantly preaching, but, for want of a better term, I use the word "artifice" to express the mechanical devices by which we endeavor to attract and hold the attention of the audience.

By this term I do not mean anything against the gospel of simplicity which I am so constantly preaching, but, for want of a better term, I use the word "artifice" to express the mechanical devices by which we endeavor to attract and hold the attention of the audience. The art of telling stories is, in truth, much more difficult than acting a part on the stage: First, because the narrator is responsible for the whole drama and the whole atmosphere which surrounds it. He has to live the life of each character and understand the relation which each bears to the whole. Secondly, because the stage is a miniature one, gestures and movements must all be so adjusted as not to destroy the sense of proportion. I have often noticed that actors, accustomed to the more roomy public stage, are apt to be too broad in their gestures and movements when they tell a story. The special training for the story- teller should consist not only in the training of the voice and in choice of language, but above all in power of delicate suggestion, which cannot always be used on the stage because this is hampered by the presence of actual things. The story-teller has to present these things to the more delicate organism of the "inward eye." So deeply convinced am I of the miniature character of the story- telling art that I believe one never gets a perfectly artistic presentation of this kind in a very large hall or before a very large audience.

I have made experiments along this line, having twice told a story to an audience in America[12] exceeding five thousand, but on both occasions, though the dramatic reaction upon oneself from the response of so large an audience was both gratifying and stimulating, I was forced to sacrifice the delicacy of the story and to take from its artistic value by the necessity of emphasis, in order to be heard by all present.

Emphasis is the bane of all story-telling, for it destroys the delicacy, and the whole performance suggests a struggle in conveying the message. The indecision of the victory leaves the audience restless and unsatisfied.

Then, again, as compared with acting on the stage, in telling a story one misses the help of effective entrances and exits, the footlights, the costume, the facial expression of your fellow-actor which interprets so much of what you yourself say without further elaboration on your part; for, in the story, in case of a dialogue which necessitates great subtlety and quickness in facial expression and gesture, one has to be both speaker and listener.

Now, of what artifices can we make use to take the place of all the extraneous help offered to actors on the stage? First and foremost, as a means of suddenly pulling up the attention of the audience, is the judicious art of pausing. For those who have not actually had experience in the matter, this advice will seem trite and unnecessary, but those who have even a little experience will realize with me the extraordinary efficacy of this very simple means. It is really what Coquelin spoke of as a "high light," where the interest is focused, as it were, to a point.

I have tried this simple art of pausing with every kind of audience, and I have rarely know it to fail. It is very difficult to offer a concrete example of this, unless one is giving a "live" representation, but I shall make an attempt, and at least I shall hope to make myself understood by those who have heard me tell stories.

In Hans Andersen's "Princess and the Pea," the King goes down to open the door himself. Now, one may make this point in two ways. One may either say: "And then the King went to the door, and at the door there stood a real Princess," or, "And then the King went to the door, and at the door there stood—(pause)—a real Princess." It is difficult to exaggerate the difference of effect produced by so slight a pause.

[13] With children it means an unconscious curiosity which expresses itself in a sudden muscular tension. There is just time during that instant's pause to feel, though not to formulate , the question: "What is standing at the door?" By this means, half your work of holding the attention is accomplished. It is not necessary for me to enter into the psychological reason of this, but I strongly recommend those who are interested in the question to read the chapter in Ribot's work on this subject, "Essai sur L'Imagination Cré atrice," as well as Mr.

Keatinge's work on "Suggestion." I would advise all teachers to revise their stories with a view to introducing the judicious pause, and to vary its use according to the age, the number, and, above all, the mood of the audience. Experience alone can insure success in this matter.

It has taken me many years to realize the importance of this artifice.

Among other means for holding the attention of the audience and helping to bring out the points of the story is the use of gesture. I consider, however, that it must be a sparing use, and not of a broad or definite character. We shall never improve on the advice given by Hamlet to the actors on this subject: "See that ye o'erstep not the modesty of Nature." And yet, perhaps it is not necessary to warn story-tellers against abuse of gesture. It is more helpful to encourage them in the use of it, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries, where we are fearful of expressing ourselves in this way, and when we do the gesture often lacks subtlety. The Anglo-Saxon, when he does move at all, moves in solid blocks —a whole arm, a whole leg, the whole body—but if one watches a Frenchman or an Italian in conversation, one suddenly realizes how varied and subtle are the things which can be suggested by the mere turn of the wrist or the movement of a finger. The power of the hand has been so wonderfully summed up in a passage from Quintillian that I am justified in offering it to all those who wish to realize what can be done by a gesture: "As to the hands, without the aid of which all delivery would be deficient and weak, it can scarcely be told of what a variety of motions they are susceptible, since they almost equal in expression the power of language itself. For other parts of the body assist the speaker, but these, I may almost say, speak themselves. With our hands we ask, promise, call persons to us and send them away, threaten, supplicate, intimate dislike or fear; with out hands we signify joy, grief, doubt, acknowledgement, penitence, and indicate measure, quantity, number and time. Have not our hands the power of inciting, of restraining, or beseeching, of testifying approbation? . . . So that amidst the great diversity of tongues pervading all nations and people, the language of the hands appears to be a language common to all men."[14] One of the most effective of artifices in telling stories to young children is the use of mimicry—the imitation of animals' voices and sound in general is of never-ending joy to the listeners. However, I should wish to introduce a note of grave warning in connection with this subject. This special artifice can only be used by such narrators as have special aptitude and gifts in this direction. There are many people with good imaginative power but who are wholly lacking in the power of mimicry, and their efforts in this direction, however painstaking, remain grotesque and therefore ineffective. When listening to such performances, of which children are strangely critical, one is reminded of the French story in which the amateur animal painter is showing her picture to an undiscriminating friend: "Ah!" says the friend, "this is surely meant for a lion?" "No," says the artist (?), with some slight show of temper, "it is my little lapdog." Another artifice which is particularly successful with very small children is to insure their attention by inviting their coö peration before one actually begins the story. The following has proved quite effective as a short introduction to my stories when I was addressing large audiences of children: "Do you know that last night I had a very strange dream, which I am going to tell you before I begin the stories? I dreamed that I was walking along the streets of —— [here would follow the town in which I happened to be speaking], with a large bundle on my shoulders, and this bundle was full of stories which I had been collecting all over the world in different countries; and I was shouting at the top of my voice: 'Stories! Stories! Stories! Who will listen to my stories?' And the children came flocking round me in my dream, saying: 'Tell us your stories. We will listen to your stories.' So I pulled out a story from my big bundle and I began in a most excited way, "Once upon a time there lived a King and a Queen who had no children, and they——' Here a little boy, very much like that little boy I see sitting in the front row, stopped me, saying: 'Oh, I know that old story: it's Sleeping Beauty.' "So I pulled out a second story, and began: 'Once upon a time there was a little girl who was sent by her mother to visit her grandmother ——' Then a little girl, so much like the one sitting at the end of the second row, said: 'Oh! everybody knows that story! It's——'" Here I would like to make a judicious pause, and then the children in the audience would shout in chorus, with joyful superiority: "Little Red Riding- Hood!" before I had time to explain that the children in my dream had done the same.

This method I repeated two or three times, being careful to choose very wellknown stories. By this time the children were all encouraged and stimulated. I usually finished with congratulations on the number of stories they knew, expressing a hope that some of those I was going to tell that afternoon would be new to them. I have rarely found this plan to fail to establish a friendly relation between oneself and the juvenile audience. It is often a matter of great difficulty, not to win the attention of an audience but to keep it, and one of the most subtle artifices is to let the audience down (without their perceiving it) after a dramatic situation, so that the reaction may prepare them for the interest of the next situation.

An excellent instance of this is to be found in Rudyard Kipling's story of "The Cat That Walked . . ." where the repetition of words acts as a sort of sedative until one realizes the beginning of a fresh situation.

The great point is never to let the audience quite down, that is, in stories which depend on dramatic situations. It is just a question of shade and color in the language. If you are telling a story in sections, and one spread over two or three occasions, you should always stop at an exciting moment. It encourages speculation in the children's minds, which increases their interest when the story is taken up again.

Another very necessary quality in the mere artifice of story-telling is to watch your audience, so as to be able to know whether its mood is for action or reaction, and to alter your story accordingly. The moods of reaction are rarer, and you must use them for presenting a different kind of material. Here is your opportunity for introducing a piece of poetic description, given in beautiful language, to which the children cannot listen when they are eager for action and dramatic excitement.

Perhaps one of the greatest artifices is to take a quick hold of your audience by a striking beginning which will enlist their attention from the start. You can then relax somewhat, but you must be careful also of the end because that is what remains most vivid to the children. If you question them as to which story they like best in a program, you will constantly find it to be the last one you have told, which has for the moment blurred out the others.

Here are a few specimens of beginnings which seldom fail to arrest the attention of the child: "There was once a giant ogre, and he lived in a cave by himself." From "The Giant and Jack-straws," David Starr Jordan.

"There were once twenty-five tin soldiers, who were all brothers, for they had been made out of the same old tin spoon." From "The Tin Soldier," Hans Christian Andersen.

"There was once an Emperor who had a horse shod with gold." From "The Beetle," Hans Christian Andersen.

"There was once a merchant who was so rich that he could have paved the whole street with gold, and even then he would have had enough for a small alley." From the "The Flying Trunk," Hans Christian Andersen.

"There was once a shilling which came forth from the mint springing and shouting, 'Hurrah! Now I am going out into the wide world.'" From "The Silver Shilling," Hans Christian Andersen.

"In the High and Far Off Times the Elephant, O Best Beloved, had no trunk." From "The Elephant's Child": "Just So Stories," Rudyard Kipling.

"Not always was the Kangaroo as now we behold him, but a Different Animal with four short legs." From "Old Man Kangaroo": "Just So Stories," Rudyard Kipling.

"Whichever way I turn," said the weather-cock on a high steeple, "no one is satisfied." From "Fire-side Fables," Edwin Barrow.

"A set of chessmen, left standing on their board, resolved to alter the rules of the game." From the same source.

"The Pink Parasol had tender whalebone ribs and a slender stick of cherrywood." From "Very Short Stories," Mrs. W. K. Clifford.

"There was once a poor little Donkey on Wheels: it had never wagged its tail, or tossed its head, or said 'Hee-haw,' or tasted a tender thistle." From the same source.

Now, some of these beginnings are, of course, for very young children, but they all have the same advantage, that of plunging in medias res , and, therefore, arrest attention at once, contrary to the stories which open on a leisurely note of description.

In the same way we must be careful about the endings of stories. They must impress themselves either in a very dramatic climax to which the whole story has worked up, as in the following: "Then he goes out the Wet Wild Woods, or up the Wet Wild Trees, or on the Wet Wild Roofs, waving his Wild Tail, and walking by his Wild Lone." From "Just So Stories," Rudyard Kipling.

Or by an anti-climax for effect: "We have all this straight from the alderman's newspaper, but it is not to be depended on." From "Jack the Dullard," Hans Christian Andersen.

Or by evading the point: "Whoever does not believe this must buy shares in the Tanner's yard." From A Great Grief," Hans Christian Andersen.

Or by some striking general comment: "He has never caught up with the three days he missed at the beginning of the world, and he has never learnt how to behave." From "How the Camel got his Hump": "Just So Stories," Rudyard Kipling.

I have only suggested in this chapter a few of the artifices which I have found useful in my own experience, but I am sure that many more might be added.

Reference book: The Art Of The Story-Teller

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