One of the things I want to do here, on this site, is talk openly about the practice and craft of storytelling. I am at that stage in my development where I’m shedding the mantle of being a young storyteller, of being an emergent artist, and looking to stand amongst my peers in my own right. From where I am it’s painfully obvious to me that there’s a lack of resources available for people looking to grow as tellers. So I’ll be taking this opportunity to talk a little about the lessons I’ve learned, as much to get them straight in my head as anything else. If it leads to dialogue, or if anyone else learns anything, then that’s brilliant!
I won’t start with performance or language, these things aren’t my forte. To begin with I intend to put together a series of brief essays on the subject of crafting, of structuring, of putting stories together. These are lessons that are important, especially to someone looking to work as a teller professionally, because they ensure that our repertoires are really our own, that we know our material, that we are bringing stories back to the village to share and that we are serving them up in new, engaging, relevant ways.
I can’t remember from whom I first heard the metaphor, Ben Lehman probably. When you find a story in a collection or summarised on Wikipedia or the like, you find its bones. Written down, raggedly, scratched in the dirt. Brief and pointless and dead. But these stories are incredibly important to us. If we find them preserved in this ragged, skeletal fashion, rather than hearing them whole and vital from other tellers, then that means they may be missing from the collected canon of tales in circulation round the village. We have an obligation to perform a little necromancy.
So the craft of storytelling is the art of putting those bones together, of wrapping them in flesh, of making them come alive, dance and entrance the listeners. It may be as light as giving proper emphasis to some parts of the story in order to put a pulse into the tale. It may be adding or embellishing description or deciding whose point of view the narrative should follow. However, sometimes the process will be much more rigorous, and we will need to think about how the emotional arc is pulling the story, graft more than one tale together, or build up character motivations from little more than dust. What’s important is that all the decisions we make about the structure of a story, as Loren Neimi repeatedly makes clear in his The Book of Plots, should be deliberate and considered, and we should be aware of the importance and impact of the choices we make on the telling.
So before we continue, let’s ask how much can we change and work our material. What permissions do we have to adapt our tales, and what obligations do we have to the story? I’ll expand on this further when I talk about life in the Cannibal Village, but for now I want to share some of the insight I gleamed while reading Mariah Tartar’s The Classic Fairy Tales.
In this collection Tartar very deliberately takes four or five common versions of well known fairy tales and offers them up alongside one another. So, for example, under the section for Beauty and the Beast we find de Beaumont’s Beauty and The Beast, Straparola’s The Pig King, the Brothers Grimm’s The Frog King, Angela Carter’s The Tiger’s Bride and several others, along with commentary about what makes these different versions distinct and references to similar tales like East of the Sun, West of the Moon.
These different versions are just that: different and radically so. It’s hard in some cases to even say what fundamental quality of the story is preserved when narrative premise, beastial imagery and every single aspect of the tale seem mutable from one version to the next. And yet what we can learn here is that the boundaries which a single story can explore without losing its fundamental identity are very wide indeed. We have permission to adapt, to change, to twist and to reconsider our stories to an alarming degree, as long as we do so to the betterment and relevance of the performances we give.
Our work is very different from that of the great anatomist Cuvier, who allegedly could see exactly how a whole animal must have appeared from a single bone. There is no definite creature we are making when we reconstruct our bones, we may have too many bones or bones from more than one original creature. Thus the choices that need making are ours to make, the artistic decisions ours to own, and we must not shy away from them.
And the resulting stories are ours to tell.