Perspective and backstory

Every story is told from a particular perspective, from a specific point of view. When I’m working on stories, I find it helpful to shift that perspective, to stretch myself. I see the story from new angles, noticing aspects I didn’t earlier understand. I’ll tell myself the story from the point of view of a peripheral character or the dog. I don’t usually tell the story this way, but use it as an exercise to anchor the story firmly in my imagination.

I’ve been thinking about perspective since the flooding in May when I saw this blue heron. Normally, we only see these magnificent birds from below. I took this picture standing on the bridge looking from above. I had no idea they were this brilliant!


I love working on perspective and backstory, understanding aspects of story characters that I’ll never put in the told tale. What color does the big sister in The ghost with the one black eye have? Pink. Do listeners need to know this? No. If I told you every detail, you’d be bored long before the end of the story. It’s helpful to me in order to create characters that are fully formed in my imagination.

If I find myself losing interest in a story, I may change the image in my mind. I picture the family in The ghost as African-American. I’ll imagine the little girl in The Gunniwolf as Asian. Again, I don’t tell the audience how I’m seeing the story in my mind. They have their own pictures. Doing this freshens the story up.

When I teach kids about backstory, I tell them that I need to know everything about the story, that I should be able to answer any question they pose, without even thinking. Then they start slinging me questions!

And speaking of backstory, here’s the picture I took just before the one above.


Advice to new storytellers

Here's another long post, of interest to storytellers or those who want to learn. 

I asked this important question on Twitter and the Facebook Storytellers Group: Do you have a first piece of advice you give to beginning storytellers?

I've taken a few liberties with the responses, changing the order a bit and leaving out a couple of tangents. 

Mary Hamilton chimed in first with the advice that was offered most often: "Tell only stories you truly love." To me, that's the one hard and fast rule of storytelling. All the rest are merely suggestions. Kate DuddingMichael D. McCartyMarilyn Hudson and Beverly Comer agreed with this. Beverly added, "On the subject of telling stories that you love. Remember it's OK to have a favorite age group to which you tell stories. That can change over time, too. I love the wee ones... although I enjoy telling stories to all ages. I know, however, some folks might run for the hills at the thought of telling stories to toddlers and two's or preschoolers. You know what.... it's all good... it's all OK." I added a little piece, too: "I also am likely to give old friend Papa Joe's advice: 'If you want to be a storyteller, tell stories. If you want to be a better storyteller, tell more stories.' Is that foolproof? No, but if you're open to learn as you go, you may go far."

Julie Moss Herrera refined it a little: "Tell stories that you love and that love you back."

Mark Goldman did as well: "1. Tell stories you love. 2. Save all your money!

Thea M. Nicholas said, "Practice at least one more more time."

Pam Faro said, "I encourage them to do 2 things: Listen to as many storytellers as you can - there's always something to learn. Tell as often as you can - there's always something to learn."

Robin Bady took it in a different direction: "There are four things necessary to tell a story

1. a story
2. a storyteller
3. a space
4. an audience

have fun!"

David Thompson said, "Unless you are ready to live in the land of myth and legend, don't."

Danny Turner said, "Be passionate! Because if you aren't you'll never make it." Then he added, "Be true to your story, your audience and yourself. Nothing else matters"

Liz Weir gave the excellent advice, "Listen!" 

Sara deBeer suggested this: "Use the phrase 'Now I'm going to tell you about . . .' The obligation to 'tell' can seem overwhelming; to 'tell about' is much less loaded for some people."

Steve Daugherty said, "Watch their eyes (the members of the audience). Are they imagining your scenes and stories? Are they with you? Are you managing to keep "just one step ahead of them?" If so, you got em. Now, throw the curve ball. Take a wrong turn."

Michael D. Cohen gave this idea: "Record yourself--and then listen to yourself. You will hear what you are doing right, and what you are doing wrong. You will also get to to enjoy the audience's reaction (which you were probably too busy or nervous to fully take in)."

Mel Davenport said, "Relax, relax, relax....let the story do the work...."

Anthony Burcher made this observation: "So many folks say, 'I can't sing, can't dance, can't act, but I can talk--I must be a storyteller.' No, we are an art-form as valid as all the others. Everyone can and should tell stories, but only the artists with true talent should charge money for their tales."

Pat Musselman's advice could apply to life in general, too: "Be yourself. Don't try to mimic another storyteller. Let your true self come out."

Gregory Leifel said, "Commit some time to assist the storytelling world through volunteerism, and it will pay you back as a more complete teller and grow your audience."

Diane Edgecomb had a different take, "Storytelling has nothing to do with memorization!"

Marilyn Kinsella said, "Putting your words and you images into the telling of the story will allow you to remember it...forever."

Traphene Parramore Hickman had a piece of advice for teaching new storytellers: "The first thing that I do with beginners is walk out , look each in the eye and tell who I am. Then I bow. Then I asked what I had done and have each do it. They learned to stand up straight withour all that silliness of being imbarrassed. The I tell a simple story and ask who want to to it. It is amazing how well they do. I try for nothing but possitive reenforcement."

Ruth Stotter was succinct: "Find your own style"

Judy Sima said, "Start simple, choose a story you love, practice and find someone supportive to give you feedback."

Lisa Facciponti's advice was some she'd been given: "A very long time ago, Bill Harley said, 'tell it like your life depends on it.' It has stuck with me all these years and given me courage needed in the moment."

Andre Heuer reminded us, "Relax, enjoy and trust yourself..."

Ward Rubrecht gave another piece of good life advice: "Make mistakes, then learn from them."

Elizabeth Ellis' advice was also a bit of life advice, "Don't forget to breathe." Sharon Gilbert agreed with this.

He who is known as "Narrative Arts Oh-Assieux" had several recommendations: "Find a comfortable venue with an air of time past about it. Adjust the lighting. Dress well." He added, "Wait until people are listening." Then, "Let your stories live their own lives, unfettered by your dogmas."

Megan Hicks said, "A beginning storyteller sought me out after a showcase today to ask for just this sort of advice. Having witnessed her showcase, the advice I gave her was, 'Decide where on the spectrum you feel most comfortable -- as storyTELLER or storyPERFORMER.' I don't know why, but that continues to be an important consideration for me to keep asking myself." This is an interesting consideration, and a little sidetrack in the conversation formed, but I'm saving that for another time. 

Tim Ereneta said, "I always tell beginners: you have permission to make two mistakes. Four would be even better."

Though this wasn't the last word in the thread (I've taken liberties with the order here), I want to end with Arif Choudhury's comment: "Play, have fun...oh, in case no one mentioned this before...TELL STORIES THAT YOU LOVE!"

Have more to add? Put them in the comments below.

Story questions

A few weeks ago, on a whim, I started asking questions about storytelling on Twitter and in the Storytellers group on Facebook (if you're interested, the hashtag is #storyquestion) . I haven't had much response on Twitter, but the FB group has been a-buzz. Julie Moss Herrera asked if I would compile the answers, so here's the first installment. People sometimes respond to a post much later than the day I put it up, so I may miss some answers.

The first was, "What do you consider to be the essential elements of a good story?" 

Tim Sheppard, on Twitter, said, "Transformation is probably the most crucial element of a good story." I added, "Clear images, conflict, conflict resolved, personally significant and universal themes that answer the question, 'So what?'" Oddly enough, I didn't get any response to this one on Facebook. 

The second question was "What are the elements of a bad story, in your estimation?"

Limor Shiponi said, "Nothing that gives you a reason to tell it :) nothing different than what happened yesterday... and the day before... and..." I added my two cents (or 140 characters): "Excellent! I call it my "so what?" test. If it doesn't move me in some way, why am I listening (or reading or watching or...?"

Over on FB, the conversation started in earnest. Buckle your seatbelts and hang on for the ride. I've left out comments that didn't answer the question (the conversation drifted over to Aristotle and deus ex machina and fairy helpers):

I started with this: "I do think there are bad stories, as well as stories badly told. Here are a few elements: stories that are badly crafted so the listener can't follow, stories with too much extraneous detail, stories that end with 'and then I woke up.' It is, of course, a subjective matter, and one of degree. I need the story to pass my 'so what' test. Do I care in some way? Sometimes I'll hear a story told by a good teller, told well, but in five minutes I can't remember the tale at all."

Narrative Arts Oh-Assieux (a trickster, who has a different name in real life) said: "Impatient! I was just writing a few of the most important ones: Bad listening conditions, an unambitious protagonist, and/or a plot that pursues a moral at the expense of sound narrative logic."

Sara DeBeer Zeiger said, "Stories that are more like stand-up therapy sessions (which then leave the audience feeling concern for the teller."

Narrative Arts...what the heck, I'm calling him Narry from now on, added, "A story that neglects the overriding importance of action, e.g. a story that uses commentary instead of action to present the characters, or a story where there is no specific external action at all to manifest the character's inner conflict."

Julie Moss Herrera said, "For me a good story needs some dialog to carry it forward as well as action."

Rachel Ann Harding said, "A bad story seems to occur when the teller is not listening to to the audience."

Mary Grace Ketner, who with Megan Hicks over at Fairy Tale Lobby often examines similar questions, added, "A story whose ending does not derive from the actions of the narrative."

Rob Vanderwildt from Belgium chimed in, "Evaluating a story as a 'bad' story has much to do with your intuition and your own references. I agree with Mary Grace Ketner, however, what to think of the famous 'deus ex machina' for example? Though storyteller and story are a unity especially at the moment of telling, both play different roles. Sometimes a storyteller makes a 'bad' story worse, sometimes he/she may raise it to a 'better' level."

Leeny Del Seamonds said, "A bad story is one that is confusing to the audience and doesn't make sense. And the teller is definitely not in tune with the audience."

Roger Armstrong's comment was about the discussion: "Given my part-time-in-retirement preaching job, I'm loving substituting "sermon" for "story" in the above discussion. It becomes even more practical and, for me, important."

Mary Jo Maichack made me laugh with "To quote Woody Allen (well, as far as memory serves), '...long, boring and pointless.'"

Ruth Stotter said, "Even a dull or weak story can be translated to an exciting performance. and a great story can become pointless or boring with a bored or dull teller. I am very forgiving if I got something from the experience of seeing and hearing the tale. What I do object to is hearing personal tragedies told and then learning later the person did not really get divorced three times, have a mastectomy and lose their toddler in the waterfall. If the teller invents a positive experience - e.g. "The day I won the lottery" - I am not distressed at being used as I enjoyed the tale. But to be roped in with compassion when it is an invented disaster- and not informed of this even after the applause (allowed to go home wanting to send roses to the teller) makes me feel betrayed."

Csenge Zalka said, "Assuming your audience is something they are not. Stupid, most often. Or younger than they are."

Narry added to Csenge's remark, "Or afraid of the dark."

Ruth had another thought: "I love the Koestler quote about story endings: Ha ha, ahhhh or aha. and elizabeth ellis added a fourth - amen. There does seem to be a moment of something (truth/insight/laughter) that leaves the listener "satisfied." That it was worthwhile concentrating and focusing on the tale. I listen to a lot of "so what" tales where I feel I wasted my time. I didn't "get to know the teller", have an enjoyable listening experience, and the story didn't communicate anything. Lest this sound too critical, a "story" might just be a description of what is on your desk - but if at the end I see/know you in a new way something has been transformed and I am content."

Simon Brooks asked, "Aren't all stories good? I think the only time a story is poor is One Poorly Told..."

Narry answered, "I am sorry to disagree, Simon. Alas, I think some stories are poorly made, e.g. deficient in plot logic or excessive in commentary, or delivered to an inappropriate audience, e.g. a tale best suited to children but delivered to adults, or suited to adults but delivered to children."

Csenge said, "Oh, there are definitely bad stories. 18th century French literary fairy tales,for example. I break out in hives from those. "And then the prince cried out and fainted from love, tears streaming from his eyes..."

Simon refined what he'd said this way: "I was referring to folk tales which are already 'made', but those points you raised, excessive in commentary, or delivered to an inappropriate audience, do pertain to folk tales too and would say that is all part of what I consider poorly told. But yes, with original or personal tales, or a set made up and tied together with poor, illogical plot, weak characters, do make for a terrible 'story'. And too add to that list: a story which has not been worked on enough and is too loose, sloppy and as a result cannot end soon enough but lasts forever! And your first comment - bad listening situation can make the best story the worst no matter if it was the best telling ever! Yes, yes, yes!"

He continued, "Other points, I love Japanese stories, and maybe because I like the endings. But this book I have of French tales I cannot get through because the endings seem to fall flat. They end, they just STOP! The book is called The Borzoi Book of French Fairy Tales!

Csenge added to this, "I would argue that there are bad folktales as well. Some of the tales censored out of Grimm were censored out with a good reason. "Hey, let's beat the Jews/Gypsies/mentally disabled, it's funny!" type folktales have always been on my blacklist..."

Simon and Narry went on to agree about this. 

Brian Fox Ellis put in the last word (so far) in this discussion: "I heard a gentleman stretch a 2 minute story into 20 and repeat himself often with unimaginative vocabulary. Flat, flat, flat."

So those are the first conversations. Do you feel enlightened?