When I discovered the oral tradition of storytelling in 2014, I became intrigued as to what ‘story’ actually meant. I noticed that some stories were appealing while others were less so, and I wondered, why? I was mostly focussed on the question, “does a story need a problem to be a story?”
It was looking at these questions when I came across books from a storyteller who delved in this matter quite extensively and scientifically: Kendall Haven. After reading some of his work, I was ready to share my knowledge. I decided to create two storytelling clubs and have been leading storytelling workshops since, along with lots more reading and reflecting on my own learning.
The storytelling club meetings and workshops are a great platform to bounce thoughts and ideas and gain a deeper understanding about stories and storytelling. I find that by explaining something to others, I more easily make sense of what I know, and by discussing and answering questions, I’m able to see things from different perspectives. To me, storytelling is an opportunity for everyone to continuously learn.
The participants are mostly aspiring storytellers and I am often asked, “how do I make my story more appealing to my audience?”. Usually when people ask me this question, they believe that what they are missing are more gestures, narrative enrichment and voice variety. Their question is, in other words, how do I make my storytelling style more appealing to my audience?
I approach this topic from my psychology background. I believe that gestures, narrative enrichment and voice variety, all come from understanding and empathising with the characters. It is important to imagine how a character would feel in a certain situation so that we are able to describe it using our senses, which will then translate to our storytelling style.
When we empathise with a character we are actually empathising with their motive, – the reason why they do something and how they feel about it. For example, let’s consider a popular fairy tale which most people know; Cinderella. I will describe a short excerpt of plain telling, and then discuss how it could be told considering Cinderella’s motive.
“Cinderella was left behind; she could still hear her step-mother’s laughter. She yearned to go to that party (goal) but there was nothing that she could do..”.
In this telling no motive was offered. No reason for why Cinderella wanted to go to the party. It was left for the audience to assume. When the teller is not aware of the character’s motive, the telling becomes quite plain and we aren’t sure of what kind of feelings to anchor on to. Now let’s give Cinderella a motive: she feels lonely, that’s why she yearns to meet other people.
Cinderella was left behind, she yearned to go to that party (goal). She wanted to meet other people outside that gloomy house as she always felt so lonely (motive). She could still hear her step-mother’s laughter; why didn’t she take her? Her step-mother never let her go anywhere. Tears rolled down her face, making her old rags stick to her skin, she felt so cold, so alone. Outside the moon was covered in fog, the night was dark, there was nothing that she could do, she was hopeless all by herself
Since this is an article, I’m unable to ‘show’ what I mean about the physical telling enrichment, you would have to hear and see me for that! But perhaps you can try to tell the same short passage, in your own words of course.
Firstly, tell it as you remember the story.
For the second telling, decide what Cinderella’s motive is and then retell the story. Perhaps for you, Cinderella could have a different motive to want to go to that party? Who is Cinderella to you? What values does she have in your version?
The character’s motive leads us to their values, which ultimately will guide their behavior. In the previous example, Cinderella’s value is ‘Love’ and therefore her motive is to seek someone who will care for her and she will care for in return. Now let’s give her a different value and observe how her motive and reaction changes accordingly. Cinderella’s new value is “Balance“
Cinderella was left behind, she really wanted to attend that party (goal). She wanted to have fun, to dance not just work, work, work (motive: have a break from work). She could still hear her step-mother’s laughter; why didn’t she let her go? Her step-mother never took her anywhere, she never let her have a break, Cinderella was so tired. She felt her body heavy, pulling her to the ground. Outside the moon was covered in fog, the night was dark, there was nothing that she could do, she fell asleep
The character’s motive and values is a topic that I continuously address in my discussions with other storytellers and in my reflections through my articles. I believe that we can work on our voice, body and face, on our dramatic skills but without ‘feeling for the character’ we will not be able to transmit an appealing story to our audience.
Additionally, I believe that storytelling has the magical power to influence people’s thoughts, perspectives and ultimately their own values. Stories told by responsible tellers, who are aware of how the teller’s own values shape their telling, will be able to influence others, hopefully, in a positive way.
Each teller tells their version of a story influenced by their own values. Being aware of those values and reflecting whether those are appropriate to transmit to a certain audience- in a certain context is a decision we should make consciously, as tellers.
Still using Cinderella’s example, would you tell Cinderella’s story “Her step-mother never let her have a break” with such a negative note about a step-mother to an audience of divorced and re-married families?
Perhaps you would, if your goal was to set the stage for a discussion about feelings and ways to approach them in the family. But if you only told the story to entertain this audience and left afterwards, not offering a platform for discussion and reflection, what do you think the impact of your story would be? Perhaps likely contributed to the reinforcement of negative feelings towards step-mothers!
By reflecting on the story, on your own values about families with step-parents, do you believe that step-parents are always the ‘bad guys’? If not, then you would maybe change the way you portray the characters. Perhaps you would tell another story afterwards, where the step-parent has a completely different connotation, offering different perspectives on the same topic. You may tell the traditional version of Cinderella, where her step-mother is always the antagonist, followed by another story like ‘The Lion’s Whisker’, an Ethiopian Folktale in which the antagonist is the child and the step-mother is actually making a huge effort to connect with her step-child. In this version she gets to be the hero. By including two different perspectives on step-mothers in your storytelling program you could contribute for your audience to become more understanding in sometimes difficult relationships.
Try to be aware of stereotypes in your stories and avoid reinforcing them through your storytelling. Instead offer you audience a series of different perspectives. By being aware of your own values, you will probably reflect more on the messages you send through storytelling and adapt your stories or storytelling program accordingly.
I believe that we can all be successful storytellers with our own personal style, just as long as we are authentic and aware of our own values, so that we may be empathetic towards others and that will be transmitted through our telling.
About the Storyteller: Ana Sousa Gavin is a Portuguese oral storyteller and storytelling coach, based in Singapore. She has a background in psychology, early years’ education and fitness coaching. Her audiences speak diverse languages and so does she!