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Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The Art Of Storytelling

I've just come back from a weekend camping at the West Coutry Storytelling Festival in Devon. I managed to survive sleeping on a sloping airbed that was gradually making its way out of the tent, into the field full of cow pats and two bored-looking rams. I also got used to sitting for long hours on a camping mat whilst I listened to tales long and short, told by the acknowledged experts in their field (excuse the pun!).

Hearing stories told live is a great way to remind yourself of the power of language. Totally ephemeral, the words are gone as soon as they are spoken, so that unlike the written word a story told live relies on the linking of powerful images to guide you through the plot, and to remind you of where you have been. In this spoken language the sound of the words is very important - many storytellers use alliterative devices or rythmic repetition to delight the listener, some stories include passages of poetry or verse. Contrary to popular belief, this is a very sophisticated art form these days, with the tellers carefully crafting their language for maximum effect and impact.

We forget that the novel is a mere three hundred years old and that before that all stories were passed on orally, as a way to transmit wisdom or new ideas from generation to generation. As such, many were teaching stories designed to enthuse a new generation.

At the festival I heard a fair few of these, but also some wonderful performance poetry by Matt Harvey, a word-wrangler whose wit and delivery quickly won him a new legion of fans.

Over the weekend I was privileged to hear Hugh Lupton's well-researched story about poet John Clare, "On Common Ground," in which he posited the idea that if you become disconnected from your land or your roots you are being literally taken "out of your mind." Cleverly weaving some of Clare's own poetic lines into the story, this was a treat to hear. John Clare's life is fascinating coinciding as it does with the Enclosures Act in England which radically and permanently changed our landscape.

By the way, I have several of Hugh Lupton's tales on CD, including The Iliad and The Odyssey which I highly recommend. Greek myths dull? Not told this way they're not.

A great presence at this festival was the traditional tellers including the enthusiastic Clive Fairweather who knows over 400 traditional tales by heart, and who told us a 600 year old story that has recently been translated from old english and had its first airing since that time at the festival.

So what did I learn from the storytellers that I can transfer to my own writing?
  1. First - no rambling. If a live teller rambles we soon get bored and begin to shuffle on our camping mats!
  2. The more odd and unlikely the image, or the more beautiful, the more it sticks.
  3. Recap any particularly salient points, but not in the same words as before.
  4. Use plenty of dialogue and keep description to one or two well-chosen images.
  5. Vary your voice (or in the case of writing aim for a variety of tone)
  6. The audience likes to be surprised, to expect one thing and be given something different.
  7. It is alright to use a refrain, an image or words that return again and again.
  8. Language is infinitely flexible, the human being will try to make sense of even the most nonsensical statements, so be bold.
  9. Characters must be individuals, whether prince or wolf or stupid Jack, each one must have his own particular idiosyncrasies and not just be a mere cipher.
  10. The ending must fulfil the promise of the beginning of the story, with a twist.
And the other thing I learnt? To make sure I read my novel out loud, to feel the taste and texture of what I have written.


  1. It sounds great, Deborah. But are you really going to read your WHOLE novel aloud? Glad you had a good time, anyway, despite the cowpats.

  2. Hi Frances, I'd like to because it would probably improve it! But realistically I think not as otherwise it would be another six months before it got to the agent.I will read bits of it though - the dialogue particularly. But my partner and I do read books aloud to each other, the most recent being Robert Lacey's "Great Tales from English History" which is a 450 page paperback. It has taken us a few months, but it is a superb read, wittily told stories of all the snippets of history I've vaguely heard of, but up till now knew nothing about.

  3. Hi Dee - how I envy you your storytelling festival - though perhaps not the sitting on camping mats! I love these points you've extracted from the experience - I agree with all of them and need to remember to implement several! I always read each chapter of my wip aloud to myself as the final bit of ongoing reworking- it's amazing how many repetitions, infelicities and downright ugly bits of language slip through the sight-reading process, even though I think I hear the words in my head as I read.
    Thanks for a great post.