Storytelling Defaults

Storytelling Defaults: Things to Do Unless You Have a Good Reason Not To

  dé • fault: A value or setting that a device or program automatically selects if you do not specify a substitute. (Webster’s Dictionary).

There are some things when telling a story that we automatically do, unless we choose to do otherwise. These are storytelling defaults. The list below represents many of these defaults. They are rules that are just waiting to be broken by your artistic choices! But please: make sure that if you break these you are making a conscious choice for a really good reason! Most of these defaults will get their own workshop later on. But here is a list for now.

Visualize: see and focus your eyes on important images. Include all seven senses (1-sight, 2-hearing, 3-taste, 4-touch, 5-smell, 6-see dead people, 7-emotions/intuition). If you imagine the things in your story clearly and COMPLETELY, that’s 80% of the work! After this, it’s all just polishing and fine tuning. This is the most difficult and the most fundamental of all storytelling skills. It’s also the most neglected! It MUST be done! .

. . . vs. . . .

Images are more important than information. Storytelling, like all art, is a way to communicate images. Reports, memos, speeches and lists are good ways to communicate information. Information and images often go together, but while it is often necessary to augment images with information, the image is what engages an audience and keeps it interested. Images are whatmake stories artistic and fun to watch and listen to. This is, quite frankly, the most difficult of the defaults to maintain throughout a story (see “Visualize” above). It takes, focus, concentration, and a real imagining in the mind’s eye. See how closely this is related to “Visualization” above. Also, remember the short workshop with the list when you read the list and then imagined the list and used your body and voice to communicate the objects better.

. Be INSIDE a story rather than OUTSIDE. Being inside a story means that we see the images in the story take place around us. We are in the middle of them, seeing and interacting with them. If you are inside a story, there are things and events that take place above you, below you, behind you, in front of you and to the side of you. You MUST be aware of all of these directions and what is going on there. Being outside a story means that we are somehow distanced from the images and action. Being inside is usually much more engaging than being outside. Our natural inhibitions often lead us to see small models of our stories, taking place in front of us, or taking place in some place that we are not. This is usually undesirable. Overcoming these inhibitions to paint verbal and vocal pictures of the story’s images is vital to good telling. Being inside a story means that you are vibrant, surrounded by stimuli, and energetic in your communication of what is going on around you. You are next to Cinderella—or perhaps you BECOME Cinderella for a moment. The floor she is cleaning is underneath your very feet. Being inside a story allows you to better invite the audience to join you as you watch and participate in its virtual world. . Stories usually have a dramatic plot structure. A dramatic structure means that your story have a beginning, middle and and end and will rise to a climax toward the end. Energies and suspense will increase and get more and more exciting to this point. Make sure that your story gets more and more exciting as it continues to really maximize the impact of the conflict. .

 . .  Avoid contemporary colloquialisms. “Like,” “goes,” “you know,” and “um” are some of these. Using “like” and “goes” used to be made fun of as “Valley Girl” talk. Nowadays, we all do it, like, all the time. In fact, the other day, my wife goes, “David, you talk just like a Valley Girl!” Of course, the (usually) better choice would be to simply say, “Nowadays we all do it all the time” and avoid the “like” altogether. And my wife “said” that rather than “goed” it. The most compelling reason to avoid such speech isn’t to please the grammar police. Instead, using these words means we’re not taking advantage of the wonderfully rich vocabulary that we could be using. It is also a signal to listeners that you are sloppy with your language and have not prepared your story well. There are so many wonderful words in the English language, we simply don’t need to say “goes” when trying to say “said.” We can “mumble” or “bellow” or “yelp” or “whisper” or do lots of other things that are more creative and interesting that either “go-ing” something or “saying” something. Be creative! Using this kind of speech also makes your story very contemporary; often a wonderful mythic mood can be lost with their use. Worst of all, again, using this type of language alerts the listener to the preparation of your story–or lack thereof. Being deliberate with your words means you are taking care of the story and the audience as you take them on a journey through your images.

. Work from Inside to Out. This is organic storytelling. This means that we visualize things first in our minds (IN), then let these images influence our voice and body (OUT) to do things. The other way to do it is to think up gestures and voice inflections (OUT), etc. and then fill these in with real images (IN). Both processes work, but for the beginning storyteller, much more success is obtained by working from the inside to the out rather than vice-versa. Both Inside and Out have be present in a storytelling performance! Please remember the Organic Storytelling workshop you recently did. Can you see how organic storytelling proceeds from inside to outside?

As storytellers, we are performers, and we abide by the rules of the stage. Different rules apply to the stage than to real life or everyday living. In everyday living, it is difficult to scream in public, for example, but if a character screams in a story, you as a storyteller have to scream! You can’t “almost” scream or give a soft “mock” or quiet scream. You gotta get some volume! Telling a story is no time to let inhibitions make us lackluster. See the images; be committed to them; feel the urgent need to communicate them. Be communicative! Infuse your own personality into the story. Make it yours! Let your personality shine through the story by using your own brand of humor, speech and body patterns, and voice qualities. You are a special, amazing, wonderful person. Believe me; I know! Let your experience and background make your story specially yours.

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Other Technical and Helpful Defaults:

  1. Standing: in storytelling, we usually stand. Standing gives us as storytellers—especially beginning storytellers—more energy, shows enthusiasm, and helps us be more involved in and focused on the story we are telling. Most professional storytellers stand, though I do know several storytellers who always sit when telling. They have made this choice and use it well; they are able to find energy, enthusiasm and focus without standing because of long hours of practice and experience. Other times to sit may be when a character in the story sits or when the situation is not conducive for standing (like an intimate campfire, for instance)
  2. Keep your elbows away from your sides.Try it! You’ll be MUCH more communicative if you just do this simple thing. It only takes half an inch, but if you consciously move your elbows out 1/2 inch from your sides, your mind will be much more influential on your gestures and body.
  3. Lean toward your audience, especially at important moments. This gives a feeling of importance.
  4. When in doubt, point. If you don’t know what to do with an image, or if your visualization is not complete (or even if it is), simply point to where it is relative to where you are as you are inside the story. This is a good technique, especially when you are not quite familiar with the images as you should be.
  5. Write your story as or before you rehearse it, but don’t memorize it. However, you can and should memorize special words, phrases, running jokes, special descriptions, etc. to add that creative, artistic, polished flair to your story.
  6. Practice your story at least 10 times. After you have and know a story, you will generally have to practice it at least 10 times before it will be ready for a real performance. It doesn’t matter if the story is a fairy tale or a personal story you lived through. Hey, practice makes better, right? Perform with confidence! To build this confidence, you’ll need to be prepared. 10 times (going all the way through the story), in my experience working with students for many years, is the least amount of times you’ll need to rehearse a story. “But I want my story to be fresh and impromptu!” you say. This is rubbish. Of course you want your story to be fresh and impromptu, but you still need the images in place, you still need to get your body language and voice just right, and you still need to prepare in many ways. Practicing a story at least 10 times does not mean you are memorizing it. It does mean, however, that you will be prepared. Once the main things are in place (as addressed above), this affords you the opportunity to be creative and extemporaneous. If you are not prepared, you’ll just look like a dork as you try to think of what comes next or as you give us information rather than images. Don’t be a dork. Rehearse your stories at least 10 times.
  7. Stretch yourself: you can do it! I know you can! Go FARTHER than what is comfortable; this is where learning is to be built. Go FARTHER than you think you can. This is how you will improve!
  8. Be Louder and Bigger. When speaking to someone in a conversation, we do not need to have much volume, and we do not need to use larger gestures. However, in storytelling, we are usually several feet, if not many feet, away from our audience, and our normal everyday gestures, voice, and other body communication techniques do not read as well from far away. You’ll have to get used to being bigger with your gestures and louder with your voice to communicate your images properly. The farther away your audience is, the louder and bigger you’ll have to be.
  9. If you have a problem, it’s almost always a visualization problem. Perhaps there’s no need to harp on this again, but this is the key! For nearly any problem you’re having, just see things more clearly!