Gateway to the Classics: How To Tell Stories to Children by Sara Cone Bryant
How To Tell Stories to Children by  Sara Cone Bryant

How to Tell the Story

Selection, and, if necessary, adaptation—these are the preliminaries to the act of telling. That, after all, is the real test of one's power. That is the real joy, when achieved; the real bugbear, when dreaded. And that is the subject of this chapter, "How to tell a story."

How to tell a story: it is a short question which demands a long answer. The right beginning of the answer depends on a right conception of the thing the question is about; and that naturally reverts to an earlier discussion of the real nature of a story. In that discussion it was stated that a story is a work of art,—a message, as all works of art are.

To tell a story, then, is to pass on the message, to share the work of art. The message may be merely one of humour,—of nonsense, even; works of art range all the way from the "Victory" to a "Dresden Shepherdess," from an "Assumption" to a "Broken Pitcher," and farther. Each has its own place. But whatever its quality, the story-teller is the passer-on, the interpreter, the transmitter. He comes bringing a gift. Always he gives; always he bears a message.

This granted, the first demand of the story-teller is not far to seek. No one can repeat a message he has not heard, or interpret what he does not understand. You cannot give, unless you first possess. The first demand of the story-teller is that he possess. He must feel the story. Whatever the particular quality and appeal of the work of art, from the lightest to the grandest emotion or thought, he must have responded to it, grasped it, felt it intimately, before he can give it out again. Listen, humbly, for the message.

I realise that this has an incongruous sound, when applied to such stories as that of the little pig at the stile or of the greedy cat who ate up man and beast. But, believe me, it does apply even to those. For the transmittable thing in a story is the identifying essence, the characterising savour, the peculiar quality and point of view of the humour, pathos, or interest. Every tale which claims a place in good fiction has this identifying savour and quality, each different from every other. The laugh which echoes one of Seumas McManus's rigmaroles is not the chuckle which follows one of Joel Chandler Harris's anecdotes; the gentle sadness of an Andersen allegory is not the heart-searching tragedy of a tale from the Greek; nor is any one story of an author just like any other of the same making. Each has its personal likeness, its facial expression, as it were.

And the mind must be sensitised to these differences. No one can tell stories well who has not a keen and just feeling of such emotional values.

A positive and a negative injunction depend on this premise,—the positive, cultivate your feeling, striving toward increasingly just appreciation; the negative, never tell a story you do not feel.

Fortunately, the number and range of stories one can appreciate grow with cultivation; but it is the part of wisdom not to step outside the range at any stage of its growth.

I feel the more inclined to emphasise this caution because I once had a rather embarrassing and pointed proof of its desirability,—which I relate for the enlightening of the reader.

There is a certain nonsense tale which a friend used to tell with such effect that her hearers became helpless with laughter, but which for some reason never seemed funny to me. I could not laugh at it. But my friend constantly urged me to use it, quoting her own success. At last, with much curiosity and some trepidation, I included it in a programme before people with whom I was so closely in sympathy that no chill was likely to emanate from their side. I told the story as well as I knew how, putting into it more genuine effort than most stories can claim. The audience smiled politely, laughed gently once or twice, relapsed into the mildest of amusement. The most one could say was that the story was not a hopeless failure. I tried it again, after study, and yet again; but the audiences were all alike. And in my heart I should have been startled if they had behaved otherwise, for all the time I was telling it I was conscious in my soul that it was a stupid story! At last I owned my defeat to myself, and put the thing out of mind.

Some time afterward, I happened to take out the notes of the story, and idly looked them over; and suddenly, I do not know how, I got the point of view! The salt of the humour was all at once on my lips; I felt the tickle of the pure folly of it; it was funny.

The next afternoon I told the story to a hundred or so children and as many mothers,—and the battle was won. Chuckles punctuated my periods; helpless laughter ran like an under-current below my narrative; it was a struggle for me to keep sober, myself. The nonsense tale had found its own atmosphere.

Now of course I had known all along that the humour of the story emanated from its very exaggeration, its absurdly illogical smoothness. But I had not felt it. I did not really "see the joke." And that was why I could not tell the story. I undoubtedly impressed my own sense of its fatuity on every audience to which I gave it. The case is very clear.

Equally clear have been some happy instances where I have found audiences responding to a story I myself greatly liked, but which common appreciation usually ignored. This is an experience even more persuasive than the other, certainly more to be desired.

Every story-teller has lines of limitation; certain types of story will always remain his or her best effort. There is no reason why any type of story should be told really ill, and of course the number of kinds one tells well increases with the growth of the appreciative capacity. But none the less, it is wise to recognise the limits at each stage, and not try to tell any story to which the honest inner consciousness says, "I do not like you."

Let us then set down as a prerequisite for good story-telling, a genuine appreciation of the story.

Now, we may suppose this genuine appreciation to be your portion. You have chosen a story, have felt its charm, and identified the quality of its appeal.

You are now to tell it in such wise that your hearers will get the same kind of impression you yourself received from it. How?

I believe the inner secret of success is the measure of force with which the teller wills the conveyance of his impression to the hearer.

Anyone who has watched, or has himself been, the teller of a story which held an audience, knows that there is something approaching hypnotic suggestion in the close connection of effort and effect, and in the elimination of self-consciousness from speaker and listeners alike.

I would not for a moment lend the atmosphere of charlatanry, or of the ultra-psychic, to the wholesome and vivid art of story-telling. But I would, if possible, help the teacher to realise how largely success in that art is a subjective and psychological matter, dependent on her control of her own mood and her sense of direct, intimate communion with the minds attending her. The "feel" of an audience,—that indescribable sense of the composite human soul waiting on the initiative of your own, the emotional currents interplaying along a medium so delicate that it takes the baffling torture of an obstruction to reveal its existence,—cannot be taught. But it can and does develop with use. And a realisation of the immense latent power of strong desire and resolution vitalises and disembarrasses the beginner.

That is, undoubtedly, rather an intangible beginning; it sets the root of the matter somewhat in the realm of "spirits and influences." There are, however, outward and visible means of arriving at results. Every art has its technique. The art of story-telling, intensely personal and subjective as it is, yet comes under the law sufficiently not to be a matter of sheer "knack." It has its technique. The following suggestions are an attempt to state what seem the foundation principles of that technique. The general statements are deduced from many consecutive experiences; partly, too, they are the results of introspective analysis, confirmed by observation. They do not make up an exclusive body of rules, wholly adequate to produce good work, of themselves; they do include, so far as my observation and experience allow, the fundamental requisites of good work,—being the qualities uniformly present in successful work of many story-tellers.

First of all, most fundamental of all, is a rule without which any other would be but folly: Know your story.

One would think so obvious a preliminary might be taken for granted. But alas, even slight acquaintance with the average story-teller proves the dire necessity of the admonition. The halting tongue, the slip in name or incident, the turning back to forge an omitted link in the chain, the repetition, the general weakness of statement consequent on imperfect grasp: these are common features of the stories one hears told. And they are features which will deface the best story ever told.

One must know the story absolutely; it must have been so assimilated that it partakes of the nature of personal experience; its essence must be so clearly in mind that the teller does not have to think of it at all in the act of telling, but rather lets it flow from his lips with the unconscious freedom of a vivid reminiscence.

Such knowledge does not mean memorising. Memorising utterly destroys the freedom of reminiscence, takes away the spontaneity, and substitutes a mastery of form for a mastery of essence. It means, rather, a perfect grasp of the gist of the story, with sufficient familiarity with its form to determine the manner of its telling. The easiest way to obtain this mastery is, I think, to analyse the story into its simplest elements of plot. Strip it bare of style, description, interpolation, and find out simply what happened. Personally, I find that I get first an especially vivid conception of the climax; this then has to be rounded out by a clear perception of the successive steps which lead up to the climax. One has, so, the framework of the story. The next process is the filling in.

There must be many ways of going about this filling in. Doubtless many of my readers, in the days when it was their pet ambition to make a good recitation in school, evolved personally effective ways of doing it; for it is, after all, the same thing as preparing a bit of history or a recitation in literature. But for the consideration of those who find it hard to gain mastery of fact without mastery of its stated form, I give my own way. I have always used the childlike plan of talking it out. Sometimes inaudibly, sometimes in loud and penetrating tones which arouse the sympathetic curiosity of my family, I tell it over and over, to an imaginary hearer. That hearer is as present to me, always has been, as Stevenson's "friend of the children" who takes the part of the enemy in their solitary games of war. His criticism (though he is a most composite double-sexed creature who should not have a designating personal pronoun) is all-revealing. For talking it out instantly brings to light the weak spots in one's recollection. "What was it the little crocodile said?" "Just how did the little pig get into his house?" "What was that link in the chain of circumstances which brought the wily fox to confusion?" The slightest cloud of uncertainty becomes obvious in a moment. And as obvious becomes one's paucity of expression, one's week-kneed imagination, one's imperfect assimilation of the spirit of the story. It is not a flattering process.

But when these faults have been corrected by several attempts, the method gives a confidence, a sense of sureness, which makes the real telling to a real audience ready and spontaneously smooth. Scarcely an epithet or a sentence comes out as it was in the preliminary telling; but epithets and sentences in sufficiency do come; the beauty of this method is that it brings freedom instead of bondage.

A valuable exception to the rule against memorising must be noted here. Especially beautiful and indicative phrases of the original should be retained, and even whole passages, where they are identified with the beauty of the tale. And in stories like The Three Bears or Red Riding Hood the exact phraseology of the conversation as given in familiar versions should be preserved; it is in a way sacred, a classic, and not to be altered. But beyond this the language should be the teller's own, and probably never twice the same. Sureness, ease, freedom, and the effect of personal reminiscence come only from complete mastery. I repeat, with emphasis: Know your story.

The next suggestion is a purely practical one concerning the preparation of physical conditions. See that the children are seated in close and direct range of your eye; the familiar half-circle is the best arrangement for small groups of children, but the teacher should be at a point opposite the centre of the arc, not in its centre: thus [Illustration], not thus [Illustration]; it is important also not to have the ends too far at the side, and to have no child directly behind another, or in such a position that he has not an easy view of the teacher's full face. Little children have to be physically close in order to be mentally close. It is, of course, desirable to obtain a hushed quiet before beginning; but it is not so important as to preserve your own mood of holiday, and theirs. If the fates and the atmosphere of the day are against you, it is wiser to trust to the drawing power of the tale itself, and abate the irritation of didactic methods. And never break into that magic tale, once begun, with an admonition to Ethel or Tommy to stop squirming, or a rebuke to "that little girl over there who is not listening." Make her listen! It is probably your fault if she is not. If you are telling a good story, and telling it well, she can't help listening,—unless she is an abnormal child; and if she is abnormal you ought not to spoil the mood of the others to attend to her.

I say "never" interrupt your story; perhaps it is only fair to amend that, after the fashion of dear little Marjorie Fleming, and say "never—if you can help it." For, of course, there are exceptional occasions, and exceptional children; some latitude must be left for the decisions of good common sense acting on the issue of the moment.

The children ready, your own mood must be ready. It is desirable that the spirit of the story should be imposed upon the room from the beginning, and this result hangs on the clearness and intensity of the teller's initiatory mood. An act of memory and of will is the requisite. The story-teller must call up—it comes with the swiftness of thought—the essential emotion of the story as he felt it first. A single volition puts him in touch with the characters and the movement of the tale. This is scarcely more than a brief and condensed reminiscence; it is the stepping back into a mood once experienced.

Let us say, for example, that the story to be told is the immortal fable of The Ugly Duckling. Before you open your lips the whole pathetic series of the little swan's mishaps should flash across your mind,—not accurately and in detail, but blended to a composite of undeserved ignominy, of baffled innocent wonderment, and of delicious underlying satire on average views. With this is mingled the feeling of Andersen's delicate whimsicality of style. The dear little Ugly Duckling waddles, bodily, into your consciousness, and you pity his sorrows and anticipate his triumph, before you begin.

This preliminary recognition of mood is what brings the delicious quizzical twitch to the mouth of a good raconteur who begins an anecdote the hearers know will be side-splitting. It is what makes grandmother sigh gently and look far over your heads, when her soft voice commences the story of "the little girl who lived long, long ago." It is a natural and instinctive thing with the born story-teller; a necessary thing for anyone who will become a story-teller.

From the very start, the mood of the tale should be definite and authoritative, beginning with the mood of the teller and emanating therefrom in proportion as the physique of the teller is a responsive medium.

Now we are off. Knowing your story, having your hearers well arranged, and being as thoroughly as you are able in the right mood, you begin to tell it. Tell it, then, simply, directly, dramatically, with zest.

Simply applies both to manner and matter. As to manner, I mean without affectation, without any form of pretence, in short, without posing. It is a pity to "talk down" to the children, to assume a honeyed voice, to think of the edifying or educational value of the work one is doing. Naturalness, being oneself, is the desideratum. I wonder why we so often use a preposterous voice,—a super-sweetened whine, in talking to children? Is it that the effort to realise an ideal of gentleness and affectionateness overreaches itself in this form of the grotesque? Some good intention must be the root of it. But the thing is none the less pernicious. A "cant" voice is as abominable as a cant phraseology. Both are of the very substance of evil.

"But it is easier to say, 'Be natural' than to be it," said one teacher to me desperately.

Beyond dispute. To those of us who are cursed with an over-abundant measure of self-consciousness, nothing is harder than simple naturalness. The remedy is to lose oneself in one's art. Think of the story so absorbingly and vividly that you have no room to think of yourself. Live it. Sink yourself in that mood you have summoned up, and let it carry you.

If you do this, simplicity of matter will come easily. Your choice of words and images will naturally become simple.

It is, I think, a familiar precept to educators, that children should not have their literature too much simplified for them. We are told that they like something beyond them, and that it is good for them to have a sense of mystery and power beyond the sense they grasp. That may be true; but if so it does not apply to story-telling as it does to reading. We have constantly to remember that the movement of a story told is very swift. A concept not grasped in passing is irrevocably lost; there is no possibility of turning back, or lingering over the page. Also, since the art of story-telling is primarily an art of entertainment, its very object is sacrificed if the ideas and images do not slip into the child's consciousness smoothly enough to avoid the sense of strain. For this reason short, familiar, vivid words are best.

Simplicity of manner and of matter are both essential to the right appeal to children.

Directness in telling is a most important quality. The story, listened to, is like the drama, beheld. Its movement must be unimpeded, increasingly swift, winding up "with a snap." Long-windedness, or talking round the story, utterly destroys this movement. The incidents should be told, one after another, without explanation or description beyond what is absolutely necessary; and they should be told in logical sequence. Nothing is more distressing than the cart-before-the-horse method,—nothing more quickly destroys interest than the failure to get a clue in the right place.

Sometimes, to be sure, a side remark adds piquancy and a personal savour. But the general rule is, great discretion in this respect.

Every epithet or adjective beyond what is needed to give the image, is a five-barred gate in the path of the eager mind travelling to a climax.

Explanations and moralising are usually sheer clatter. Some few stories necessarily include a little explanation, and stories of the fable order may quaintly end with an obvious moral. But here again, the rule is—great discretion.

It is well to remember that you have one great advantage over the writer of stories. The writer must present a clear image and make a vivid impression,—all with words. The teller has face, and voice, and body to do it with. The teller needs, consequently, but one swiftly incisive verb to the writer's two; but one expressive adjective to his three. Often, indeed, a pause and an expressive gesture do the whole thing.

It may be said here that it is a good trick of description to repeat an epithet or phrase once used, when referring again to the same thing. The recurrent adjectives of Homer were the device of one who entertained a childlike audience. His trick is unconscious and instinctive with people who have a natural gift for children's stories. Of course this matter also demands common sense in the degree of its use; in moderation it is a most successful device.

Brevity, close logical sequence, exclusion of foreign matter, unhesitant speech,—to use these is to tell a story directly.

After simplicity and directness, comes that quality which to advise, is to become a rock of offence to many. It is the suggestion, "Tell the story dramatically." Yet when we quite understand each other as to the meaning of "dramatically," I think you will agree with me that a good story-teller includes this in his qualities of manner. It means, not in the manner of the elocutionist, not excitably, not any of the things which are incompatible with simplicity and sincerity; but with a whole-hearted throwing of oneself into the game, which identifies one in a manner with the character or situation of the moment. It means responsively, vividly, without interposing a blank wall of solid self between the drama of the tale and the mind's eye of the audience.

It is such fun, pure and simple, so to throw oneself into it, and to see the answering expressions mimic one's own, that it seems superfluous to urge it. Yet many persons do find it difficult. The instant, slight but suggestive change of voice, the use of onomatopoetic words, the response of eyes and hands, which are all immediate and spontaneous with some temperaments, are to others a matter of shamefacedness and labour. To those, to all who are not by nature bodily expressive, I would reiterate the injunction already given,—not to pretend. Do nothing you cannot do naturally and happily. But lay your stress on the inner and spiritual effort to appreciate, to feel, to imagine out the tale; and let the expressiveness of your body grow gradually with the increasing freedom from crippling self-consciousness. The physique will become more mobile as the emotion does.

The expression must, however, always remain suggestive rather than illustrative. This is the side of the case which those who are over-dramatic must not forget. The story-teller is not playing the parts of his stories; he is merely arousing the imagination of his hearers to picture the scenes for themselves. One element of the dual consciousness of the tale-teller remains always the observer, the reporter, the quiet outsider.

I like to think of the story-teller as a good fellow standing at a great window overlooking a busy street or a picturesque square, and reporting with gusto to the comrade in the rear of the room what of mirth or sadness he sees; he hints at the policeman's strut, the organ-grinder's shrug, the schoolgirl's gaiety, with a gesture or two which is born of an irresistible impulse to imitate; but he never leaves his fascinating post to carry the imitation further than a hint.

The verity of this figure lies in the fact that the dramatic quality of story-telling depends closely upon the clearness and power with which the story-teller visualises the events and characters he describes. You must hold the image before the mind's eye, using your imagination to embody to yourself every act, incident and appearance. You must, indeed, stand at the window of your consciousness and watch what happens.

This is a point so vital that I am tempted to put it in ornate type. You must see what you say!

It is not too much, even, to say, "You must see more than you say." True vividness is lent by a background of picture realised by the listener beyond what you tell him. Children see, as a rule, no image you do not see; they see most clearly what you see most largely. Draw, then, from a full well, not from a supply so low that the pumps wheeze at every pull.

Dramatic power of the reasonably quiet and suggestive type demanded for telling a story will come pretty surely in the train of effort along these lines; it follows the clear concept and sincerity in imparting it, and is a natural consequence of the visualising imagination.

It is inextricably bound up, also, with the causes and results of the quality which finds place in my final injunction, to tell your story with zest. It might almost be assumed that the final suggestion renders the preceding one superfluous, so direct is the effect of a lively interest on the dramatic quality of a narration; but it would not of itself be adequate; the necessity of visualising imagination is paramount. Zest is, however, a close second to this clearness of mental vision. It is entirely necessary to be interested in your own story, to enjoy it as you tell it. If you are bored and tired, the children will soon be bored and tired, too. If you are not interested your manner cannot get that vitalised spontaneity which makes dramatic power possible. Nothing else will give that relish on the lips, that gusto, which communicates its joy to the audience and makes it receptive to every impression. I used to say to teachers, "Tell your story with all your might," but I found that this by a natural misconception was often interpreted to mean "laboriously." And of course nothing is more injurious to the enjoyment of an audience than obvious effort on the part of the entertainer. True zest can be—often is—extremely quiet, but it gives a savour nothing else can impart.

"But how, at the end of a hard morning's work, can I be interested in a story I have told twenty times before?" asks the kindergarten or primary teacher, not without reason.

There are two things to be said. The first is a reminder of the wisdom of choosing stories in which you originally have interest; and of having a store large enough to permit variety. The second applies to those inevitable times of weariness which attack the most interested and well-stocked story-teller. You are, perhaps, tired out physically. You have told a certain story till it seems as if a repetition of it must produce bodily effects dire to contemplate, yet that happens to be the very story you must tell. What can you do? I answer, "Make believe." The device seems incongruous with the repeated warnings against pretence; but it is necessary, and it is wise. Pretend as hard as ever you can to be interested. And the result will be—before you know it—that you will be interested. That is the chief cause of the recommendation; it brings about the result it simulates. Make believe, as well as you know how, and the probability is that you will not even know when the transition from pretended to real interest comes.

And fortunately, the children never know the difference. They have not that psychological infallibility which is often attributed to them. They might, indeed, detect a pretence which continued through a whole tale; but that is so seldom necessary that it needs little consideration.

So then: enjoy your story; be interested in it,—if you possibly can; and if you cannot, pretend to be, till the very pretence brings about the virtue you have assumed.

There is much else which might be said and urged regarding the method of story-telling, even without encroaching on the domain of personal variations. A whole chapter might, for example, be devoted to voice and enunciation, and then leave the subject fertile. But voice and enunciation are after all merely single manifestations of degree and quality of culture, of taste, and of natural gift. No set rules can bring charm of voice and speech to a person whose feeling and habitual point of view are fundamentally wrong; the person whose habitual feeling and mental attitude are fundamentally right needs few or no rules. As the whole matter of story-telling is in the first instance an expression of the complex personal product, so will this feature of it vary in perfection according to the beauty and culture of the human mechanism manifesting it.

A few generally applicable suggestions may, however, be useful,—always assuming the story-teller to have the fundamental qualifications of fine and wholesome habit. These are not rules for the art of speaking; they are merely some practical considerations regarding speaking to an audience.

First, I would reiterate my earlier advice, be simple. Affectation is the worst enemy of voice and enunciation alike. Slovenly enunciation is certainly very dreadful, but the unregenerate may be pardoned if they prefer it to the affected mouthing which some over-nice people without due sense of values expend on every syllable which is so unlucky as to fall between their teeth.

Next I would urge avoidance of a fault very common with those who speak much in large rooms,—the mistaken effort at loudness. This results in tightening and straining the throat, finally producing nasal head-tones or a voice of metallic harshness. And it is entirely unnecessary. There is no need to speak loudly. The ordinary schoolroom needs no vocal effort. A hall seating three or four hundred persons demands no effort whatever beyond a certain clearness and definiteness of speech. A hall seating from five to eight hundred needs more skill in aiming the voice, but still demands no shouting.

It is indeed largely the psychological quality of a tone that makes it reach in through the ear to the comprehension. The quiet, clear, restful, persuasive tone of a speaker who knows his power goes straight home; but loud speech confuses. Never speak loudly. In a small room, speak as gently and easily as in conversation; in a large room, think of the people farthest away, and speak clearly, with a slight separation between words, and with definite phrasing,—aiming your mind toward the distant listeners.

If one is conscious of nasality or throatiness of voice, it certainly pays to study the subject seriously with an intelligent teacher. But a good, natural speaking-voice, free from extraordinary vices, will fill all the requirements of story-telling to small audiences, without other attention than comes indirectly from following the general principles of the art.

To sum it all up, then, let us say of the method likely to bring success in telling stories, that it includes sympathy, grasp, spontaneity: one must appreciate the story, and know it; and then, using the realising imagination as a constant vivifying force, and dominated by the mood of the story, one must tell it with all one's might,—simply, vitally, joyously.

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