When the Curtain Rises
A TIRED-OUT, unenthusiastic school teacher in one of our large public schools was recently endeavoring to secure the attention of her class for a story. This story hour was, for her, just one lap in the march of the day's routine, a period to be finished as soon as possible, and she began it in a stereotyped way.
"I am going to tell you a story, children," she said, "and I want every child in the room to sit up straight, put his feet flat on the floor and fold his hands. When everybody is ready, I will begin."
In contrast one is reminded of another teacher, who opened her story hour in a different way. In point of fact, she did not really open it at all in the formal understanding of the word. Nor did she have any specified period of the day for telling stories. When her class was fatigued and needed a note of relaxation, when they were restless and needed calming, when they seemed to need inspiration, she gave the signal for books and pencils to be put away and with no further introduction she took the children with her to Story Land for a space, opening her story in so interesting a way that she compelled attention without asking for it.
The instance of the first story teller is an example of securing a child's voluntary attention.
The second story teller illustrated a method of securing a child's involuntary, almost unconscious attention.
Especially in the case of the little child who is beginning his school work, and even up to the more mature years of childhood, voluntary attention, that mental operation in which the will is called upon to open the doors of the senses and let in knowledge, is almost too much for us to ask of a child. The wonderful machinery of the mind has provided another and much more economic means of knowledge acquisition. Certain mind stimuli will set the whole wireless system of perception, association and memory going without any effort on the part of the story teller save that of discovering the stimuli. In other words, we must secure involuntary attention in children through studying their interests. The story that opens with headlines of child interest as compelling as those of one of our yellow news sheets will hold a child's attention without his being in the least conscious of his attitude of mind toward it. Voluntary attention, the mind attitude toward a story that is brought about by folded hands and straight backs, is very likely to lapse, to develop a will-o'-the-wisp character and finally lose itself. Concentrated attention can be secured in children only through the medium of appealing to child interest.
The successful story teller will bear in mind the fact, in selecting stories to tell, that the good story for children of any age, and adults too, for that matter, should have one of the qualities that characterize a successful drama. It must catch the attention of the audience the moment the curtain rises. There must be no long explanation, no descriptive scenes and painful dragging in of the plot. Children do not care a rap for the creating of atmosphere. They do not care how long ago the story events happened, or why they happened. What they are eager for is a quick story appeal made the second that the story curtain rolls up.
Each story told to children ought to be selected having in mind its beginning. The story teller must ask herself another set of questions:
"Does the story interest begin with my first paragraph, my first sentence, my first word?"
"Will the opening of my story find an apperceptive basis for attention in the minds of my children?"
"Has my story a sense appeal in the first sentence?"
Any one of these qualities of story opening will help to win the sympathy of the child audience and will find a ready response in involuntary attention.
A class of little street boys waged continued warfare upon one of the New York Settlement Houses. They broke the windows, mobbed the Settlement children and carefully evaded the police. The Settlement story teller decided, one night, to open the doors of the house to the gang of boys and see if it would not be possible to win them over to an interest in the work of the Settlement and lead them to obey the laws of society through stories. The boys entered the building like a besieging army. They shouted, stamped, stampeded into the room that had been assigned them and throwing down chairs and overturning tables they proceeded to produce a scene of Bedlam. The story teller made no effort to control the boys. She secured for herself a place of vantage in the center of the room. When there was an instant's lull in the uproar that the boys were making, as they took breath for more rowdyism, she said in a low, even tone of voice:
"There was once a little Indian boy who rode fifty
miles on the
Then she waited and the boys waited, too, breathlessly
eager for her next words. When she saw that she had
caught the interest of her
audience, she proceeded with the story in the same
even, low voice, not so much telling the boys a story,
apparently, but just
It would have been impossible to secure the voluntary
attention of these boys. The fact that some one wanted
to tell them a story would have probably inspired them
to more lawlessness. If the story teller had begun the
story after this
"Fifty years ago there were few railways in the western
part of our country. The prairies were peopled by
Comanche tribes who were unfamiliar with the inventions
of civilization, and the first train that ran through
an Indian settlement inspired an Indian lad to a
Not a boy would have listened. This form of story beginning is bad and phenomenally common in many stories for children. It is an example of words, not interest stimuli. It explains a story situation instead of presenting it. A story to secure the involuntary attention of children should have the quality of a crashing orchestral overture, a thunder clap, a pistol shot—so unexpected, compelling, and penetrating will, it be.
There was once a little Indian boy who rode fifty miles on the cow-catcher of an engine!"
Could there be a more stimulating story beginning for a
group of boys than this? There is an apperceptive
appeal in the Indian lad. He was not a man, not a
chieftain, but just a little lad like themselves. There
immediate sense appeal in the
If a story, otherwise good, opens poorly—is too wordy, too descriptive, too pedantic—study the story carefully for its main interest and, selecting just the right words to convey this overture of interest, begin there. It will be discovered that certain of the classic, favorite tales of childhood fulfill this story test. They open compellingly and carry the interest that was stimulated in the first paragraph clear through to the end.
"There were once five and twenty tin soldiers who were all brothers, for they had been made out of the same old tin spoon."
Hans Christian Andersen used the child's instinctive love of counting his toys, and a bit of humor that tickles a child's fancy, when he wrote this opening paragraph of his wonderful old allegory, "The Faithful Tin Soldier."
"Once upon a time there lived a cat and a parrot and they thought they would ask each other to dinner, turn and turn about."
This folk tale of "The Greedy Cat" opens with a strong sense appeal. The children's interest aroused in the first sentence by means of the progressive dinner arrangement of the famous cat is sustained to the last word of the story.
"He was a wee little duck with a very long tail, so he
was called Drakestail. Now Drakestail had some money of
his very, very own and the King asked if he might take
it. So Drakestail loaned all his money to the
In this old folk tale, the gist of which is the merry adventures of a duck, the story interest begins with the first sentence. The children are introduced, with no unnecessary preliminaries of description or explanation to the hero, Drakestail, and then they are plunged into the story itself, interesting and direct in its appeal.
"Some children were at play in their playground one
day, when a herald rode through the town, blowing a
trumpet and crying aloud: 'The King! The King is
In this story, Laura E. Richards' "Coming of the King," be found in her collection of short stories, "The Golden Windows," a strong sense appeal commands the child's involuntary attention at the beginning of the story. The familiar figures, children at play in their playground, are introduced to the sound of a trumpet's call, instantly attracting the attention of the child listeners.
Once the story teller has learned story selection, having in mind a beginning that will hold the attention of her audience from her first word, her success will be secured. It is also possible to carry this interest which has been secured for the child the instant that the curtain rolls up, straight through to the end of the story, because of its compelling beginning. The opening paragraph of a child's story should be the theme, tuned to the key and melody of child interest about which and on which the rest of the story plays. The noteworthy dinner of the cat, and the mouse forms the keynote for the rest of the classic adventures of the Greedy Cat. The "wee little duck" and the avaricious old King whom we meet in the first paragraph are the main actors in the story drama of Drakestail. The playground of the children that we see in the first sentence of Mrs. Richards' "The Coming a the King," is the scene of a story miracle almost unparalleled in short story writing for children.
Cutting out unnecessary description, avoiding any explanation as to why you are telling the story, introducing your thunder clap, your trumpet, your story hero in the first sentence—this is the way to begin a story.
"The Prince's Visit," by Horace Scudder, is an excellent example of sustained story interest brought about by means of a compelling story opening.
The Prince's Visit
It was a holiday in the city, for the Prince was to arrive. As soon as the cannon should sound, the people might know that the Prince had landed from the steamer, and when they should hear the bells ring that was as much as being told that the Prince, dressed splendidly, and wearing a feather in his cap, was actually on his way up the main street of the city, seated in a carriage drawn by four coal-black horses, and with the soldiers and music going on before.
It was holiday in the workshops, too, and little Job was listening for the cannon and the bells. He was only a poor, foolish little lad, and he did nothing all day long but turn the crank that worked a great washing machine; but when he heard the boom of the guns, he shuffled out and made his way home.
Ever since he had heard of the Prince's coming, Job had dreamed of nothing else. He bought a picture of the Prince and pinned it up on the wall over his bed; and when he came home at night, tired and hungry, he would sit down by his mother, who mended holes in the laundry clothes, and talk about the Prince until he could keep his eyes open no longer; and then his mother would kiss him and send him to bed.
To-day he hurried so fast that he was quite out of breath when he reached the old house where he lived.
"The cannon went off, mother!" he cried. "The Prince is come!"
"Everything is ready, Job," said his mother. "You will find all your things in a row on the bed." And Job tumbled into his room to dress for the holiday. Everything was there as his mother had said; all the old things renewed, and all the new things pieced together that she had worked on so long, and every stitch of which Job had overlooked and almost directed.
"Isn't it splendid?" he said as he looked at himself in a mirror. Round his throat was a white satin scarf that shone in contrast to his dingy coat, and it was pinned with an old brooch which Job treasured as the apple of his eye.
"If you'd only let me wear the feather, mother," he said.
"You look splendidly, Job, and don't need it," said she cheerfully; "and, besides, the Prince wears one, and what would he think if he saw you with one, too?"
"Sure enough," said Job, and then he kissed her and started off.
"I don't believe," he said as he went up the court, "that the Prince would mind my wearing a feather; but mother didn't want me to. Hark, there are the bells! He must have started!"
It was a long way from Job's house to the main street,
and he would have to hurry if he were going to see the
grand procession. On he shambled, knocking against the
But just then he stumbled upon something which tripped him. He would have hurried on, but he heard a cry, and a groan of pain. He looked back, and he saw what he had stumbled over. It was a poor beggar boy, without home or friends, dirty and unsightly enough, and clad in ragged clothing, and he was lying on the sidewalk, too ill to more. As Job turned, the boy looked up at him and stretched out his hands, but he was too weak to speak.
"He is sick!" said Job. "Hilloa!" but every one was intent upon the procession, and no one heard him.
"The Prince is coming," he said; and he turned as if to run. But the beggar would not away from his eyes.
"He is sick," said Job again, bending down, "I will take him home to mother."
"Hurrah Hurrah! There he is! The Prince! The Prince!"
In the carriage drawn by four
Job wiped the tears from his eyes as he heard the music and the cheering so far away, but he lifted the little beggar boy in his arms—and started for home.
And as he passed along the street with his burden, he heard a sound of beautiful music as if all the angels were singing together, and he looked up into the blue sky above the chimneys and roofs of the city, and he saw the angels with the Prince in the midst of them moving by, and they were all smiling on him, poor, simple Job.
So Job saw the Prince pass, too.
STORIES IN WHICH THE STORY INTEREST
The Steadfast Tin Soldier