by Larry G. Brown, 2019
How do you know when you have told or heard or otherwise experienced a “good” story? There are probably a multitude of answers to this question, but a share a few options. You know the story is worthy of your participation when you find that the story, the teller, and the audience are all positively interacting with each other, namely that the words of the story are clear and compelling, the teller is fully engaged in telling, and the audience is involved as evidenced by their observable responses.
A good story and good telling keep the listener in the story, connected, feeling empathy with and believing the characters, finding the images in their own imagination, and affirming the values of the story. This is to say, the story becomes real for both teller and listener, it rings true to life to the degree that the listener can admit that, yes, life is like that. Therefore the teller has to shape the images and characters in such a way that the average person can identify with the who, what,where, and how of the story. These elements of the story need universality, although be delivered in specificity. The teller needs to ask of the story and the telling: Is it connecting with the listeners? And, is it prompting their engagement? If not, then modify the story and the presentation.
However, I suggest there is another very basic consideration for good telling, and that is the plot, the narrative line, the progress of the story. Good stories immediately invite the listener into the world of the story, and shortly thereafter create ambiguity, issues, problems, difficulties, and/or other complexities that beg for resolution. In one sense, the equilibrium is disturbed and maybe evendiscrepancies are revealed, which keep the listener tuned in to learn how it all turns out. Depending on the time, space, and energy constraints of the audience, a teller can create quite a web, in which to catch the listeners. There is something about human perception that wants questions answered. Of course, too many questions, too much complexity, or too many questions unanswered can leave the audience dissatisfied. Live practice can help the teller figure out what is working best. Somewhere along the plot, subtle clues are given for resolving the questions, such that the audience is supported in their “intelligence” for figuring it out in the end. To much information given too soon undercuts the development of ambiguity, but not enough given will get people lost. So here is where the refining of the plot is so important. The teller has to be making mental notes during the telling, and then literally make notes after the telling, to evaluate the balance of ambiguity and resolution, and make adjustments. A crafty teller seemingly lets the story and the audience arrive at conclusions just a few seconds before the teller; as they say, “timing is everything.” When to share information is as important as what. The post-telling evaluation involves going back over the content and sequence of the plot and characters to determine what genuinely supports the plot.
A teller should ask, “Did I need to share that information? Is that information best left to the imagination of the audience? What information is essential? What information should be supplied near the end of the story, rather than the beginning? Did the volume, tempo, pauses, physical presentation support the plot? Understand that there are no right and wrong answers, no absolute rules, but a teller can use audience response to guide in the refining process. Ask: What worked? What needs to be shifted or tweeked, what needs to be cut or added, etc.?
I tend to be a “lean” teller, and want to prompt the audience to visualize the scenes for themselves, however you may be more skilled at sharing descriptions that connect with the audience. For example, when I am telling Jack Tales, I do not describe Jack’s height, weight, complexion, hair color, or shoe size, unless such information is absolutely essential for making the plot work. I do enjoy having people tell me what Jack looked like in their imagination. I do focus considerable attention on the movement of the plot, and find that reflection very soon after each telling is very valuable. Fairly frequently I make changes during the telling, as inspiration may come at that time, and then after I have told the story, I will assess the value of those changes for future telling.
Sometimes a key word or phrase, well placed, or dropped may enhance the audience’s ability to stay with the plot. There are times when a strategic pause needs to be added, to give the audience time to process what just happened; and watch the audience for clues, they are ready to move on. There are times when the audience may give the teller clues that they are lost or confused, or “did not get it”
and the teller may need to insert a word or phrase, or repeat something to maintain the flow.
In the end, all aspects of the telling of the story have to support the plot, keeping the audience determined to get things resolved, and the world restored to some sense of integration.
Unless, of course, you are planning a sequel. . .