(By Kathy Jessup / Posted 1.2012)
Whenever I am fortunate enough to see and listen to a great storyteller “live” in action, I am struck by their power to pull listeners in to a story, much like a gravitational force that’s impossible to resist. While I’m not one to overly dissect a pleasant experience, I have pondered what factors contribute to distinguishing a good storyteller from a great one. I’ve come to believe that the most important ingredient is their use of emotion. Master storytellers seem to know exactly when to push and when to pull, when to hit the high emotional notes, and when to dig deep in to the soft underbelly of a tale.
In my writing workshops with children, I tell them that “feelings” are the energy of a story. Just like the gasoline that runs a car, feelings are the energy of a literary work. They lift the words off the page, and make a scene real in our imaginations. Think about it: the only time you, as a human being, don’t feel emotion---is when you are dead. (Even in sleep we dream vivid, emotional dreams). So it follows that, if you don’t include emotion in your story, your story is “dead”…as in deadly boring! The ability to inject emotion in to a story, without it feeling forced or contrived, is a delicate balancing act. However I think there are a few basic principles that can govern a storyteller’s approach.
1. If you don’t feel the emotion yourself, your audience won’t either…no matter how hard you try to make it happen! You can’t just say the words. Storytelling is so much more than reciting the events of a story smoothly and without error. If you’re telling me that little Red Riding Hood is scared of the big bad wolf, but your voice and body are saying otherwise—I’m not going to believe you. Strive to see that scene in your imagination as you tell it. If you can successfully conjure up the powerful images, then expressing the appropriate feelings should be a natural follow-through.
2. Sometimes, “Less is more.” Think of emotion in terms of a rating scale---perhaps a speedometer is a good analogy. When trying to inject emotion in to a story, be careful not to pin the needle at 100mph from start to finish. Your audience will feel you are emotionally too “loud” and you lose all opportunity for delicate nuance. Most stories contain a range of emotions, and you need to be able to express every subtle shade—not just black and white. Go over your story thoughtfully, from an emotional perspective. Where are the rolling, gentle parts? How does the action build? When can you give it a little extra oomph, and when should you back off? And remember, a “pause” is the most under-used emotional device in a storyteller’s repertoire! A good pause can heighten the tension of a particular moment, give weight to a delicate, tender scene, or simply allow your audience time to catch up and digest the powerful images you are feeding them.
3. Emotion in a story is achieved through the use of your body, as well as your voice. Often we think of emotion as being transmitted through what we say and how we say it. While this is certainly true, it is equally true that we reveal a tremendous amount of emotion through body language. Be acutely aware of how you physically stand, move and gesture throughout your story. Are you confusing your audience by giving them one mood with your words and a conflicting mood with your actions? My favorite strategy is to practice in front of a mirror. Sometimes what you think you are showing with your body is simply not coming through for your audience.
4. Emotion is also achieved through narrative action, dialogue and description. Words are powerful tools. Instead of telling us: “John was surprised,” try having John express his surprise: “Holy cow!” John shrieked. Throw in a few descriptive sentences; maybe his face lights up or his eyes open wide. Have John throw his hands up in the air, or whirl around in amazement. The use of vocal tone, physical movement, and descriptive language is an unbeatable combination.
Whenever I tackle the early stages of learning a story, I’m always preoccupied with “getting it right.” I am trying hard to learn the order of the story’s events and I tend to focus primarily on that aspect. But once I have the basic chunks of a story in place, I like to some spend time experimenting with the emotional layering of the tale. I play with words; stretching the story this way and that, as if it was made of Silly Putty. I experiment with various ways to express the character’s feelings throughout the story, and don’t settle on a final version until I’ve tried many different approaches. Even then, I have been surprised to discover fresh emotional nuances in stories I have been telling for years! Whenever this happens, I consider it a gift from the story Gods. Suddenly this “old” story has fresh legs, and it is a lot like rediscovering an old friend you once took for granted.
So, here’s your homework: the next time you are listening to a great storyteller, soak in the experience as deeply as you can.
Afterwards, mull over what you just heard. Pay particular attention to how you felt, and what the storyteller did to elicit that feeling from you. Examine why you reacted in a particular way, and when your feelings changed. Learn from the Masters…it doesn’t get any better than that!