A skilled storyteller, in any situation, is aware of and knows how and when to change their stories.
In September, I was one of the “special guest” storytellers at the Fort Edmonton Storytelling Festival in Alberta, Canada. While the preparations and negotiations for the event had been set for some time, I found myself uncomfortable with the “feel” of one of the stories I had prepared to match the theme of the festival. So, the night before the first day of the concert, I deconstructed the story and tried to find out why it just didn’t feel like it was working.
The problem story was actually two stories interwoven, one a Paul Bunyan tall tale and the other my own personal story that connected to the theme of both the festival and the tall tale. I don’t actually use many personal stories in my on-stage telling. As a storytelling technique, I will often mix a personal reflection with world tale in order to give solid context to the personal tale. For me, one role of oral storytelling is to put all of our lives in context of the world community.
My first task in recreating the mixed tale was to write out the episodes of my story onto some sticky-note style 3x5 cards. As part of my travel kit, I always have a stack of some type of removable-adhesive cards like these as well as an assortment of pens and markers.
I mentally ran through the story and wrote out simple phrases or words that would remind me of each episode of the story as I had already prepared it. The tall-tale notes were written in one color and the personal-tale episodes that interwove were written in another color marker. When I was done, I stuck these up on the wall of my hotel room. I was, of course, sure that I was not going to pull down the paint on the wall before I stuck up a dozen cards on it. You can also use a whiteboard as the surface for your cards or even the mirror in the hotel bathroom should you be travelling.
What I had now was a “laboratory” where I could mix, match and move the pieces of my story around. Story episodes are hard to slide about just in my head alone and a printed script (which I don’t use) would be one solid block of immovable text. However, with the cards set up, I could touch the story. Moving the cards about, unsticking from here and resticking to there, I now had a physical representation of an otherwise non-corporeal model.
I could ask myself many questions about the story. Would it better to lead the telling with a piece of the personal story? Would it sound better if put specific pieces of the tall-tale together before the first personal episode was brought up? Was it taking too long to get the personal tale into the story or was it happening too soon? Did I, for this event, need to split the entire experience into two different tellings? For each of these questions and many others, I could physically construct the story on the wall, seeing the interactions of the episodes. Rather than experiment on my audience at the festival, I was free to be as creative as I wanted in telling to myself the many new versions of the story as I worked in the hotel room.
Although I had told the piece before, I could not get the right feeling for this story for this audience in this situation. For any good teller, a “set” of stories is never set in stone. The teller’s set must breathe and be ready to respond to the needs of the next audience. As I had not planned to tell the story on day one of the festival, I left the cards on the wall. Now, the story would percolate in my brain during my first day of workshops and performances.
When I returned to the hotel room, my sufficiently sticky story lab was up on the wall. After my first day of telling, now knowing more about the audiences and how they reacted, I could take the next step in fine tuning my story.
The next step was to abandon that story for that event. “What?” you ask, “change a huge part of your program hours before you present it?!” Yes, that is what I did. It would have been easy to say, in my best artiste voice, “I’ve been hired to tell, I am the artist and you shall hear my words fall upon you!” But it would not have been the right choice.
As a storyteller, I have more than enough materials to draw from in creating a program. I spent the next hour or so combing my brain and story-log for story that was a better fit for this festival. I was very happy with the replacement story and it kept me audience-focused rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all storytelling presentation.
Yes, you can change your planned stories the week before, the night before or even on stage as you begin your concert or event. This applies in any situation for storytelling, not just the performance or platform events. For example, do you tell stories for your business? When you need to illustrate a point, you should have several stories ready to use. A single story, told in a singular way to every audience is not storytelling. It’s old-school marketing, done “at” your audience and not “with” your audience.
This “cards on the wall” storytelling technique for editing stories is one that I have used for many years and consider it a normal part of my repertoire development. My thanks for Mark Goldman for prompting me to share it with you.
Sean Buvala is the director and founder of Storyteller.net and has been a professional storyteller since 1986. He’s the author of many storytelling books and hopes you’ll take a look at his very practical, very hands-on training kit at www.storytelling101.com.
His Storytelling 101 kit gives more training in the concepts of episodic telling. If you’d like to see a bit more about this idea, you can read his free "Storytelling Techniques" article on his blog at www.seanblogs.com.