The StoryTeller

Jim Henson made a series of programmes in the eighties with this title.  The storyteller in question was played by John Hurt – the same actor who voiced the dragon in the recent BBC series, “Merlin”.  Every episode started the same way:

When people told themselves their past with stories, explained their present with stories, foretold the future with stories, the best place by the fire was kept for … the StoryTeller.”

I remember watching these programmes avidly as a child, even when the images frightened me.  Sometimes I couldn’t look at the screen, but I would tune in again the next week to hear the next story.  The fantastic combination of Anthony Minghella’s words and John Hurt’s voice made for compelling viewing.  At the time my only interest in stories was as a listener, but now I come back to the tales with an apprentice’s ear.  For now I myself want to be a storyteller, to spin tales that will make people laugh and cry, stories that will give them nightmares and give them hope.  I want to know how to make my listeners long to hear more, how to catch people up and carry them away to other places and other times.

I want to be a writer!

I am already a reader.  Reading for me is as natural as breathing, and almost as necessary.  But now I must train myself to be a listener, too.  And listening, as Michael Ende points out in “Momo“, is not nearly as easy as people think.  Mostly, people don’t listen;  I know I don’t.  I take in what’s being said, but I’m not listening, not really.  I don’t notice accents unless they are very difficult to understand.  Mostly, when having a conversation with someone, my mind will drift on to the next thing I want to say.  It’s a terribly self-centred way to behave, I know.  And I’m trying to become a better listener, partly because it’s good manners and will make me a nicer person to be around, and partly because I’ll never write good dialogue until I start listening to how people talk, rather than just what they say.

I practice with radio and television, listening for the sounds of the words as well as the words themselves.  I practice a little on the bus and in the street, but it always feels rude to listen to strangers’ conversations, so I don’t do that much.  Mostly, I practice with my friends and family.  I’m not good at it yet, but I’m practicing.  Honest.

Listening to a master storyteller is a double education, not only do you learn what makes a good story, you also learn how to tell those stories.  The pauses, the cadence, the repetition, the rhythm, all combine to make a story that is halfway to being poetry.  The best piece of advice I have received to date is to have everything you write read aloud, if possible by someone else.  If what you hear with your ears is what you saw with your mind’s eye, then you’ve got it just about right.


Link of the week: The Jim Henson Company (what else?)


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