Tips and Programs
Steps: A Storyteller's Journey
are you? How many steps have you taken in the journey through your
art? How many more do you wish to travel?
In his book Understanding Comics (Kitchen Sink Press, 1993,
specifically Chapter 7), Scott McCloud develops the idea that mastering
an art form is a journey of six steps, each step representing mastery
of a crucial element of the art. McClouds model provides us
with a framework for thinking about the crucial elements of storytelling,
how these elements interconnect, as well as highlighting areas of
important questions about our art and its development. This model
also provides us with a handy map against which to gauge our own
individual development as storytellers.
All art begins with an idea the artist wants to express or communicate.
Indeed, we might argue that the very purpose of art is to communicate
ideas. For storytellers, the idea usually takes the form of a story
we want to tell. When considering ideas, we ask questions such as:
why this idea? Why choose this story over all the other possibilities?
What is this story really about? What is I want to communicate with
Ideas, however, are abstract, amorphous things. We must embody
an idea in some definite, understandable form if we are to express
it. Would our idea be best expressed as music, or sculpture or dance?
Even within the realm of stories we face a range of forms to choose
from. We could tell it; we could write it out as literature, act
it out as a play, film it as a movie, sing it as a ballad, write
and draw it as a comic book... Given these possibilities, we must
choose the one form most appropriate for effectively communicating
our ideaor, conversely, if we are dedicated to a specific
form, for example, we have decided to be storytellers, we must choose
ideas that fit that form. In either case, we must first understand
the form, its characteristics, its limitations, its strengths, its
possibilities. Storytellers, for example, need to understand the
differences between written and spoken language. Only then can we
weigh the choices and pick the most effective form for our ideas,
only then can we anticipate how the choice of form will shape our
Having settled on the form, our choices continue, for most art
forms contain within them idioms, clusters of various approaches,
techniques, and concerns; that is, various ways of "speaking,"
or idioms. Although a Woody Allen comedy and an Arnold Schwartzenegger
action-adventure are both movies, and so are both shaped by the
demands of that form, we certainly do not expect them to be similar.
They tackle different sets of concerns, use different technical
elements, employ different rhythms and pacing, follow different
sets of conventions. If form is the language we will use, idiom
represents a particular vocabulary and grammar within that language.
Within written literature, the many idioms, or genres, are well
defined. We expect a science fiction novel to differ from a romance
novel or a western. We expect the science fiction novel to use different
language, explore different themes and ideas. So, too, does storytelling
have different idioms, different ways of presenting a tale. A ghost
story differs from a folktale differs from a myth differs from a
personal story. Our choice of idiom shapes how we tell a story,
even what sort of story we can tell.
Every art form also possesses its own structure, or way in which
the elements are put together to carry the idea forward. In a story,
the plot represents the most obvious structural element, but not
the only one. How the characters, descriptions, mood all fit together
to carry a story forward are also important. We need to understand
how a storys plot works, why one scene follows another, what
effect a sequence of scenes produces. We must understand why one
character is highlighted while another remains in the background,
why detailed description is important in one part of the story,
but not in another.
Craft, or the technical skills, involved in creating art constitutes
the fifth element. An artist should know the basic tools required
to create a variety of effects and impacts. A painter needs to understand
paints and pigments and the techniques of applying them to various
surfaces. A film maker should understand lighting and composition
and editing. A storytellers craft includes the use of gestures
and intonation, along with an understanding of how and when to use
them. Craft also embraces basic character development techniques
and the command of different types of language, such as descriptive,
narrative, and dialogue.
Finally, we concern ourselves with stylethe finishing touches,
the individual polish. Style distinguishes one artists work
from any other artists work. A storytellers personal
observations and choice turns of phrase represent elements of their
style, along with their use of humor, pacing, and dramatic embellishment.
Style often catches our attention and first attracts us to great
storytelling. We delight in Donald Daviss gentle humor and
observations, in Ed Stivenders quick pacing and delivery,
and his odd-ball comments upon the story as he tells it. Indeed,
we can easily fall into the trap of regarding these stylistic elements
as what gives the story and the telling their power. Craft, structure,
idiom, form, and idea lie beneath the surface of style, less easily
observed during the course of the telling, often easily discounted.
Yet without a solid grounding in all of these, style would be meaningless,
empty flourishes communicating nothing.
But while this order of the steps, beginning with the idea and
ending with style, represents the order in which, ideally, we would
consider these element and ask these questions when developing any
idea into a finished piece, it does not reflect the way in which
we develop as artists. Paradoxically, as artists, we take the reverse
journey, beginning with style and only slowly working our way back
towards form and idea. Nor, upon consideration, should this surprise
us. After all, those elements of style are what first catch our
eye and ear. Those unique, surface aspect of a telling - the humor,
the pacing, the wild voices - first attract us to this art form,
cause us to consider partaking of it. Naturally, then, we begin
by exploring what is familiar: the surface.
As beginning storytellers, we concentrate on telling a story more
or less intact from the original. We do, however, try to put the
story into our own words, to incorporate our own observations, humor,
voice into those words. We work at understanding how to put our
own, unique surface upon this tale. Folktales make excellent stories
for beginners for just this reason. Thousands of tellers over the
centuries have worked at the story, have tackled the underlying
concerns, have addressed the other levels of questions and concerns.
Only the question of individual style necessarily confronts the
teller, leaving the teller free to devote their entire energies
to exploring and developing their own style.
But at some point, simply dressing up a story with our own surface
touches no longer satisfies us. We realize that these elements of
style rest on, are variations of, the aspects of craft. We move
on to learning the basic tools of our art. At this stage, we explore
how to use our voice, how to project, give emphasis, suggest emotion
and sounds. We begin to build a repertoire of character voices and
physical gestures. We begin to go beyond strict adherence to our
source material to constructing our own descriptions, details, characters
in the tale.
Most storytellers move quickly through the first stage, style,
into the second. Style tends to have a low profile in storytelling;
perhaps many of the technical concerns of spoken language limit
how much we can play around with the surface of our tales. As a
consequence, we seem to lack the high-profile, unique styles that
capture the imagination and inspire imitation in many other art
forms, such as Hemingways style continually inspires imitation
among young writers. The very effort of trying to learn a story
and hold it in memory forces us to learn these basic skills of remembering
and communicating fairly early on. Most storytellers begin to develop
their craft relatively soon, and most of the telling we hear is
at this level: good, basic storytelling from people who have a good
command of the technical aspects of storytelling.
At some point, however, we may begin to look beyond the skills
of the telling to the stories themselves. Knowing how to tell a
good story, we begin to ask just what, in fact, makes a story good.
We begin to concern ourselves with questions of structure, questions
of how and why a story works. We begin to take our stories apart,
analyzing their constituent parts and their relations to each other.
Why does one scene follow another? we ask. Why does it come here
and not somewhere else in the story? Why does this character act
thusly? We explore different configurations of elements and the
differing effects of each.
The more we learn about stories, the more we realize that not all
stories are alike. Stories have different types of structures, need
to be told in different sorts of ways. This realization spurs us
to explore these differences, asking ourselves how a particular
story should be told. We begin to explore the different idioms,
or genres, ofour art.
To some extent, the very idea of different genres within storytelling
strikes us as odd since storytelling has been dominated for many
years by a single genre: the folktale. The vast majority of the
stories that get told are folktales, to the extent that many people,
both tellers and non-tellers, view the art form and the genre as
one and the same, assuming that storytelling means, by very definition,
the telling of folktales. Obviously, this is not the case. In recent
years, for example, we have seen a surge of interest in personal
stories. We tell personal stories in a different fashion from folktales.
The dramatic embellishments, the character voices, the wild exaggeration
that can fit so well in the folktale come across as jarring and
out of place in a personal story. Audiences do not expect us to
talk about our own lives in the same manner as we talk about Jacks.
We talk about our own lives in a quieter, more intimate fashion.
Similarly, ghost stories require a different set of techniques,
work towards a different end. Many of the techniques important for
a successful folktale only serve to undermine the building tension
that marks a successful ghost story. And yet, because of the predominance
of the folktale within storytelling, it can be all too easy for
a teller to assume that the folktale represents the only model for
telling. Many tellers end up treating all stories as folktales.
It is important, then, that we recognize the different genres of
storytelling, the demands and requirements, strengths and purposes
of each. We can then begin to ask how the choice of genre affects
our stories. Given the dominance of the folktales, we may find ourselves
asking what other genres even exist, whether they are long established
genres such as the ghost story or newly emerging genres such as
the personal story. Newly emerging genres may require us to develop
and define them more fully. We may even find ourselves asking what
genres storytelling is missing, what genres we need to create.
Concerns such as these lead us to the next possible step in this
journey. At this point, however, we face a choice. We can move from
questions of genres within the art form to examining the very nature
of the form itself, or, having mastered the existing aspects of
the art form, we can use those aspects to explore new ideas and
concepts. Both directions are valid and important, but each leads
us to different ends.
When we concentrate on form, we begin exploring the very nature
of storytelling, its boundaries and limitations. We grapple with
questions of just what constitutes storytelling, what makes it different
from other forms. We may examine the notions of what sort of stories
we can tell, what sort of techniques can be used, what sorts of
limitations restrict us. We may delve into the areas between art
forms, the areas where storytelling shades into theatre or mime
or song, often challenging existing notions of what separates storytelling
from these, even finding ways of blending arts together. Charlotte
Blake Alstons Raccoon Story, for example, explores incorporating
jazz as an integral and equal element within a story, as opposed
to music as background to a story. At this point we begin to play
with the art form, asking ourselves what new and different things
we can do with it. My own work adapting the plays of Shakespeare
into storytelling form is often driven by just such concerns. Can
I do this? How can I do this? How can storytelling convey the poetry,
images, complexity, richness of the plays?
On the other hand, instead of challenging the aspects of the art
form, having mastered them, we can turn our attention to using the
art form to explore new ideas. Instead of exploring the how of storytelling,
we concentrate on the what, on stories, themes, ideas we want to
explore and develop. We may be driven to create our own stories,
bringing forth new worlds and insights. We may take an existing
tale, such as a folktale, and turn it over and over, examining it
from new angles, finding new insight and ideas within it, using
storytelling to re-invent and re-image the story. Rather than asking
ourselves "how can I say this?" we ask, "what do
I have to say?" or even "do I have anything to say?"
The decision to pursue form or idea is not an irrevoable one. We
can pursue one set of questions on one project, in one period of
our career, then turn to the other set at another point. Indeed,
a good artist must be concerned with both sets of questions, but
in any project, one set or the other must dominate, or the project
lurches out of control, trying to accomplish two very different
sets of goals at the same time.
Not every storyteller reaches the point of addressing all these
questions. At each step along the journey we find fewer and fewer
people. Everyone begins with the task of putting a story into their
own words, and for some people, who may simply wish to have a couple
of stories to tell, that may be sufficient. Others will become intrigued
by this art, perhaps inspired by other tellers or a workshop or
conference, and will want to master the craft of telling, to develop
all the basic skills of good, solid storytelling. Of these, some
will begin to wonder why some stories work better than others even
when good, solid telling underlies both. These tellers may start
fiddling with their stories, examining and reworking their structure,
gradually mastering these elements of the art. A few of these tellers
will grow intrigued with the problems of different structures and
start to explore the questions of genres. And a few of these will
find themselves driven to explore the very nature of the art form
and the ideas it can convey.
There is no requirement that anyone try to reach these latter stages.
Storytelling, like all arts, needs at least a few practitioners
examining, critiquing, redefining the boundaries and nature of the
art, generating new ideas and themes and concerns to be explored.
Such work keeps the art form alive and vital. But we do not, can
not expect that everyone engage in this work. We need artists to
flesh out these developments, to create a body of art and a thriving
art form. We need people who just want to tell a good story. The
six stages are not a race. Rather they are a journey into the art
of storytelling. Like any good journey, they offer a number of vistas
from which we can view ourselves and our stories. From these points
we can gauge how far we have traveled from our starting point. Each
of us must decide for ourselves, however, where we are ultimately
heading. Any one of these stages represents a possible destination,
a point where we say "I am satisfied with how far I have travelled,
so this is where I am going to stop."
McClouds stages provide us a map, that we can more accurately
judge how far we truly wish to travel, that we can know what other
vistas lie ahead if we wish to go farther. But as with any journey,
where we end up is not nearly as important as what we learn along
published in WIP Winter 1997
Why I Hate Lady Ragnell Alan Irvine's article and the rebuttal it engendered.