Tips and Programs
Variations on Storycrafting: Thomas
do I work up a story for telling? Interesting question. I never thought
to quantify my process before. So where do I begin?
Thats the easiest part. Whenever a story catches my attention
I go look for as many versions of it as I can find. That is assuming
the story comes from a traditional source, which most of mine do.
By reading several versions of the same tale I get a feel for the
essential elements of the tale, those things that make it the story
it is. Finding versions of the story from different countries or cultures
illuminates what each sees as the core elements. For Thomas the Rhymer
I found only two versions and they are both Scottish. Guess this is
a Scottish story or actually a ballad since I found the music for
it as well.
Once Ive gathered all my versions and digested them I may outline
the plot to see what the core elements are. With Thomas this isnt
necessary since I dont have multiple versions. From the outline
I will pull those elements I find most compelling, those that seem
essential to me to preserve the central meaning of the story, central
for me meaning anyway.
This is where I start to look for that one image that will be my
ticket into the heart of the story. This is hard to put into words.
This image is the representation for me of the heart of the story
or at least that thing that resonates most strongly within me. This
image will illuminate the emotional core of the story and give my
telling a direction and shape. Sometimes I am working on the story
for quite a while before I get this image. Recently, I was working
on Mr. Fox for an upcoming theater piece. I really wanted this story
in the show, but I just wasnt happy with the way it was developing.
One day I saw the hand, the one Mr. Fox cuts off, that lands in Marys
lap, that is proof of his deeds. I saw that hand in a glass box sitting
by Marys bed. She kept it. And I knew where the story was going.
Yet the minute I read "Clever Kate", about her appearing
before the king in her outlandish attire to satisfy all his conditions
I clearly saw a young woman on roller blades, wearing a thong bikini,
chewing gum, and holding a huge bunch of helium filled balloons. There
was my core image. After finding 11 versions of that tale, it took
me some time to get the story tellable, but that updated Kate was
my guiding light. I am a visual learner and having a clear picture
in my head to guide me is very important.
I wasnt getting anywhere with Thomas until I read how he retreated
to the familys tower after he returned from the world of Faerie.
Then I saw Thomas before, as a dandy with a golden tongue. A fine
enough musician who could use his music and his flattering ways to
get to any woman, or get what he wanted from any man. A smooth talker
who didnt have to work hard for what he wanted. Off he goes
to Faerie where he cannot use his flattery and he is given a terrible
gift. The man who once used his music and his golden tongue to get
whatever he wanted can now speak only the truth. And his music is
now truly brilliant. And if asked, he can see the truth of things
to come, prophesy. It is easier for him to speak in rhyme, to blunt
the truth. It is easier for him to play his harp and sing his songs
that to try to converse. It is easier still to hide from the world
and not have to tell the truth or see into someones future.
I saw him still a young man sitting alone in that tower, haunted by
his new "talents." Now I had some vision for the story.
It was time to give it voice.
I didnt see Thomas telling his story himself. I think he told
it once to his grandfather and those of the household and then never
spoke of it again. Thomas almost never speaks anymore. Besides Im
a woman and this is a mans story. So who could tell this tale?
Why not a woman of his grandfathers household? One who was just
too young to catch his attention before he went to Faerie, but one
who longed to be noticed. She would see the difference in him and
understand the torment he was feeling.
So now I know where Im going with the tale or maybe its
more where the tale is taking me. I can see the path and know my traveling
companions. This is where the work begins. I never write out my stories,
but I do make sort of plot outlines. I may note a particularly fine
phrase or an important detail. Blocking out the story into sections
sometimes makes it easier to learn and can show redundancies or unnecessary
sections. All my stories start out with way more in them than the
listeners really needs to hear. But those things I edit out are still
part of the story for me, the back-story. They inform and color what
the listener does hear.
Finding just the perfect first line of the story is crucial for me
as well. This will sometimes come as partner to that core image I
spoke of earlier. For instance with my adaptation of Mr. Fox the first
line is, "No one ever really understood why I kept the thing."
That line sets the tone for the piece, peaks the audiences interest
and "introduces" my core image. For Clever Kate the first
line is, "There was once a king who liked to keep his finger
on the pulse of his people." The "once" lets the audience
know this will be a sort-of fairy tale. The phrase, "to keep
his finger on the pulse of his people," tells them it wont
be exactly traditional in tone and setting. For Thomas I think the
first line will be something like, " After seven years in Faerie
youd think Thomas would be hungry for the company of others,
but its his parting gifts that keep him in that tower."
You know Thomas isnt telling the tale. You know he has been
to Faerie and returned and you wonder what these gifts could be.
Then comes the search for rest of the story. The telling and the
telling and the retelling until tongue has burned away all that is
unnecessary. I am blessed with gifted coaching partners who do not
tire of hearing my work (at least they never admit to it). Other pairs
of ears, other minds and hearts are great help in polishing the rough
surface of a new story.
One day you decide the story is ready. You are ready. The time has come to tell the tale for real. Each story I tell is gift I give to the listeners hoping they will open it and find some truth there. It isnt always a big truth. Enjoyment is a gift enough. It certainly isnt always my truth. But isnt that why we do this thing, storytelling.
posted February 2002
Why I Hate Lady Ragnell Alan Irvine's article and the rebuttal it engendered.