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What makes a good story

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

One of the big advantages of doing my own adaptations of old stories is that it gives me a chance to put them into my voice. By that, I mean I can change them here and there so when I read them, it sounds like I am "telling" the story, not just reading it out.

Of course, I can't always do that. When I record audiobooks, I must stick to the author's original words, not change them just to suit me.

But that is the skill; taking someone else's story, and giving it my voice.

There are limits to this trick, and when I am looking for projects to audition for, I run away from the ones that are awkward to read, don't flow properly, or where all the characters have exactly the same "voice."  They use the same words, the same turns of phrases, and so on.

As you can imagine, that is a real pain when you are recording a ten-hour book. When it is a short story, it can be worse! I haven't the volume of words to get myself around the problems; I have to hit the mic running, as it were.

So, what does make a good story for a storyteller?

The stories I am recording on the podcast are anything between ten and thirty minutes long, but the same rules apply to all of them.

The first rule for an author or an adaptor, is that a storyteller is not reading a story, they are performing it. A storyteller is a character in their own right. I am on the podcast. That is my voice, but I am intentionally using the rougher, lower end because, I hope, it makes it more interesting, and warm and friendly in your ears. And I don't break into characters left right and centre when I am talking to the cashier at the supermarket. Well, I try not to.

So, the writer must remember that the narrator in their story is part of the cast, and they should give him (if it is for me) a nice turn of phrase, something I can play with.

The trick is not to make the sentences too long, or rather, make sure they are punctuated properly. I always mark up my scripts before recording and I add additional punctuation and marks so I know where I can breath and what I should emphasise.

Also, the writer of the tale should remember that the storyteller won't do everything at the same speed or volume.  They will slow down on interesting words and speed up on the bits in between.  And a storyteller loves to exaggerate! Give them something they can exaggerate to the full.

The Plot

The tale as told in a tavern a few hundred years ago, for that really is a good starting point, was never quite the same as something we would write for a book. A good comparison these days is how stand up comedians like Billy Connolly work.  The big yin tells convoluted tales, and they are much more worked out than many people realise. 

The story can't simply have a beginning middle and end as a writing tutor might tell you. That would be boring, and remember, the bard is trying to perform this. If the plot could be worked out on a beer mat, then that is the best place to leave it.

A storyteller wants to take his or her audience on a twisting journey, and if it sounds like everyone is getting close to losing the plot all the better. You just need to make sure that you pull the story back on track in the nick of time. Hans Christian Andersen does that in The Ugly Duckling. He could have cut out all the middle and had the same meaning, but instead he took us on a journey where one thing went wrong after another.

Sub-plots within sub-plots are also fun. Connolly does this.

A good way of looking at this is as a series of nested brackets. As an example, how about the tale of The Golden Bird collected by The Brothers Grimm which I tell in episode one. Here is how it works.

Golden Bird Steals apple, Oldest brother goes in chase. Next brother goes after him and they both end up in trouble.

That is the setup. Now let's add the complications:

(Youngest brother goes after the bird. {Finds bird, gets caught. [Goes after golden Horse. ((Finds horse, gets caught. {{Goes after Princess. [[Finds princess, gets caught.  ((( Digs away mountain ))) Goes after princess.]] Gets princess. }} Goes after horse. )) Gets Horse ] Gets goes after bird. } Gets Bird.)

And now we are back on track and the youngest rescues his brothers.

So, if you can decipher my single, double, and triple brackets, (which I think I almost got right) you can see that the plot keeps falling into yet another side plot until we get to the mountain. Then they start resolving themselves out in reverse order.

But then there is a twist.

Having been rescued, the brothers turn against the youngest, steal the bird, horse, and princess, and ride to fame and fortune to the king.  And we get another plot, though a lot shorter.

So, this story, which is only three thousand words, is far more than you could work out on a  beer mat. And what is more, is a lot of fun for the storyteller to do, because he or she knows what is happening and can play with it.  They can exaggerate the twists and turns, make it sound more illogical than it is; just like getting lost in a dark forest. (See what I did there?).

And just at the point the happy listeners have caught up, it all falls apart again.  But not completely. By this point, the audience senses it will be alright, that the young man and the princess will end up in each others' giggling arms, so they hang on in there. And the writer and the storyteller do not disappoint them, and keep the bit after the twist much shorter just in case they get thrown out.

You can get away with this in short story in a way that is much harder in novels. It is far too easy for the readers (and the authors) to forget where the slide plot moments were and even what they were. I am having exactly that problem in a huge series I am writing. My sister (who is reading it all for me) has made the comment that she has sometimes forgotten facts from book one that are suddenly relevant in book five! So, without making it obvious, I am having to put the odd reminder in the narrative just to hold people on track.

When a story is only twenty minutes long, it is not an issue.

The Characters

Having worked out your complicated plot, it is time for characters. 

Remember that as a writer, you are putting this into the hands of a bard; a particularly over-the-top individual who loves playing to the gallery, wants to fill the room, and needs to make sure people put coins in the ubiquitous hat.

They want sad characters to tremble, and fun characters to be complete pains.  They want kings to have thunderous voices, and advisers to be creepy. And even the main characters who are probably closer to being normal than anyone else, must have their mad moments.

If that sounds a tall order and you are looking for inspiration, then head off to the world of Charles Dickens. I love recording his stories because there is not a single ordinary character anywhere. In the musical of Oliver and many of the film adaptations, Oliver is made to be very weak, a bit posh, and so on. But not in the book. He is weak with hunger, and undersized, but he has been brought up in a rough house and sounds like it. And he is quite capable of being cheeky in his own way.  And when he is upset, well, it is almost impossible to read without choking up.

Remember, this is a short story. You haven't the time to develop characters. They should be obvious in the first few words. And if they are, the bards over the years will love you for it as they take your words and put their own spin on it.

Because that is what a storyteller does. Takes the words of the writer, then tells it in their own way. That is the joy of it!

To sum up then

  • A tale should be short
  • It should have short sentences, and a witty turn of phrase
  • It should have a convoluted plot, sub-plot, sub-sub-plot...
  • It should have clearly defined characters with different voices (words and phrases)
  • It should have a narrator that will be the character of the storyteller themselves.