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The Ugly Duckling

With a story from Hans Christian Andersen

Episode 2 - Saturday, 30 November 2019

I am already into episode two? It feels like only a week since episode one! 

Today I am telling the tale of The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen, a writer as famous as his tales.

I have always loved this story. We had a record of his stories when I was young, which I think was from the film starring Danny Kaye. But Andersen was famous long before the movies and was one of the most popular writers not only in his native Denmark, but in the UK and the US.

LIke most of the stories I will tell, this is my adaptation, but I have stuck rigorously to the original plot. What changes I have made are mostly to suit my voice, but also some changes to make the moral a little clearer, perhaps. Find out more in the podcast.

After the story, I chat about what makes a good story for a storyteller to perform. This is based on my blog article I wrote a few days ago.

If you haven't yet, subscribe using the buttons below, sign up to my newsletter, and if you want to comment, find me on Twitter, Instagram, and my Facebook page. Links at the bottom of the page. Use the #deepinthedarkforest hashtag.

Happy listening!


Welcome to Episode Two of Deep in the dark forest, a podcast of stories old and new and a little about them.

Since the first episode just a week ago, I have managed to get the site working properly and am beginning to add to the blog and authors section. Eventually I will add a blog a week, but I am trying to get a few up there as a starter. I have five small articles on the blog page, if you want to go look. Sometimes I will also use a blog article at the end of an episode, and I have done that this week. Listen to about what makes a good story for a storyteller after the story!

First, a little shout out to a few people. I want to say hi to a fantastic Greek lady called Soulla who will often encourage people with her big smile, and has sent me best of wishes for this podcast.

Also hi to a lady called Amazon on Twitter who describes herself as a writer, poet, womanist, and lawyer (the last being a touch scary), and who loved my line in the Golden Bird about if there had been wise women consulted, the story would have been a lot shorter.

And a general affectionate wave in the direction of several other friends who are keeping their fingers crossed for me.

Right, lets get on with the story. Hans Christian Andersen is loved by many and this is one of his most famous stories. The Ugly Duckling. A sad little story, about the saddest duckling with a beautiful heart.

The Ugly Duckling

By Hans Christian Andersen


Oh what a beautiful day!  It was summertime. The wheat fields were golden, the oats were green, and the hay stood in great stacks in the lush green meadows. A stork stalked between them on his long red legs, chattering away in Egyptian, the language he had learned from his mum.

All around the meadows and cornfields grew thick woods, and in the midst of the forest was a deep lake. Oh, yes; it was a beautiful and delightful day in the lands of Denmark.

In a quiet, sunny spot stood a pleasant old farmhouse surrounded with deep canals; and from the walls down to the water’s edge grew great burdocks, so high that under the tallest of them a young child could stand straight and be completely hidden from view. It was as wild as if it had been in the very centre of the forest.

In this snug retreat sat a duck upon her nest, waiting for her young brood to hatch.  And quite a wait it had been.  At first, sitting here in the shade had been a pleasurable thing to do, but now she was fed up, bored, and a bit lonely, for the little ones were taking forever to come out of their shells, and she seldom had visitors. The other ducks much preferred to swim about in the canals than to climb the slippery banks and sit under the burdock leaves to have a bit of a gossip. It was a long time to just sit there doing nothing.  She flapped her wings sadly and had a little sniff.

At length, however, one shell cracked and creaked open, and soon another and another, and from each came a sweet face who lifted its head and cried “Peep, peep.”

“Quack, quack!” said the mother; and then they all tried to say it, too, as well as they could in their bright little voices, while they looked all about them at the tall green leaves. Their mother smiled and watched their happy eyes dart around, for green is good for the eyes, you know.

“What an amazing world it is, to be sure,” said the little ones, when they found how much more room they had out here than when they were in their cramped eggshells.

“Do you think this is all there is?” Said their mother, chucking merrily. “That this is the whole world? Wait till you have seen the garden. And far beyond that it stretches down to the pastor’s field, though I have never waddled such a distance myself.”  She ran her eyes over the eggshells. “Are you all out?” she asked, rising to her feet. “Oh deary-dear! One big egg is still to hatch. I wonder how long this wretched sitting on an egg will last?  I am totally fed up with it all to the back of my beak.” But for all that, she sat on the last egg, stuck her bottom beak out, and stared forlornly into the distance.

“Well, well! And how are you to-day?” quacked an old duck who came to pay her a visit.

“There’s one egg that is taking a deal of hatching, old mother. The shell is hard and will not break,” said the patient duck, who sat still upon her nest. “But just look at the others. Have I not a pretty family? Are they not the most beautifullest little ducklings you ever saw? They are the image of their father – for all the good it will do them! He never comes to see me, let alone help!”

“Show me see the egg that won’t break,” said the old duck. “I bet it’s a Guinea fowl’s egg. The same thing happened to me once, and a deal of trouble it gave me, for the young ones are afraid of the water, bless ‘em. I quacked and clucked, but it didn’t help one bit, it didn’t. Let me have a look.”  And she peeked into the nest.  “Ooh, yes, I am right, I reckon. It’s a Guinea fowl, upon my word. So, take my advice and leave it where it is to do what it wants. Come to the water and teach the other children to swim.”

“I think I will stay a little while longer,” said the mother. “I have sat so long, a day or two more won’t matter.”

“Very well, please yourself,” said the old duck, rising; and she went on her waddling way.

At last the great egg broke, and the new little bird cried “Peep, peep,” as he crept forth from the shell. The mother stared at him and did not know what to think. He was huge, and far from pretty.  A right ugly little one, she thought. “Now, really!” she said. “This is one enormous little duckling, and it is not at all like any of the others. I wonder if he will turn out to be a Guinea fowl? Well, we shall see when we get to the water.  For into the water he must go, even if I have to give him a push.  Water is what us ducks do!”

On the next day, the weather was delightful. The sun shone brightly on the green burdock leaves, and the mother duck took the whole brood down to the water and jumped in with a splash.

“Quack, quack!” cried she, and one after another the little ducklings jumped in too. To her surprise, the whole lot sunk, for they had never swum before. She quacked and flapped in a panic! But ducks are ducks, even little ones, and they came up again in an instant and swam about quite prettily - their eager legs paddling under them all of their own accord. And there he was too; the big ugly grey-coat was also in the water, swimming with them.

“Oh!” said the mother, putting her beak on one side. “You’re not a Guinea fowl, then. See how well he uses his legs, and how erect he holds himself! He is my own child, he must be, and maybe not so very ugly after all, if you look at him good and proper like. Quack, quack! come with me now. I will take you all into grand society and introduce you to the farmyard, but you must keep close to me or you may get trodden upon by the horse, he’s a bit daft you see. And, above all, beware of the cat.”

“What’s a cat?” asked one.

“You’ll see.”

When they reached the farmyard, there was a right riot going on.  Two families were fighting over an eel’s head. But the cat brought the argument to a quick end by hissing at them and nicking the fishy for itself.

“See, my children, that is the way of the world,” said the mother duck, smacking her beak, for she had rather fancied the eel’s head herself. “Come, now, use your legs, and let me see how well you can behave. Let me take you to that old duck yonder so you can bow your heads prettily to her. She is the highest born of us all and has Spanish blood, she has, and so is quite well to do. See? She has a red rag tied to her leg, which is something very grand, and a great honour for a duck. It shows that everyone is anxious not to lose her, and that she is to be respected by both man and beast. Come, now, don’t turn in your toes; a well-bred duckling spreads their feet wide apart, just like their mum and dad, wherever he is.  Now bend your necks and say ‘Quack!’”

The ducklings did as they were told, but the other ducks just stared at them, and said, “Oh, look, here comes another brood—as if there weren’t enough of us already! And bless me, what a queer-looking object that one is! We don’t want him here.”

And then one little brute of a duck flew across the yard and bit poor grey-coat in the neck.

“Let him alone!” snapped the mother. “He’s not doing anyone no harm!”

“But he is so big and ugly. He’s a perfect fright,” said the spiteful duck. “He must be turned out. A little biting will do him the world of good.”

“The others are very pretty children,” said the old Spanish duck with the red rag on her leg. “All but that one. I wish his mother could smooth him up a bit; he is most raggedy.”

“That is impossible, your grace,” replied the mother. “He is not pretty, but he has a very good disposition and he swims as well as the others or even better. I think he will grow up pretty, and hopefully not too big. He’s remained too long in the egg, I think, and therefore his figure is not properly formed.” And then she stroked the little duck’s neck and smoothed his feathers, saying: “He is a drake, and therefore not of so much consequence. But I think he will grow up strong and be able to take good care of himself.”

“Your other ducklings are graceful enough,” said the old duck. “Now make yourself at home, and if you find an eel’s head you may bring it to me.”

And so they made themselves comfortable. But the poor little grey-coat duckling who had crept out of his shell last of all and who the others thought was so ugly, was bitten and pushed and made fun of, not only by the ducks but by all the chickens and geese and turkeys as well.

 “He is too big,” they all said. And the turkey cock, who had been born into the world with spurs, and fancied himself to be an emperor, puffed himself out like a ship in full sail, and he flew at the duckling. Right red-in-the-face was that mad turkey. The poor little ducking didn’t know where to go or what to do, and he was as miserable as miserable can be because everyone said he was so ugly, so different, and he was laughed at by the whole farmyard.

And so it went on from day to day, getting worse and worse. Little grey-coat was driven about by everyone. Even his brothers and sisters were unkind to him and would say, “Oi, you ugly creature, I wish the cat would get you!” And his mother had been heard to say she wished he had never been born!

The ducks pecked him, the chickens beat him up right and proper, and the girl who fed the poultry tried to kick him!

So one day, he ran away, frightening the little birds in the hedge as he flew over the palings, his little wings beating and his heart breaking.

“They are afraid because I’m so ugly,” he said, believing what the cruel farmyard folk had told him. So he flew farther away still, until he came upon a large moor inhabited by wild ducks. Here he stayed the whole night, hiding in the rushes, crying his eyes out.

In the morning, when the wild ducks rose into the air, they spotted our sad little friend. “What sort of a duck are you?” they asked, gathering around him.

He bowed to them, as his mum had taught him, and was as polite as he could be, but he was a bit scared, and didn’t say a word.

“You really are ugly,” said the wild ducks. “But as long as you don’t try to marry into one of our families, it won’t matter much.”

“What?” The young duck had no thoughts of marriage; all he wanted was to lie among the rushes on the moor and drink the water.

After he had been on the moor two days, a couple of wild geese wandered up, or rather goslings, for they had not been out of the egg long, which might account for their rather in-your-face way of talking.

“Listen, mate,” said one of them to the duckling. “You are so ugly that we think you’re okay. Will you go with us and become a migrating bird? And you know what? Not far from here is another moor in which there are quite a few wild geese who are unmarried. It could be your best chance to find a wife. You may even make your fortune, ugly as you are.”

But before he had a chance to answer, “Bang, bang,” sounded in the air, and the two wild geese fell dead among the rushes. “Bang, bang!” The noise echoed far and wide, and the whole flock of wild ducks rose up into the air.

The sound crashed from every direction, for the hunters surrounded the moor, and some were even sitting on branches of trees, overlooking the rushes. The blue smoke from the guns rose like clouds over the woodlands, and as it floated away across the water, their dogs bounded across the moor, the rushes bending this way and that whichever way they went.

The poor duckling was petrified! He hid his head beneath his wing in fear.  And just then, a huge, scary dog burst through the reeds. His jaws were open, his tongue hung from his mouth, and his eyes glared fearfully. He thrust his nose close to the duckling, showing his sharp teeth, and then, splash, splash he went into the water, without even touching him.

“Oh dear!” sighed the duckling, “I am so ugly, even a dog won’t bite me. Well, it could have been worse, I suppose.”

And so he lay quite still, while the shots rattled through the rushes, and gun after gun was fired.

It was late in the day before all became quiet once more, but even then, the poor young thing dared not move. He waited for several hours and then, after peeking carefully around him, hastened away from the moor as fast as he could. He ran over field and meadow till a storm arose; the winds so loud and strong he could hardly struggle against them.

Towards evening he reached a poor little cottage that looked ready to fall flat, and was only standing because it could not decide on which way to fall first. The storm was now so violent that the duckling could go no farther, and he flopped down by the cottage. But then, he saw that the door was not quite closed because one of the hinges had rusted off. A narrow opening near the bottom was just large enough for him to squeeze through. So he did, and curled up quietly for the night, his beak under his wing.


In this cottage, lived a woman, a cat, and a hen. The cat, whom his mistress called “My little son,” was a great favourite of the old girl. He could raise his back and purr, and could even throw out sparks from his fur if it were stroked the wrong way. The hen had very short legs, so she was called “Chickie Short-legs.” She laid good brown eggs, she did, and her mistress loved her as if she had been her own child. In the morning, they found their strange visitor. The cat began to purr, and the hen clucked.

“What is that noise about?” said the old woman, looking around the room. But she couldn’t see very well these days, so, when she saw little grey-coat, she thought at first it must be a fat duck who had strayed from home. “Oh, what a prize!” she exclaimed. “I hope it’s not a drake, for then I shall have some ducks’ eggs. I must wait and see.”

So the duckling was allowed to remain on trial for three weeks while they waited to see if he was a boy or a girl. But eggs, or course, there were none.

Now the cat was the master of the house and the hen was the mistress, and they always said, “We and the world,” for they believed themselves to be half the world, and by far the better half, too. The duckling reckoned that others might hold a different opinion on the subject, but the short-legged hen wouldn’t have it.

“Can you lay eggs?” she asked. “No. Then have the goodness to cease talking.”

“Can you raise your back, or purr, or throw out sparks?” said the cat. “No? Then you have no right to express an opinion when sensible people are speaking.”

So the duckling sat in a corner, his spirits very low. But when the sunshine and the fresh air came into the room through the open door, he began to feel such a great longing for a swim that he could not help telling the cat and the hen.

“What an absurd idea!” said the hen. “You have nothing else to do, so you sit around having foolish fancies. If you could purr like the cat, or lay eggs like me, they would pass away.”

“But it is so delightful to swim about on the water,” said the duckling, “and so refreshing to feel it close over your head while you dive down to the bottom.”

“Delightful, indeed! It must be a queer sort of pleasure,” said the hen. “Why, you must be crazy! Ask the cat. He is the cleverest animal I know. Ask him how he would like to swim about on the water, or to dive under it, for I will not speak of my own opinion. Ask our mistress, the old woman. There is no one in the world cleverer than she. Do you think she would relish swimming and letting the water close over her head?”

“You don’t understand me,” said the duckling.

“We don’t understand you? Who can understand you, I wonder? Do you consider yourself cleverer than the cat or the old woman? I will say nothing of myself. Don’t imagine such nonsense, child, and thank your good fortune that you have been so well received here. Are you not in a warm room and in society from which you may learn something? My, but you are a chatterer, and your company is not very agreeable. Believe me, I speak only for your good. I may tell you unpleasant truths, but that is a proof of my friendship. I advise you, therefore, to lay eggs and learn to purr as quickly as possible.”

“Oh dear,” said the duckling, knowing in his heart he would never purr or lay eggs. “I think I better leave and go out into the world again.”

“You do that,” said the hen, turning her tail feathers and contemplating laying an egg.

So the duckling left the cottage and soon found water on which he could swim and dive, but he was avoided by all the other animals because they said he was so ugly, so different.

Autumn came, and the leaves in the forest turned to orange and gold. Then, as winter approached, the wind caught them as they fell and whirled them into the cold air. The clouds, heavy with hail and snowflakes, hung low in the sky, and the raven stood among the reeds, crying, “Croak, croak.” It made one shiver with cold just to look at him. And the duckling was sadder than ever.

One evening, just as the sun was setting amid radiant clouds, there came a large flock of beautiful birds out of the bushes. The duckling had never seen anything like them before. They were swans; and they curved their graceful necks, while their soft plumage shone with dazzling whiteness. They uttered a singular cry as they spread their glorious wings and flew away from those cold northern regions to warmer countries far across the seas. They climbed higher and higher in the air, and the little duckling had a strange sensation as he watched them. He whirled himself in the water like a wheel, stretched out his neck towards them, and uttered a cry so strange that it frightened even himself. Could he ever forget those beautiful, happy birds? And when at last they were out of his sight, he dived under the water and rose again almost beside himself with excitement. He knew not the names of these birds nor where they had flown, but he felt towards them as he had never felt towards any other bird in the world.

He was not envious of these beautiful creatures. It never occurred to him to wish to be as lovely as they. A poor, ugly little creature, others said he was; nothing more. How gladly he would have lived even with the ducks in the farm, had they only treated him kindly and said the odd helpful word.

The winter grew colder and colder. Our lonely friend swam about on the water to keep it from freezing, but every night the space on which he swam became smaller and smaller. At length it froze so hard that the ice in the water crackled as he moved, and the duckling had to paddle with his legs as well as he could to keep the space from closing up. He was exhausted, and at last he lay still and helpless, stuck fast in the ice.

Early in the morning a peasant who was passing by saw what had happened. He broke the ice in pieces with his wooden clog and carried the duckling home to his wife. The warmth revived the poor little creature; but when the children wanted to play with him, the duckling thought they were attacking, so he jumped up in terror, fluttered into the milk pan, and splashed the milk about the room. The woman clapped her hands, which frightened him still more. He flew first into the butter cask, then into the meal tub and out again. What a state he was in! The woman screamed and struck at him with the tongs, the children laughed and screamed and tumbled over each other in their efforts to catch him, but luckily, he escaped. The door stood open, and poor grey-coat slipped out among the bushes and lay down exhausted in the newly fallen snow.

It would be a very sad tale indeed were I to relate all the misery and privations which the poor little duckling endured over that hard winter. But when it had passed, he found himself lying one morning in a moor, amongst the rushes. He felt the warm sun shining, and heard the lark singing, and saw that all around him was a beautiful spring.

The young bird felt that his wings were stronger now. So he flapped them against his sides and rose high into the air. They bore him onwards until, before he knew how it had happened, he found himself in a large garden. The apple trees were in full blossom, and the fragrant elders bent their long green branches down to the stream which wound around a smooth lawn. Everything looked beautiful in the freshness of early spring. From a thicket close by, came three white swans, rustling their feathers and swimming lightly over the smooth water. The duckling watched these lovely birds, but he felt more unhappy than ever.

“I will fly to these royal birds,” he said, “and they will have at me, because, I am ugly, people say, and ugly ducklings don’t have no right to talk to such beauty. But it don’t matter. Better to be had by them than pecked by the ducks, beaten by the hens, pushed about by the maiden who feeds the poultry, or starved with hunger in the winter!”

So he flew to the water and swam towards the beautiful swans. The moment they espied the stranger they rushed to meet him with outstretched wings. The poor bird bent his head down to the surface of the water and awaited his end.

But what did he see in the clear stream below? His saw own image. No longer the dark-grey bird who the others had said was so ugly and disagreeable, but a graceful and beautiful swan.

He had been born in a farmyard, and it should not have mattered what sort of egg he had hatched from, but it had. The ducks and the cat and the hens had not cared for his heart, but only for his ugliness.  But all that now fell away, for the great swans gathered around the newcomer and they stroked his neck with their beaks in a fond welcome for a lost son.

Into the garden presently came some little children and they threw bread and cake into the water.

“See,” cried the youngest, “there is a new one!” The children were delighted, and ran to their father and mother, dancing and clapping their hands and shouting with joy. “There is another swan come; a new one has arrived.”

Then they threw more bread and cake into the water and said, “The new one is the most beautiful of all, he is so young and pretty.”

And the old swans bowed their heads before him.

Then he felt quite ashamed and he hid his head under his wing, for he did not know what to do. He was so happy, yet he was not at all proud. He didn’t suddenly feel he was better than others. He had been hated and despised for his looks, and now he heard them say he was the most beautiful of all the birds. Even the elder tree bent down its boughs into the water before him, and the sun shone warm and bright. Then he rustled his feathers, curved his slender neck, and cried joyfully, from the depths of his heart, for it did not matter that these children thought he was the most beautiful, but only that they didn’t want to drive him away.  

“I never dreamed of such happiness as this while I thought I was only the despised ugly duckling.”  For whatever he had been on the outside, inside, like every child, he was always a swan.


End Section

What makes a good story?

It has to be one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most famous stories, but it is not without a little problem, and it is for that reason I changed a few bits, just a little.

I think when he wrote it, Andersen intended to say that it doesn’t matter what you look like, it is how you are inside that is important. But in the original story, the duckling has to become the swan for others to see who he really is. And being a swan is seen as somehow better than anything else. The clue to what Andersen really wanted was in the words, “but he was not proud,” which are in the original. So, I added a line at the very end just to move the story back to where I think Andersen started – we are all swans inside. Well, most are.

When I decided to record this story, I wanted to perform it word for word as translated. Hans Christian Andersen wrote his stories from scratch and they don’t have the same twisted lineage as the stories from The Brother’s Grimm. But in the end, I changed quite a bit. Nothing major, I didn’t change the story, but our way of talking has moved on in a hundred and fifty years, and so has they way we punctuate.  And I am performing this, so it needs to be in my words.

Which brings me on to a good question: What makes a good story for a storyteller to perform? There can be a big difference between something written to be read and something written to be said. Storytellers speak out loud. So what should the writer think about?

The stories on the Deep in the Dark Forest podcast will all be between say ten and thirty minutes long.  That last one was about twenty six I think. But just having a story the right length is not enough.

The first rule for an author or someone adapting a story is that a storyteller is not reading a story, they are performing it. A storyteller is a character in their own right. I am a character on this podcast, particularly when reading the story. This is my voice, but I am intentionally using the rougher, lower end because, I hope, it makes it more interesting, and warm and friendly to your ears. And generally, 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 the bard can play with.

The trick is not to make the sentences too long, or if they are, 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 breathe and what I should emphasise. Oh, and never tell a storyteller or even a reader where to emphasise by using italics or capitals; let them do it in the way that suits their style.

The writer of the tale should also remember that the storyteller won’t perform 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! A good story gives them something they can exaggerate to the full.

Now, what about the plot?

The tale as told in a tavern a few hundred years ago, for that really is a good starting point, was not 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 and other story-based comedians tell convoluted tales, and they are often more carefully worked out than many people realise.

The story can’t simply have a beginning middle and end as you were told in school. 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. Take the Ugly Duckling. The story could have leapt from the farm at the beginning to the garden at the end, and it would have had the same meaning, but Hans Christian Andersen took us on a twisting journey where one thing went wrong after another.

Sub-plots within sub-plots are also fun.  A good way of looking at this is as a series of nested brackets. As an example, look at the tale of The Golden Bird collected by The Brothers Grimm which I told 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 set up, and we have already run out of beer mat!

Now let’s add the complications; you’ll need to listen carefully.

(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 ] 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 got right) you can see that the plot keeps falling into yet another side plot until we get to digging away the mountain. Then the sub-plots start resolving themselves in reverse order.

But then there is a twist. The brothers, having been rescued, turn against the youngest, steal the bird, horse, and princess, and ride to fame and fortune to the king. And we get into yet another plot, though a lot shorter.

So, this story, which is only three thousand words long, is far more complicated than you could work out on your 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 and the listener.  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 other’s giggling arms, so they hang on in there. And the writer and the storyteller don’t disappoint them, and they keep the bit after the twist much shorter just in case they get thrown out of the tavern window.

You can get away with this kind of very complicated plot in a short story in a way that is much harder in novels. It is far too easy in a novel for the readers (and the authors) to forget when the side 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 commented that she has sometimes forgotten facts from book one which are suddenly relevant in book five! So, without making it too obvious, I am having to put the odd reminder into the narrative just to hold people on track.

But when a story is only twenty minutes long, it’s not an issue.

Now, the characters.

Having worked out your complicated plot, it is time for your characters to do their thing. 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 Twist and many of the film adaptations, Oliver is made to be very weak and pathetic, 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 are writing. You haven’t the time to develop your characters. Their nature 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 and what people want to hear. They don’t want to hear the same story told word for word by everyone that tells it. They want it to be fresh and new each time.

To sum that all 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; distinct ways of speaking and vocabulary.

And it should have a narrator that will be the character of the storyteller themselves.


But thinking about it, some of this does apply to novels too. Language, as I have said before, is primarily spoken. And if a story reads aloud well, then it often reads well silently too. There are the odd things that do not translate. One writer in his book put an exclamation mark between speech marks for a character’s reaction. Yeah, that was useful for the audio book. How do I say that? And Terry Pratchett’s wonderful take on the character of Death SPOKE LIKE THIS. See, if you haven’t read the books, you don’t know what I just did and will have to read the transcript to get the joke.

Yeah, alright, I’ll tell you. Pratchett put all Death’s speeches in capitals. It worked wonderfully. Especially when a character asks, “Who are you?” And Death answers, GUESS. Okay, you’ll have to read the transcript again to get it.

Anyway, that will do you for today. I haven’t worked out the story for the next episode yet, so it will be a surprise for both of us.

Don’t forget to tell everyone about the Deep in the Dark Forest podcast and subscribe on your favourite Podcast Service.  You can sign up for my newsletter too.  Details in the show notes or on the website.

I am CC Hogan, and I wish you good fortune as you travel on your way!