One of the things I particularly enjoy in the SCA is the opportunity to engage in storytelling. Truth be told, I’ve been exposed to storytelling in various forms since age 5 – when Grandpa Bjarne would sit us kids down and tell us totally made-up stories about the Indians who lived on the mountain across the lake.
The majority of my storytelling and editing experience comes from running pen-and-paper RPG campaigns for the last 16 years. When you play D&D (or when you grow up and find a real game), you are simultaneously engaging in storycraft (usually through the results of die rolls and ill-thought-out character decisions), storytelling (as you awkwardly narrate the action that you think is totally awesome), and story editing (as you learn to cut out the crappy parts and actually make it interesting). I’ve learned to apply these lessons to my efforts at more “traditional” storytelling, and the synergy that is generated makes me a stronger performer overall.
Editing your material is crucial no matter the medium of story conveyance, but it is especially critical in live person-to-audience storytelling, as you will often have to adapt your performance mid-stream based on the real-time feedback you are getting from your audience. If they look bored? “Crap, better get through this boring part – maybe I’ll skip ahead and get to some action. Nah, let’s kill this guy off – he’s boring me. Oh, she looks scared – let’s play it up and get a good reaction. Aaaaand pause for dramatic effect…good!” That sort of internal analysis requires you to stay on your toes and edit your material in completely foreign situations. The stories in your head often become living things – morphing and rearranging chunks of detail that endeavor to reflect a central theme.
So how does it work? What do you need to do?
The most important thing you need to understand is your role as a storyteller (again, no matter the medium) – you are not here to convey a series of mundane details, but rather, you are here to inject a theme into your audience’s brain.
Sure, you can go with a light-hearted comedic piece, or a dramatic tear-jerker, or an action-packed thrillfest – but no matter what you’re doing, your story is ultimately a collection of socially-constructed memes that you are attempting to assemble and convey to your audience. The details are mostly fluff that create a backdrop and help ground your story – but honestly, most of those details don’t matter. Tom Bombadil didn’t need to be in any of the Lord of the Rings movies because, really, he didn’t matter for the story that was being told. When you boil it down, there are really only so many types of story.
I’ll say it again: the details rarely matter when telling a story.
Once you can identify the core themes that a given story is trying to present, detail alteration becomes almost trivial. This recognition frees you up to treat details like LEGO blocks – plug something in when you need it, because the theme is all that matters.
Beyond this, you need to know your story (that is, the theme(s) you want to present) and know your audience (the details that will appeal to them). These things are generally easier than understanding the mutability of what you’re doing. Pick a type of story with some themes you want to present, and pay attention to cues from your audience. Learning how to read people is a completely separate skill worthy of its own post – but generally, just look at their faces and you’ll know what’s going on.
Let’s go with a specific example of a story I’m working on right now, because I prefer to show rather than tell.
One of my overarching performance projects is an abridged version of the saga of Egil Skallagrimmson. I’m taking the parts of the saga that only concern Egil, editing them down into digestible 8 – 10 minute chunks of live story, and re-poeticizing those poems attributed to Egil. The end goal is to be able to tell a contiguous tale of Egil’s life, focusing only on him while still giving a sense of the historical relevance of the saga.
Right now, I’m working on chapters 47 – 49 in the above link. There’s a lot of story there – probably about 30 minutes or so if I were to just tell it as-written. This is a difficult length to perform for an audience, as most people’s attention will wander after about 15 continuous minutes. That’s why we need breaks or changes in action in other media – listening to a single performer for too long is tiring.
The actual sequence of events in this story doesn’t matter nearly as much as the type of events being told.
These are the major plot points:
- Egil, as a young (16 years old) Viking, uses his words to inspire his brother’s men to raid a village.
- He then attends a feast of a wealthy baron, whose daughter is beautiful and sought by many men. She spurns him, but Egil recites a poem, and she essentially swoons – “they got on well together.”
- A friend of Egil’s father, named Thorir, pleads to the king for mercy on Egil’s behalf (as Egil has previously committed crimes). The king is swayed, but the queen is not.
- A feast is held, and the queen plans to have Egil murdered. The plan fails, and Egil exacts revenge on those responsible – sending a clear message of defiance to the queen.
The meta-story here should be very familiar to us: a daring rogue-like figure – a charismatic leader of men and charmer of women – is the object of scorn of an authority figure. The “man” tries to do him in using nefarious tactics, but our “hero” triumphs with naught but swagger and witty remarks. He lives to snark another day.
Keeping that in mind, I could condense that 30 minute performance into about 12 minutes thusly:
- Introduce the theme: “Though he was only 16 and had just begun to raid, Egil’s fame as a Viking grew rapidly.”
- 1st reflection on the theme: “Aki the Wealthy, who Egil had saved in his first raid, told Egil and Thorolf of a wealthy town named Lund that lay near. The men were unsure of whether or not to proceed. Egil saw this and spoke these words. [poem]. The men’s spirits were inflamed, and they raided the town – plundering it, and burning it down as they left.”
- 2nd reflection on the theme: “Egil and Thorolf were then invited to a feast. There, they drew lots to pair off – a man and a woman – for drinking. Egil was paired with Arnfid’s daughter, who was very beautiful. She saw Egil sitting near her seat and scoffed, saying [poem]. Egil sat her down and said [poem]. They continued drinking, and got on well that night.”
- Introduce the Conflict: “But not all were so enamored of Egil’s prowess. Though King Erik had been swayed by the words of Thorir – who had asked forgiveness for the son of Skallagrim, his friend – Queen Gunnhild would not so easily forgive the man who murdered her cousin Bard just one year prior.”
- A Change of Venue: “There was a great feast being held at the chief temple at Gaular. Gunnhild knew that many people would be there, including Thorir and his guests, so she told her brothers Eyvind and Alf, ‘I want you two to kill both of Skallagrim’s sons, or failing that, whichever one of them you can.'”
- The Conflict Comes to a Head: “Thorir had advised Egil to stay home, as he knew of Gunnhild’s plotting. Thorolf went, but stayed close to Thorir, so neither Eyvind nor Alf could make their mark. Gunnhild was furious – ‘Then slay one of their men, rather than letting them go unscathed.’ They took to drinking with Thorvald and Thorfid, loyal companions of Thorolf’s and friends of he and Egil. The drinking grew to flyting, and then to fighting. Eyvind drew a small sword and stabbed Thorvald, killing him there. All the men around were furious, but no-one else had weapons, as they were forbidden on sacred ground. Eyvind was outlawed from Norway, but was sent to Denmark by Erik and Gunnhild to work for King Harold Gormsson, who received him warmly and appointed him to his coastal guard.”
- Payback Time: “News of this reached Aki. A messenger was sent when Egil and Thorolf had come into Danish waters, telling them, ‘Eyvind lays just off the coast on Jutland-side. He plans to ambush you with a large force as you head south. But he is only in two ships, and is close by.’ Egil and Thorolf sailed silently to where Eyvind lay, and ambushed him with spears and stones. Many of Eyvind’s men fell, but Eyvind himself left overboard and swam away. Egil seized his ships, weapons, and wealth, and sang this verse. [poem].
- Denoument/Link to Next Story: “Thorolf saw the destruction that had been wrought, and looked for a long time. Then he turned to Egil, saying, ‘I think we should reconsider our plans to go to Norway this autumn.'”
Done. That is the core of how I would perform this story, were I to do it as one piece. I’ve cut out huge swaths of detail, but ask yourself – how much does that matter? What I’ve written here is a complete story that reflects the themes expressed in the original. I would add more linking details in here to get characters from one venue to another, but it only requires a few sentences at most to accomplish that.
Now, I’m probably not going to actually do this as one longer story. More than likely, I’ll break it into two shorter stories and embellish with a few more details, just to teach some history and provide context for the action. That will allow me to make stronger links to prior and subsequent works. However, with little extra work, those core elements I have written could be easily turned into a single story.
I stuck pretty tightly to the actual historical record – after all, I’m still trying to tell the saga as it allegedly happened – but nothing is stopping me changing details will-nilly. Do I need to show you how awesome Egil is with those first two examples? Of course not – they’re just there to develop his character a bit. Hell, I could just say, “While Egil was growing quite famous, not everyone was so enamored of him.”
Or maybe I could make Egil hit on the Queen, and it’s the King who orders him killed. Maybe at that very same feast. And then Egil steals the King’s finest ship, sets fire to it, and steals their daughter. Does it really make a difference in the story? It’s all a matter of how I want to present the character at the time of telling.
The lesson here: edit with a machete. Details are often superficial, and don’t serve to really drive the main plot. The first step is to hack away all of the unnecessary bits until you find out what’s really going on. Then, add details back on until you have something that suits your audience.
There’s really no trick to it – all you need to do is analyze, and you’ll find the story underneath all those details.