Tag Archives: story

How to tell a story

Humans are drawn to stories, but the ability to tell them is not innate. This blog was prompted by seeing author Mark Lawrence on Twitter yesterday pointing out that if telling stories was easy, we’d never be subjected to boring retellings of other people’s dreams. This connects, for me, with two recent incidents of reading comments about how children can’t tell you what they did at school today because they do not know how to tell their stories.

There are many situations in which we need to relate stories from our lives to other people. Much of that is social and about entertaining others through anecdotes. You may need to tell your story to the police, or to a jury. You may need to tell your story to get funding, keep your job, or get a new one. A well told story can be a powerful tool. There are of course no simple tactics that will work for all circumstances, but here are some places to start.

  1. Think about your audience. What do they want and need from you? What kind of story do they want to hear? In a legal or professional context, it has to be relevant and appropriate. In a social context, stories exist to amuse, or to share something personal with someone you trust. Oversharing, and making people listen to you for a long time can be antisocial and defeats the object.
  2. Unless you are talking to a counsellor in a counselling session, assume that people do not want to play the role of your counsellor. If you are going to tell that sort of story in a context that is not already involved in sharing difficult stories, at least ask if it’s ok before you start. Do not assume that people want to do emotional labour for you by hearing about your bad stuff.
  3. How does the audience need you to tell the story? If you’re talking to the police, they need a blow by blow account with all the details you can remember. If you’re telling a story in the pub, the gist and the punchline are likely to work better. In most normal situations, people do not want to listen to you trying to remember who said exactly what and when. Less is often more. Rehearsing the story in your head can help with better delivery.
  4. The longer a story is, the better a teller you must be to sustain interest in it – even if it’s a good story. Brevity is the soul of wit. If you’re just trying to be the centre of attention, this will show, and people will learn to leave for the loo when you start a tale.
  5. Being spontaneous and off the cuff can seem like the best and most natural way to share a story. If you don’t normally tell stories, then relating your funny work anecdote or strange dream won’t come naturally. It pays to rehearse. If you think something is worth sharing, run it through in your head. Figure out the order to tell it in before you open your mouth. Be alert to key events and work out what, if anything, makes the story potentially attractive to someone else. This can also weed out boring, pointless stories before anyone has to sit through them.
  6. Try and remember who you’ve told your stories to already. If the story about how you made a walk in wardrobe was dull and annoying the first time, that’s nothing compared to how much people will hate it when they’ve heard it half a dozen times already.
  7. Listen and be a good audience. People who insist on leading all conversations back to themselves and their stories are not enjoyable company. Story sharing has to be a process of exchange in order to work. If you’re going to say “that reminds me of…” then it had better be a good link. The more tenuous it is, the weaker your story sharing feels.

Inhabiting the song

If you have a decent memory, it’s possibly to learn songs, tunes, poems and stories at a fair speed, and thus to perform them from memory. For some purposes, that’s enough. Storyteller Martin Shaw in his various books talks about a much more involved process. Sitting with the story, living with the story for a year or two, telling it to the landscape it came from, telling it to wildlife and working up to sharing it with a human audience. In this approach, it isn’t enough to know the surface of a tale, you have to climb inside it and enter the heart.

Something changes when you undertake to make a piece part of yourself. I’ve found it with tunes and songs, and I’ve found it with the stories I’ve carried with me though my life. They become points of reference, they develop new meanings, and carry with them the resonance of where I’ve sung or played them, who I was with, and so forth.

I have a whole set of seasonal songs, some of which I’ve been singing at their proper time of year for more than a decade now. The process of singing them year on year builds associations and insights that go beyond what a single year of singing can do. This isn’t necessarily a clever and thinky process, it is more often a body knowledge of song and season, memory and place. Sometimes I come up with new interpretations of songs I’ve known for a long time because life experience shows me something that gives the song a different sense.

Singing with other people changes my experience of a song. This may be practical – different versions of tunes and words, different pacing, unfamiliar harmonies. Another singer may bring new meanings to the song simply by how they use their voice. Sometimes, a different voice changes the feel or even the meaning of a song. There’s also a thing whereby if someone nails a powerful harmony line, a song can come alive for me in an entirely new way.

For me, an important part of the bard path is this process of forming a deeper relationship with the material. It is in part the process of being shaped by the material. The O’Carolan tunes I’ve played since my early teens have settled into me, in ways it is difficult to describe. The songs I’ve sung since childhood are part of my sense of who I am. The occasional songs I write are partly a consequence of what I’ve internalised, and what I need to express that I can’t express with existing material.


Sometimes you can read too much into these things

Once upon a time there was a story…

The giant is a symbol of toxic masculinity. He’s all about power over and violence.

The princess is asleep in a tower, expressing passive female roles, lack of agency, and the impact of traditional gender stereotyping. The tower is a phallic symbol. Don’t ask what the princess is doing inside the metaphorical penis or it gets confusing.

There is a prince who is supposed to fight the giant to free the princess because he’s just toxic masculinity with a socially acceptable face and he’s got class privilege on his side.

The prince cannot get into the penis tower but while he’s trying to conquer the giant willy in the middle of this story is dawns on him that he’s really into giant willies so when the actual giant shows up, the prince totally rethinks his plan. The two of them live happily ever after.

The princess wakes herself up and makes her own decision about whether or not to stay in the tower. Either way, at this point the tower is just a tower and not Freudian at all, honest.

Review: The Shadow Crucible

I was approached to review this book because the author – T.M. Lakomy –  found me online and thought I would like it! I love it when people do that, especially when they’re right – as in this case.

When I started reading The Shadow Crucible, I thought I knew what I’d got. The set-up looked like a straightforward Christian fantasy with angels, demons, Templars, and the such. I was reminded of Constantine, and Tom Sniegoski’s Fallen, only with a mediaeval setting. The male lead is cold, remote, firm. The female lead is wild, beautiful, dangerous and seems a bit petty – A Scarlet O’Hara with a retinue of orphans. And for a little while there I was afraid that this would be one of those romances where the cool controlling guy breaks and tames the wild woman. But, the fascinating world building and the writing style kept me reading, and I’m very glad I stayed with it.

Then, around page 57, the plot shape started to change, and I realised I was not reading some kind of historical romance. Page 73 pulled the rug out from underneath everything I thought I knew about this book. No one, it turned out, was as they seemed in those opening pages. What I thought was going on was not happening. I had been fooled, misled, overconfident… and I was very excited by this!

Thereafter, what the story keeps doing, is taking a step back every now and then to let you see a bigger picture than you could before. In the context of the bigger picture, what you thought you knew looks rather different, each time. With each step back, the world expands, the implications of the story get bigger, the stakes rise, the magic becomes even more wild and wonderful, the philosophy becomes even more persuasive…

Whilst trying to avoid spoilers, this is a book that is very much in opposition to dogma and blind faith. It’s a story to challenge organised religion and question the motives of anyone who uses religion as a power base. All of the characters go through radical changes. One way or another, they are peeled of their surface pretences and small selves to reveal the larger presence beneath. I came to love characters who, in the opening pages, I felt no attraction to. I came to feel sympathy for other characters I’d not really liked at the start. And some, when peeled back, where entirely horrifying. There’s not a vast amount of horror in the book but when it comes… it really is very dark indeed.

I think for most people, the writing style will make or break this book. This is an author relishing their deliberately archaic language. It is wordy, with turns of phrase that sound profoundly un-contemporary. If you’re the sort of person who only likes stark, pared down language, considers ‘said’ the only acceptable speech tag, and skims paragraphs of description, this is not for you. If you enjoy wilfully wordy books, I fully expect you’ll enjoy this. I found it difficult to put down, and was enchanted by the unconventional story-shape.

Buy the book here (or pre-order it, it’s not out at time of posting the blog) https://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Crucible-Blind-God/dp/1590794141

Novel society

It may seem odd to claim that the way we tell stories shapes our culture, but I am absolutely convinced it does.

A novel, as we generally understand it, is fundamentally about conflict resolution. That probably sounds like a good thing, but I think it isn’t. A novel sets up a situation a tension, or difficulty, a problem to solve, a challenge to overcome. Then the characters deal with it, and if the book is tragic, they may fail, or die succeeding. The default story is that the problem is solved.

What was confusing, is caused to make sense. What was inexplicable, is explained. What was obscure, becomes clear. What was wrong, is set right. Mysteries are solved. Crimes are thwarted, or punished. The tension of attraction resolves into the familiarity of a relationship.

A book, we are taught at school, has a beginning, a middle and an end. The ending has to round things up. At the end of a book, the world of the book is a clearer, simpler place. Of course there are exceptions.

Real life is not like books in that many things are never resolved or tidied up in this way. All too often, the consequence of the tidy plot ending is the loss of mystery, possibility and wonder. I have a problem with this.

As a writer of stories, I’ve explored a bit what happens when a novel opens up more possibilities than it shuts down. I tend to tell small coherent tales against a backdrop of expanding chaos. I’m somewhat influenced by Philip K Dick in this regard. It does not make for an easy sell, but it makes me happy. As a reader I prefer the worlds that aren’t tidied up – Mythago Wood, Earthsea, Winchette Dale – those places that leave me with far more questions than answers.

What does the story shape do to us? How much is our wider culture shaped by the idea of the tidy ending, and that all mysteries can and should be explained? What would happen to us if we told stories that expanded possibility rather than contracting it?

The Emperor’s new poetry book

Of all the things I try to review, poetry is the most problematic. For context, let me mention that I have a degree in English Literature. I’ve studied literary criticism, I’ve written degree level essays on poetry from the last couple of centuries. I’ve read a lot of poetry, historical and more modern. Compared to an academic working in the field of poetry, I’m a lightweight. Compared to the average reader, I’ve read and studied a lot of poetry. And yet, when I look at how other reviewers respond to some books, I can often be stumped.

I’ve just fallen out of a collection. I don’t think I can face reading it to the end. It felt like hitting and sliding down glass walls, with occasionally a sense of meaning implied, but always unavailable to me. Individual lines seemed well wrought, charming even, but added together to make… nothing I can figure out how to respond to. My only emotional response has been frustration.

And yet, other reviewers have heaped praise on it. “A gorgeous, brilliant book,” says one. “Complex sensuousness and deep intelligence.” “Unintrusive precision” – what does that mean, even? “Her almost painterly imagery implodes gracefully.” Ah, so that was what I was missing.

When other critics respond in this way, it’s hard not to feel that as the reader, I must be the problem. I’m too ignorant, no doubt. I couldn’t spot the graceful implosion of a poem if it splattered itself all over my face, I expect.

As an ordinary reader of poems, I’m basically looking for something I can connect with – images, moods, ideas… Some point of meaningful engagement between me and the text. I want something to happen, other than me feeling confused and dense. I can handle ee cummings and Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and the metaphysical poets. I can cope with complexity, I think. I can cope with metaphor and surprising juxtapositions. In the realms of story and non-fiction, I feel confident saying when something doesn’t add up. The nature of such writing makes it easy to point at problems. We have some collective ideas about what stories and essays are. But what is a poem? What does a poem do? At what point can we safely say ‘this poem is not doing the things’?

A continuity error in a story is easily flagged up. A failure to resolve a plot in a satisfying way is easy to talk about. An argument that isn’t logical, or well founded can be taken apart. ‘I do not get this poem’ can be answered with ‘you didn’t read well enough’. I’m wary about picking holes in poems for this reason. Am I an insufficiently sensitive reader? Am I too old fashioned, too low-brow, insufficiently read and educated. I look at my qualifications, and my reading experience.

Back when I was writing Fast Food at the Centre of the World, I had a poet character. He’s a charlatan. Let me write you the kind of thing John Silver would write…

“In the withheld breathe, a moment of iniquity,

Longing becomes a windmill, exacerbated

By time, for the wind is change and I am the eye

Of a storm that caresses immortality.”

I can do this all day. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s designed to sound like poetry and that is the sum and total of what it is for. Sometimes, in matters of poetry, I am deeply suspicious that the Emperor has no clothes on.

How voices change stories

All stories, be they written, spoken or sung, imply a voice. When a story is spoken, read or sung, there is of course an actual voice airing the implied one. I’m fascinated by how this changes the story itself.

Many folk songs imply the narrator of a story – all too often they start something like ‘as I roved out one morning, all in the early spring, I overheard…’ separating the singer from the story to be told so that gender and age don’t impact on the telling. Not all folk songs are about voyeurism, many are told in the first person, and the actions of that person imply gender. Pregnant and abandoned lamenting women aside, gender in folk songs isn’t always straightforward. If a lass sings a song about how her lad went off and got killed in a war, the song sounds very straight. If a chap sings it, we might not be clear if he’s singing on behalf of the female narrator in the song, or if he’s singing it as a gay lover mourning for the lost soldier boy.

There are a lot of folk songs about girls who ‘dress in man’s apparel’ and run off to join the army, follow lovers across oceans, or who are just there for the sheer hell of it. The songs themselves make it clear that the surface appearance of the character is not always the whole story.

In this last week, John Holland and I have been picking stories for Stroud Short story competition, at the end of which we found out who had written what. I noted that my perception of the narrator was not always correct – there were two occasions where I’d inferred a male voice, but the writer was female, and several where I hadn’t know either way. Some of those stories will be different stories to the ones I first read, because of the gender shift. It will alter where the sympathies seem to lie, and that will be decidedly interesting to hear.

Gender plays a big role in how we perceive each other, and it features heavily in the stories we tell. It’s the most obvious way in which a voice can change a story. Accents can also have an impact, especially if there’s a class or racial aspect to a story. Something profoundly working class voiced in an upper class voice might easily sound condescending. Voicing someone of a different ethnicity can easily turn into a racist caricature. Putting a voice to a story when the voice does not seem to match the story at all, can create new possibilities, opening the way to different takes on what the story means and changing what it can reflect. I think this is one of the reasons people keep putting Shakespeare plays into different cultures, times and places – the stories can be caused to say something different if you change the voices expressing them.

Do we put on voices to create an effect when voicing a story, or do we use our own voices, and let the impact of that voice  – whatever it is, and however it fits or clashes with the material, do what it does in a more naturalistic way? And of course even if you use your own voice in all things, the choice of material you make will decide whether you’re playing to type, or pushing at the edges in some way in order to let a whole new story in.

Journeys to mythical places

Over the last few days, I have entered the Legendary Middle Studio, and The Potionary. As with all places with mythic aspects, knowing the myths is critically important for appreciating the location. Some places are so striking that they suggest, or attract myths anyway, while others become important through association with events. I’m a big fan of knowing how stories connect with landscape, both old stories, and new ones. However, the reasons for these two locations being important to me are not as famous as they deserve to be.

The Legendary Middle Studio belongs to BBC Radio Shropshire, and every Sunday evening, Genevieve Tudor broadcasts a fabulous two hour folk show from this building. You can listen live, or after the event, online if you are further afield. Most weeks there are live performances, and these take place in the Legendary Middle Studio.

I’ve known Genevieve pretty much my whole life. Nearly five years ago, Tom, the lad and I moved onto a narrow boat. At night, in the darkness of winter it can be a bit lonely out on the canal, and all we had for contact with the rest of humanity was a small wind-up radio. We discovered we could pick up the folk program via BBC Hereford and Worcester, and so it became something of a lifeline. I’d gone from running a weekly club, to having no live folk in my life at all, so it also provided an important sense of connection. For the two years we’ve been in a flat, we’ve continued listening. Seeing the place where it all happens was a really interesting experience.

The Potionary is also in Shropshire, at a much more secret location. It is the space where the Matlock the Hare books and art have been created. I’ve been a big fan of Matlock the Hare for some time, and of the lovely creative duo behind it, so when they said ‘do you want to see The Potionary?’ I of course squealed and said yes. And it was splendid.

Everything happens in a place. We don’t tell history in terms of place location, unless you happen to be at a tourist spot. Myths and folk tales can go either way – some are very specific ‘There was once a farmer from Mobberly way’ and some have an ‘everyman’ quality that means no matter where you tell them, it all occurred just down the road from here and involved the friend of a guy in the pub who told the story teller the tale in the first place.

I think that when we lose the connection between narrative and place, we lose the sense of the place being important. Over the last few days I also saw the ruins of a number of industrial buildings. Some had history boards to explain them, some did not. If it’s just a tumble down old place, it can be left to rot. If we know it was the first, or the biggest, or the most important at one time, if we know it was the centre of working life in a place, or something else like that, the past connects to the living landscape and it becomes easier to feel a sense of connection and significance. Not only does this change a person’s perspective on a landscape, it also shifts how settled that person feels in a place. How real, or unreal the stories are, and no matter how old, or how recent, having stories of place makes a lot of odds.

More than two sides to every story

‘There are two sides to every story’ is one of those statements which, at first glance looks like wisdom, but in practice causes all kinds of problems. Here’s why…

It assumes both sides are equally true. This is the case sometimes, but it’s not always the case. If someone is lying, ignoring the differences between stories in this way allows the liar to get away with whatever they’ve done and leaves the honest person exposed and unsupported.

There are often, perhaps usually more than two sides to any given situation. Often it’s only when we start looking at the other facets of a story that the whole becomes more apparent. The trunk and the tail are both part of the truth that is an elephant, but without seeing the big grey bit in the middle, you aren’t going to understand what you’ve got in the room.

Reducing a story to two sides can be used to give a false sense of validation to one version of truth. This is especially popular in politics where the two options are ‘my way or certain doom’ and too often we don’t even consider that alternatives might exist.

Some things are facts. Climate change is a reality, and the vast majority of scientists confirm that it’s happening and an issue. Allowing unfounded opinions to hold the same weight as facts distorts debates and makes credible that which isn’t. We sometimes make it look like there’s two sides, when really there’s nothing to discuss.

Balance is not always about finding opposites. This is often a media issue where a subject is discussed by finding people who disagree, to argue it out. Our law systems are equally confrontational. Pitting two sides of the story against each other is not a sure fire way of finding the truth. The ability of the journalist, lawyer or commentator to make their side of the story look plausible may have more to do with storytelling skills. That something can be condensed into a simple and plausible narrative does not make it true.

The idea of two sides can be used as an excuse. Somebody acts in a way that looks terrible from the outside, but points out there are two sides to every story and you should hear their version. How far does claiming failed good intention excuse poor action? It’s certainly not a tidy situation.

We’re all cobbling together our own subjective understandings of what’s going on, what it means and what to do about it. We’re all limited by our own perspectives, experiences, capacity for empathy, and ability to understand. None of us will ever see the whole of anything (don’t believe everything The Waterboys tell you!). If anyone tells me there are two sides to a story, my first response is to wonder what it is about the other sides, beyond those two, that they would prefer I did not notice.

The lovely Princess and the particularly unpleasant monster

Once upon a time (well, about 2 years ago) there was a beautiful princess who found a monster in a cave, gave it the kicking it so obviously deserved and went on her way to marry her prince and do the happily ever after thing. After she had gone, the monster (merely beaten, not dead) sat with its bruises and wondered how it had come to be cast in this role.

It wasn’t that she got angry – people do get angry after all, and while I find it hard to deal with, I wouldn’t blame anyone for being cross. It wasn’t the telling off – humiliating and hurtful though that was. What did for me, was seeing her on social media announcing how proud she was of herself for standing up to me. I had no idea what I must have looked like to her; for knocking me down to be something to take pride in. She knocked me down so thoroughly it took me months to get up, but then, that’s what warrior princesses do to monsters, isn’t it? Two years on, and I’ve had a lot of being haunted by what happened.

It’s one of the experiences that have made me very wary about the degree to which I let people in. It raised for me issues about how I am in the world, and what it is reasonable to express of my own discomfort. Because for me, what lay at the back of this was the need to flag up that she’d done something that really hurt my feelings, and for her this expression read as a full frontal attack. I try not to attack people, as a general thing. I’m conscious of issues like Ahimsa (psychological violence). I try not to raise my voice, not to blame or accuse, not to demand. No doubt I get this wrong sometimes, maybe even a lot, but the general effort on my part is towards not attacking people.

Of course she’s not the first princess to take offence because I’ve been inconsiderate enough to express pain. Maybe there’s something about princesses that makes it very difficult for them to hear that someone is unhappy. My most recent princess has a great deal invested in being seen as a lovely, kind, gentle, generous sort of person. It was therefore like a pea under a hundred mattresses to be told that she may have inadvertently caused distress. Princesses are delicate creatures, and the onus tends to be on the monster not to offend that delicacy with any misplaced peas. There are things to recognise here about the difference between goodness, and an appearance of goodness.

We tell stories about ourselves. We tell stories about other people. We cast them in roles, we give ourselves roles. Hero, princess, wicked witch, rescuer, victim, dragon. Girl in the high tower, growing her hair. Woodsman in the forest looking for grandmothers with wolf fetishes. Who we think we are shapes what we do, and what we expect from others. Who we think they are shapes how we react when they do something. Our stories aren’t always accurate, or helpful. When the terrible monster roars, the lovely princess has to dust off her Kung Fu moves and do the heroic thing. Meanwhile in another story, a person who has had their nerve broken before finds all the things they fear about themselves may be true after all, and hides in their cave for months.

It’s taken me a couple of years to come up with a new story, one involving peas and over-reactions, and the entitlement of princesses who wish to be seen as good, rather than an acceptance that kicking monsters is what princesses are for. Maybe monsters are people, too. Maybe some of them are howling, not growling, or are purring, or singing. Maybe being an awkward thing in a cave is not a reason to be attacked. New stories, better options.