How do we tell stories?

© U. Breinl

The art of storytelling unleashes its magic in a simple setting: no props, no stage set are needed. A minimum of light and space is enough. The art of storytelling lies in the eloquent expressiveness with which the storyteller brings out the images of the story in the moment. With her performance, she ignites the audience’s imagination. In the connection between storyteller and audience, in their togetherness, a magic emerges that we describe as “dreaming awake together”.

Text and language

Storytelling is not reading aloud. A storyteller does not hold a book in her hand, she does not even have a fixed text. Some of the stories told have never been written down in a book! Nevertheless, the storyteller usually uses poetic language that is detached from everyday life. In German, the literary preterite is often used because it is a verb at the beginning of the sentence, has fewer syllables and a full sound. In other languages, such as Turkish, there is even a special grammatical form for narrative.

Except for the interspersed rhymes, sayings and songs, the narrator does not learn any written text by heart, but creates her text anew in the respective live moment. She is only bound to the guiding principle of the story – to the flow of inner images that she has worked out in detail before the performance

From research to the finished story

Before the performance, the storyteller has usually already come a long way with her story. It all starts with the right choice. A story must trigger something, touch, stimulate the mind. If it doesn’t spark anything, it can’t be told.

Once the story has been found, the storyteller begins to work on it dramaturgically. There are various methods for this, such as dramaturgy models, storyboards, maps of the plot locations, emotional diagrams of the main characters. Finally, she memorises her version pictorially, rehearses it aloud until an inner film, bound to her own language, emerges.

Once the story is stored in memory, it becomes part of the repertoire. Professional storytellers have a large repertoire of stories that can be recalled at any time and from which they can spontaneously choose during a performance.

The story grows with each performance. The storyteller picks up images that come to mind spontaneously during the storytelling, as well as comments from the audience, and incorporates them into the story. In this way, the personal version matures and continues to change over the years.

The Performance

On stage, the storyteller is in constant contact with the audience. She navigates through the story. The most important instrument is her voice. With it, she can create a whole spectrum of dramatisation through pitch, volume, speed, rhythm, emphasis, stretching of vowels and very important: pauses! In addition to speaking, the voice also offers the play of tones and singing.

This richness of facets is complemented by the possibilities of gestures. The narrator can use them to make abstract concepts clear, e.g. justice, by weighing them with both hands. Furthermore, gestures can become an instrument of rhythm that accompanies speech.

Voice and gestures are joined by posture and facial expressions. By slightly changing posture, facial expression and voice pitch, the characters in the story can be drawn in a woodcut-like and easily recognisable way.

Of course, facial expressions also include the gaze: The eyes tell what cannot be depicted – the feelings. They show empathy with the heroines of the story – and with the audience. Narrators do not look over the audience. They look directly at them and perceive them. Storytelling is like a conversation.

Interaction with the audience

Improvisation is an essential part of artistic storytelling. Besides creating the text version in the here and now, it also includes interaction with the audience.

The storyteller can step out of the story and into direct dialogue with the audience at any point, can pick up on the mood of the audience, include the current situation, can return comments from the audience or become a commentator and moderator herself, to finally pick up the thread of the story where she has let it go.

In addition, there are techniques for connecting with the audience that have their origins in traditional storytelling, such as the call-and-response principle. In this technique, either a term known in the community or a term agreed upon beforehand is addressed as a call by the teller to the audience, which reacts with the appropriate response. Originally from West Africa, for example, there is the popular call “Crick!”, to which the audience responds with “Crack! Call and response is often used at the beginning of a performance to get the audience fired up. The storyteller can find out: What is the mood of the audience? How ready are they to become active? The same call-and-response can be repeated at any time during the performance to see how much the audience is still on the ball.

But the principle also works without a fixed agreement through a certain kind of pause in which the narrator holds the tension and leaves a piece of (recurring) text to the audience. The result is a ping-pong game that can be very entertaining and connects everyone like in a concert.

Multilingual Tandem Storytelling

Usually one narrator performs alone. However, there is also the special form of tandem narration, which is often practised in the Erzählkunst e.V. association, as many members are multilingual and multilingual tandem narration has a great appeal.

Tandem storytelling is not about translations, but a spirited play of two languages and actors. In tandem storytelling, the different languages can flow into each other, overlap or become an echo. Sometimes the gestural-mimic play of the narrators conveys parts of the story. In dialogue, the answer can translate the question asked in the other language.

There are countless ways in which the narrators can connect the foreign language with the familiar one. The two narrative strands complement each other in such a meaningful way that the foreign language is understood by the audience as if they were fluent in it.