Storyteller.net is in the process of an update and a reboot. Be patient. This is a manual process.
All the articles and features you have always liked, as well as new ideas and content, will be here soon.
Storyteller.net is in the process of an update and a reboot. Be patient. This is a manual process.
All the articles and features you have always liked, as well as new ideas and content, will be here soon.
By: Brian Ellis
“A bad writer borrows, a good writer steals outright!”
“We have heard it all before, but we rejoice in the retelling.”
Great writers from Homer to Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy to Toni Morrison, have borrowed ideas from the past and made them new. What makes them a great writer is that they can add their wit, their life experience, and their imagination to make it truly a new story.
You too can borrow from the past and make something new in five easy steps.
1. First, find a story you like.
2. Make a list of the five W’s and H: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.
3. Change the details to fit your life experience, be creative.
4. Tell the story to a friend.
5. Then write your version.
The most important step is the first one. Find a story that you are excited about. If you don’t like it do you think your audience will? If you are enthusiastic that passion comes through. Enthusiasm is contagious. Below are two traditional jump tales. Read them both and decide which one you like best.
Secondly, you need to make a list of the five W’s and H: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. Make a copy of the chart below. Based on this traditional telling of the story: Who is in it? Where does it take place? When did it happen? What happened? Why did this come to pass? How did it happen? Most of these questions can be answered with just a word or two, a short phrase at most.
Next, change the details to fit your experience. Fill in your new section of the chart. Who do you know that is like these characters? Where is a place you have visited that reminds you of this place? Why would you or your friend do this? When could it have happened to you or your new character? Use what you know. OR use your imagination to make up a new place, a new character, a new time in history. Some things will stay the same like the major plot feature, what happened, because this is what draws you to this story.
A classic example of this is Leonard Bernstein’s rewriting of “Romeo and Juliet.” “West Side Story” is Shakespeare’s play rewritten in modern times with gang warfare, racial issues and some great tunes. The love story and the disapproval of that affair stays the same, but now the rivalry is between two New York street gangs. Bernstein also aptly adds a lot of modern lingo. His use of slang and colloquial phrases adds heart and verve to the story.
This is the difference between plagiarism and originality. Plagiarism is simply copying from another author. It is illegal and you can go to jail, pay a $10, 000 fine or both. Originality means that you use your words, your lingo, your wit, your original twists and details. If even one sentence reads the same you are breaking the law! Change the details the way Bernstein did. Change the 5 W’s and H, but most importantly use your words.
You can do this. Use your dialect, colloquial phrases or the language of the time period you have chosen. The fourth step is to tell the story to a partner. If you tell the story before you write it then writing becomes easier, more fluid and more thought through. After you have filled in both sides of the chart, choose a partner and take turns telling your versions of your stories. Watch your partner listen to your story and they will make you a better storyteller and a better writer. If they look excited, curious or scared it must be good, write it down! If they look confused or uninterested, change that part of the story to make it more clear or exciting.
After you have told your story you are ready for step five: write your new version of this old tale. As you write be creative: add new details, describe the characters and setting, build suspense or add a twist of irony. Make it funnier or scarier.
Here is the chart to help you outline your story:
The old version of the story: Your new ideas:
Here are two traditional scary stories “jump tales.” Use my version of these stories as an example, but change the details to make a new version of these stories:
When I was a boy growing up in the North End of Toledo, Ohio, I had a neighbor named Jake. He was a colorful character who got along well with other people as long as he did not have to work with them. So Jake was self-employed.
Jake was a stocky guy, built like a tank, and he could fix anything. Give him a roll of duct tape and a hammer and he could build you anything you could imagine…or so it seemed. He was always around when I needed help fixing my bike.
Jake used to buy old cars and fix them up and sell them. Sometimes he would get a rust-bucket for a few hundred dollars, fix the dents, add a coat of paint, supe-up the engine and sell it for a few thousand.
He also bought old houses and fixed them up. Jake told me about a house that he once bought that he thought was haunted.
He said: “It was an old farm house on the edge of town. It looked like it had been abandoned for years. The windows were broken out. There were holes in the floor and holes in the roof. I got it for a song.
“After I signed the papers the realtor told me it was haunted. I laughed. I did not believe in ghosts. When I went to the hardware store to buy some lumber and drywall, paint and roofing, I told the hardware guy about the house. He turned pale white and stammered, “You did-did not b-buy that house did-did you? It, its haunted. Something t-t-terrible happened there m-many years ago.”
“When I asked him what it was he wouldn’t tell me. He just said, “D-don’t sp-spend the n-night alone.”
“Well, I did not have choice. At that time I would live in the house as I fixed it up. That way I did not have to pay rent. The first day I fixed up one room as my bedroom. There was no electricity or gas so I used a camp stove to cook my supper and a flashlight to read by.”
Jake then turned to us kids and said, “I still read every night before I go to bed. Do you kids read every night?” I nodded. He said, “Readers are leaders and don’t forget it.” I didn’t.
Jake went on with his story: “I forget what I was reading that night, Edgar Allen Poe or Steven King or something. I love a good ghost story. Just as I was getting to the scary part of the book I heard it…a strange scratching kind of noise. It is hard to describe, but it was coming from upstairs. I was not scared, well maybe a little, but I was more curious than scared.
“I grabbed my flashlight and headed up stairs. Squeak, squeak, squeak. Those stairs sure were noisy. When I got to the second floor I heard it louder, closer. Whatever it was sounded like it was in the ceiling. I did not know the place had an attic. I looked around and found some of those folding ladder type stairs that you pull down from the ceiling. I reached up to grab the string, pulled down and AAHH! *
“A bunch of dust, dirt and leaves fell into my face! I was scared, too. The sound, whatever it was, was definitely louder, closer, and it was up those stairs.
“I shined my flashlight up there but I couldn’t see anything. I d-did n-not b-believe in g-g-ghosts-s.
I headed up those stairs. Squeak… squeak… squeak… ARGH! *
I STEPPED ON A NAIL!
And a squirrel ran out the broken attic window!
HE GOT OUT
I have a friend who lives in St. Louis near one of the city’s largest, oldest and most beautiful cemeteries. My friend works second shift at a factory on the other side of the cemetery, so every day at about three o’clock he walks across the graveyard to get to work. But when he gets off work at midnight, he thinks about walking the long way around.
What would you do?
Walking around means walking almost two miles versus walking less than half a mile through the cemetery. He has made the walk five days a week for thirteen years. He cuts through the graveyard.
One night as he was walking home just after midnight, there was a gentle rain, more like a heavy mist. He could hardly see where he was going, but he knew his way and could walk the paths with his eyes closed. As he walked alon-AAHH!* He fell into an open grave!
This grave was not here when he went to work in the bright light of the afternoon! He tried jumping out but kept falling back down. He tried climbing, but the walls were slippery mud because of the rain. How do I say this nicely? My friend is vertically challenged, not very tall. No matter how hard he tried he could not get out. Well, he figured there would be a funeral in the morning and someone would come along and let him out. They would get a scare, but at least he would get out, if he could last the night.
Because it was damp and cool he curled up in a small ball in the corner to conserve his heat. He tried to sleep.
About two o’clock in the morning, at closing time, he heard someone else coming through the cemetery. They were quite loud and seemed to be singing some Irish drinking song. The song was getting louder and closer. When – – AAHH!* This other guy fell into the grave. This other guy was freaking out. He was screaming, jumping, and trying to claw his way out! The muddy walls caused him to slip and fall repeatedly. In his panic he did not notice my friend curled up in a ball in the corner.
My friend decided to play a little joke. In his scariest, loudest voice, he said, “Tr-r-r-ry and tr-r-r-ry, but you will never get out! Ah-ha-ha-ha!”
Oh, but that other guy, he got out!
*Prior to this point I talk quieter and slower and if your timing is right when you make a loud scream the audience will jump! I usually get two good jumps from both of these simple jokes!
Article by Brian “Fox” Ellis. This first appeared on Storyteller.net in 2002.
By: Glenda Bonin
Stories are all around us. They reside in people, places and things, and are waiting to be discovered. The information below explores just one area: how to find and develop a story from the things we collect and/or place on display.
As you walk through your home, pay attention to the pictures and knick-knacks you enjoy. Ask yourself, why are these particular objects here? Sometimes these things have been in place for so long that we don’t even think about them. If not on display, our pictures and collections are probably stored somewhere in boxes or drawers. Take a moment to look for them and think about what they represent personally, or why they might have importance for someone else in the household. As you examine each object, be aware that every item represents a story, and there’s a good chance that the story might be worth pursuing.
Question and Listen.
Don’t be timid about interviewing yourself and others. A good interviewer asks questions and waits for an answer. The key here is to listen deeply, allowing as much time as needed for quiet moments of thought. Do not rush in with a new question until you are satisfied that the question has been completely explored. It is not unusual for one question to lead to another, or for a question to provide information leading to another story. These moments are often where the best family stories can be found, so be ready to go along with this spontaneous thought process.
Write down or record in a retrievable fashion what you have learned, so you can start the process of developing a story worth sharing. By this, I mean a story that is more complete than a simple anecdote and one that contains a clear beginning, middle and satisfying end. This is where the fun begins, because a memory is just that, a memory. It does not always arrive complete with vivid descriptions and other details to bring it to life. It may be necessary to do some research about the time and place, or talk to other family members who might have more information to make the story better.
Once you have lived with the story for a while, identify its primary focus: the reason someone will find the story of interest. (For example: Is the focus to remember the kindness of someone, recall a moment of importance during the process of growing up, or perhaps to explain why being careful is worth taking extra time at something?)
You get to decide how you want to tell the story. Do you want to tell it in the first, second or third person? Does dialogue fit into your way of telling? Are you a dramatic storyteller, or will a prop add interest to the tale? Some people prefer to write a story outline, others record the text on their computer, some use a storyboard or keep notes on an index card, and other storytellers are content to keep the story in their head. You know what works best for you.
This is the best part about exploring and developing a family story.
When you are ready to tell a family story, you need to determine if it is meant for family ears only, or if it can be shared with others. Many funny or poignant family stories touch the heart and provide lessons about life that are universally understood and appreciated. Best of all, these stories will take on a polish over time as you adjust the telling to how your listeners respond.
Glenda Bonin is a storyteller in Tucson, AZ.
The contents expressed in any article on Storyteller.net are solely the opinion of author.
or HOW I LEARNED THE IMPORTANCE OF STORYTELLING IN ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION
by Brian Ellis
I learned early on that storytelling is one of the most important tools for teaching science and ecology. If you think about it…What is science? Science is an attempt to understand the story of the universe, ecology is the story of our home.
A well-told science story does three important jobs: It brings facts to life. It makes abstract concepts concrete. And through the virtual reality of storytelling, it walks listeners through the process approach to scientific inquiry.
I love all the amazing bits of intriguing information, science facts. And kids do too, if they’re presented in an intriguing way. Historically, environmental education spent an inordinate amount of time teaching the names of things and memorizing facts. Facts are important, and storytelling is one of the most effective ways of delivering them. But if you stop with facts you are not teaching science. Science should be a verb, an activity, not simply a body of knowledge.
By concepts, I mean theories, the big picture ideas like the food web, evolution, the water cycle and animal adaptation. These concepts are critical to the understanding of modern ecology. But if you stop with concepts, you still are not teaching science. You are building a necessary conceptual framework for the ordering and understanding of facts. Again, science is something you do, a way of asking questions and seeking answers.
Science process skills are the methods or strategies that scientists employ to discover and understand the story of the universe. By asking good questions, formulating an hypothesis, designing an investigation, collecting data, analyzing and reordering data and drawing conclusions, you are engaged in scientific inquiry.
A good story involves the listener in many of these same strategies: gathering the facts of the story, making predictions about the outcome, and checking their hypothesis against the unfolding details of the tale. Also, you can employ a story to make abstract concepts personal and tangible. You can convey important facts within a dynamic context so the facts stick; they have more meaning and impact.
Let me share a short story that will show you what I mean:
* * *
When I was a student at Oberlin College, one of my favorite biology professors was a man whom I only remember as George. At 94 years of age, he still taught an occasional class. His father, too, had been a biology professor at Oberlin College. George had literally grown up on campus. He spent his entire life studying the flora and fauna of Northeastern Ohio. Botany was his specialty and he knew every plant on campus on a first name basis.
Once a month, on Sunday afternoon, George led a hike in the arboretum. Every month that I could be there, I was. When I was in college I used to jog five miles every day, but I had a hard time keeping up with this old man. He meandered through the arboretum telling stories about whatever plant caught his fancy.
One Sunday afternoon as we were walking in the flood plain of Plum Creek, he stopped next to an ancient cottonwood. This huge tree was almost a meter wide and maybe thirty meters tall. He leaned against this giant tree and said…
When I was a little boy, seven years old, my father told me that cottonwood trees had a unique characteristic: If you break off a branch and stick it in the mud it will sprout.
When my father told me this I thought, “Poppycock! If you break off a branch it is dead. A dead stick will not sprout.” Note that I did not say this; I have more respect for my father than to openly dispute him without a bit of evidence, but I did not believe him.
Well, a few weeks later I was walking through the arboretum when a huge storm blew in. I love those Mid-western summer thunderstorms. As the clouds roll across the Great Lakes they pick up steam, literally. You can see the dark clouds gather in the distance as the winds start to blow and you know the heavens are going to open. Most kids might run home, but not me. I love the crack of lightening, the roar of thunder, and the warm rains that pummel the earth.
As I was walking along Plum Creek a strong gust of wind snapped off a branch from a cottonwood tree and it stuck in the mud. I thought, “Aha! This is my chance to prove my father wrong.” I came back each day for five days to gather evidence. Sure enough, after the third hot summer day it started to wilt. Because of the heat it was losing more water than it could absorb; evapo-transpiration is the scientific word for tree sweat. By the fifth day the leaves were curled. This branch was dead.
I went home and told my father he was wrong, and I had the proof. I was a precocious child…and my parents encouraged my inquisitive nature. My father calmly listened to my interpretation of the facts. He said, “Son, you’re jumping to conclusions. You need to collect more data.” He told me to go back to that tree every day for the next ten days, write down what I saw, and then to tell him what I thought. Being a good son, and wanting to be a good scientist, I went back to that stick every day for ten days.
Sure enough, after five more days the leaves started to uncurl. After seven days they started to plump up, to fill with fluid. By the tenth day the stick was indeed alive. I wanted to know why or how, so I carefully dug down around one side of the stick. I saw the small sprouting roots that had begun to grow. So, my father was right. Cottonwood do have a unique characteristic in their ability to sprout if you plant a stick in wet earth. It’s called regeneration. This is why cottonwood and willow are very important tools in preventing erosion. Streamside stabilization projects use willow posts and cottonwoods to help hold the stream banks in place.
I’ll never forget this idea because, you see, this giant cottonwood tree that we are standing next to is that cottonwood stick I watched wilt 87 years ago. Obviously, my father was right because that stick has grown into this huge tree.
And now having heard the tale, you will never forget this concept either.
* * *
While the story is still fresh in your mind, make a short list of some of the facts you learned from this story. And which major concepts stand out for you? What are the science process skills modeled in this study of the cottonwood?
(At this point in a performance or workshop I often ask the audience to turn to a partner and answer these questions aloud. Obviously this is difficult in an essay! But before you read on, please take a moment, read back over these questions, and make a list, at least a mental one.)
Through George’s inquiry approach we have collected data about transpiration, root growth and regeneration. We have formulated the hypothesis that sticks can not regenerate and then designed an investigation to prove or disprove our theory. We have drawn an incorrect conclusion and collected more evidence to discover the truth. We have learned about trees but more importantly we have learned the process skills we need to learn about the unfolding drama that is the story of the universe.
To paraphrase an old proverb, we have been given fish for supper and a net for catching all the fish we desire.
Think about it another way: Do you remember what, Mrs. Jones, your third grade teacher, said on November 4, Nineteen Hundred and ..whenever? Do you remember stories that you heard when you were a child? If you have something important to say, put it into a story! Stories are like the glue that helps things to stick. By giving facts an exciting context they are more meaningful and more likely to be remembered.
Stories can make abstract theories concrete by bringing the listener into direct experience with the concept. The food web is not just an idea in a textbook; it is what you had for lunch. The water cycle flows through your blood streams.
Storytelling engages listeners in the scientific process through the suspense and virtual reality that a good story creates. Students get to make discoveries along with the author or main character in the tale. You can tell stories from your life and experience, or you could dramatize important discoveries in the history of science. Even works of realistic fiction, if grounded in good science, can be written or told to illuminate a concept, introduce a chapter, or prepare students for a science experiment.
After having said all that, I’ll say something more: If you stop here it isn’t enough.
It is necessary for students to be energetically engaged in the activity of designing investigations and conducting research. After listening to this story about the cottonwood, what questions does it raise for you? How could you design a study that would find the answers? Go ahead and conduct this investigation. Remember: Science should be a verb!
After a recent retelling of this story one of the students’ hands shot into the air immediately. When called upon he asked if this ability to regenerate was true of other trees. I asked what he thought. Several students’ hands shot up. They discussed different trees that might regenerate. One child said, “We could plant sticks from different trees and see if it was true.” I recently heard form a teacher at another school who told her students about “The Cottonwood.” A group of her students conducted this research on their own without even telling her. When a naturalist came to their class to talk about field ecology the students told him of their study of regeneration to the surprise and delight of the classroom teacher.
This is the other important role of storytelling in environmental education. A good story can motivate listeners or readers to want to become ecologists. Think about it…Who were the professors or teachers who inspired you to pursue this field? I’ll bet they were all good storytellers.
What are your stories? How can you share your discoveries in a way that could inspire and instruct your students? What are some of the classic tales of ecology that you remember from your education?
One of my favorite stories from history is John Muir’s “Interview with a Bear.” He had heard that bears were afraid of humans and wanted to prove the theory. When he encountered a bear in Yosemite Valley he tried to scare it away but it was he who took off running in the end! His experiment failed, but we learned about bear ecology and “the experimental method,” a willingness to question the facts. Another of my favorite stories is about a woman’s love for butterflies and moths. Gene Stratton Porter conducted a thorough investigation for her book “The Moths of the Limberlost,” a classic work in field entomology. She learned that the diversity of insects is directly related to the health of the forest. She had a miraculous encounter with moths one night that left me breathless and inspired when I read of it. These are just two examples of classic tales you could tell.
In any discipline from astrophysics to molecular biology there are great stories about the scientists and their discoveries that you could dramatize. Environmental education is blessed with some of the best writers in American Literature: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Annie Dillard, Gretal Ehrlich, Barry Holsten Lopez and the list goes on…
If you want to invigorate your guided hikes tell your students stories. And then inspire them to add their voice to the chorus to deepen our understanding of science, the story of the universe.
(Editor Note: Here are a few more items connected with this article, originally intended as side bars –Sean)
WHAT MAKES A GOOD SCIENCE STORY – The most important ecologists have all been good storytellers. Think about the scientists who have had the most lasting contributions to our understanding of scientific principles and the way things work. They have all been great writers and storytellers.
I believe that Rachel Carson changed the world in the first few pages of her landmark book Silent Spring. Her modern parable about pesticides and the absence of songbirds in the spring helped to write new laws and radically transformed our relationship with the wild world. Her story took you inside the dilemma of a toxic environment and the long-term implications of what was then acceptable behavior. Her story, like the writings of Stephen J. Hawkins, Stephan Gould, Annie Dillard, Aldo Leopold, and others, can give you a front-row seat on scientific discoveries.
Through their stories you feel like a voyeur, looking over their shoulders as they fumble through their mistakes and stumble upon the truth. A good science story needs this sense of immediacy, this in-the-moment insider’s view.
Think about some passionate moment in your work as a scientist or science teacher. This passion and enthusiasm is important to the writing and telling of the tale. Like all good stories you need well-defined characters. Who was there? Help us get to know something about these people and their motivations. You need a clear setting. Where were you? Describe the place using all of your senses; take us into this unique moment and specific location. You also need a dynamic plot with a sense of mystery or surprise. What happened? What led to your discovery? What did you learn from your mistake or success? Take us step by step through the questions that lead to the research, the methods you used, and your Aha! moment, when things clicked for you. Let the reader or listener share your sense of discovery.
Use this outline to build your tale. Recreate the moment.
Exercise your science vocabulary while defining terms with explanatory clauses. If young kids can memorize the Latin names of dinosaurs they can certainly learn science vocabulary if they hear the words in a meaningful context. The truth is they will never learn these words unless they hear them in a meaningful context.
Interrupt the story to ask questions, engage the audience as guinea pigs in your experiment, or have the audience members choose a partner and tell each other their hypothesis.
When the story is over create a space for them to process the ideas, ask questions about the outcome, and internalize the concepts. Challenge them to design and conduct follow-up studies.
If the story motivates students to be active participants in scientific inquiry you know you have a great story!
(Editor’s Note: Festival process.)
Brian “Fox” Ellis is an internationally acclaimed author, storyteller, historian, and naturalist. He has worked with The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, The Field Museum and dozens of other museums across the country.
The contents expressed in any article on Storyteller.net are solely the opinion of author.
With: Jeff Gere
“Jeff Gere is a storytelling tempest, a griot, a squall and a bolt of creating who shocks and delights. That’s a good thing for all of us. To truly understand how Jeff relates to story and storytelling, you need to sit out in front of his house in Hawaii, on the carport, while Jeff, as loudly as if he were on stage, sings/tells a story. As I sat there, I noticed that not one neighbor looks out the window. Not one neighbor called the cops on this noisy man who is proclaiming myth and legend on his lawn. They are used to this wild, gifted and talented storyteller just bursting into story at any point. Loudly. How good it would be for any of us to be so well known by our own neighborhoods.
On stage, Jeff is a master of the moment, fully engaging his audience, using that rubber face of his and his even more elastic voice to create dark moments, fun moments and surprise moments when you think , ‘Wow! What was that?’ And then, as quickly as that moment fades, another sound and another look from Jeff leads you to a kairos of storytelling excellence.
As a storytelling producer for the Talk-Story Festival in Honolulu, Jeff seeks out all types of storytellers, divergent in their differences of technique, aura, story choices, ages and experience. Everyone who has the chops has been welcome to his stages over the last 19 years. Many mainland storytelling producers should come sit at the foot of his TalkStory festival stage and see an inclusive vision come to life of what storytelling in a community truly should entail.”
–Sean Buvala, Executive Director for Storyteller.net
In our latest Amphitheater at Storyteller.net, the stage is lit, bare save for the teller and musicians. Reflecting on storytelling itself, storyteller Jeff Gere, from Hawaii, takes you on a journey of life and legends, filling the stage with people and places not yet seen. Jeff masters the depths of his voice in dialect and energy. creating some of these stories in the moment. Be ready: listening to Jeff is a whole-mind experience, one you might find hard to do “in the background.”
Jeff is assisted in these stories by: Les Adam on piano, Vince Esquire on guitar, Alana Cini on didgeridoo and Sandra Lee Akaka on percussion.
Use the links below to listen with streaming WindowMedia:
Part One: How I Became a Professional Storyteller
Part Two: The Storytelling Suite
Part Three: Bike Story
Part Four: The Storyteller
Part Five: Embarrassed Daughters
Part Six: Time
Laura Simms Interview*
With: Laura Simms
Our 1999 interview with Laura Simms. This interview is one of the oldest pieces of content on Storyteller.net. It’s currently only available in WindowsMedia, or the .wma, format. Most computers should play these fine, but on some systems you may have some issues.
Laura on “defining storytelling:”
I don’t know if I’m defining it and I don’t know if I’m seeing storytelling change. Maybe I’m seeing that the word storytelling encompasses almost everything in our world, any kind of communication or any kind of description within it. On one hand it encompasses everything because the only way that things work for us, in terms of perception or how it arises and we perceive it, is by constructing meanings so that there is always the kind of evolution of story as an art form.
There is a quality of recreation and performance, on the spot, spontaneous relationship to whatever audience there happens to be in the living arena. So I don’t consider sharing stories on internet as storytelling. I think that it’s sharing story text on the net.
But I think it’s the art form as a particularly living art form that occurs in the present, always has a quality of mutual responsiveness. And it has lot more to do with the presence and the kind of invisible qualities of it. In many ways it has to do with an outer performance than a memorized text. . .