(Twelve Skills of the Storyteller, part 1)
This is the first in a series of articles on twelve fundamental storytelling skills. These skills focus on the act of storytelling itself (rather than on areas like voice production, finding and researching stories, relating to event organizers, marketing yourself, and other ancillary topics which each have their own skill sets).
Musicians practice low-level skills (like playing scales) as well as high-level skills, like playing expressively and feeling the overall shape of a piece of music.
Every day, though, we each speak and even tell stories. As a result, the lower-level, physical skills don’t usually challenge storytellers very much: for example, we have all developed fluent muscular control over the mechanisms of speech.
But the higher level storytelling skills can be challenging, if only because so few of them are ever even acknowledged in our daily lives.
The Skills of Imagining
The first three of the 12 skills relate to imagining. Why?
At the moment of telling a story, the storyteller imagines the story and then describes it to listeners. The first ability of storytelling, therefore, is the storyteller’s ability to imagine – to “re-member” or re-embody the scenes of a story.
Stories can be told well with even rudimentary imagination skills, just as musicians can produce enjoyable music without having achieved virtuosity.
But the most masterful story-imagining requires several skills, each building on the ones before it. What follows are descriptions of the imagination skills of the story virtuoso.
Skill 1: Imagine Vividly
Imagination draws from sights, sounds, gut and muscle feelings, emotions, and more. Imagine in every sensory mode.
Imagine all the emotions felt by each character.
The more vividly you imagine, the more vividly your listeners will imagine.
Skill 2: Let Your Imagination Act on You
Allow yourself to be changed by what you imagine.
It’s possible to imagine something without letting it touch you. The best storytellers, though, can imagine in such a way that they themselves are energized, moved, and even transformed by what they imagine.
This is imagining without holding back, without trying to tame the images or to separate yourself from them.
This form of imagining is magnetic. Like a thunderstorm, it draws listeners’ attention by its pure intensity and drama.
Skill 3: Thinking in Images
Mathematicians learn to think in numbers. Musicians learn to think in sounds. Storytellers need to be able to think in images.
This includes the ability to transform images in your mind.
It also includes the ability to notice images that come to mind in response to complex challenges (such as deciding on an audience’s needs or responses).
If skill #1 is about vividness and skill #2 is about a relationship to images, this skill is about flexibility and openness.
Young children have easy access to images, but society teaches us to close our inborn connection to images. As a result, few of us go beyond a child’s level of “image intelligence.”
The most advanced imaginers, on the other hand, have developed the most fluid imaginations. They can drink in the flow of images or “pause” it to focus on a single image.
They can do “virtual tours” of what they imagine, seeing it from any view point, hearing all the sounds, feeling all the tensions, cautions, and flows of energy from a group of characters.
They can glide from one image to another, fully responsive to the threads that unite two images as well as the subtle or striking contrasts between them.
This skill involves not just seeing, hearing, smelling, or feeling what you remember or imagine, but also being in touch with what those images could become. It involves a mastery of image dynamics.
Image masters can also allow helpful images to come to the surface. For example, some tellers, when faced with an audience, find themselves imagining scenes from a story they might not have planned to tell.
For myself, I have learned to welcome such unexpected images and to regard them as helpful responses to the complex input I receive unconsciously from the listeners (such as how they sit, breathe, cough, look around the room, and more). When I trust the images and tell the story whose images came to me unbidden, I usually learn later that it was even more appropriate for the group than what I had planned to tell.
More Skills to Come
In future articles, I’ll describe the nine skills in these four additional categories:
- Oral language
- Relating to your audience
- Flexibility in performance
- Being and showing yourself.
All four categories are important. Yet the skills of imagining remain fundamental. After all, images are the very stuff of story itself!