Learning how to begin a story

When we start a story, we send out a signal to indicate our presence, get people’s attention, and invite them to connect to something different which is about to start. Once upon a time – or its equivalent – is a widely accepted signal for starting a story. But a stock phrase may not always be appropriate or enough.

Most of my language teaching has involved using storytelling fairly regularly with teenagers up to the age of 18. I have learnt – sometimes to my cost – that while many young children can be seen to light up at the prospect of a story, when these same children grow into their teens, Once upon a time becomes a turn-off associated it with something for the very young. And, when these teens grow into young adults, even the word story can have negative connotations such as the falseness, deception, trickery or manipulation found in tall tales or narratives woven by spin doctors. They don’t want to be played with and protect themselves by not listening.

So, even if your story seems valid, there you stand with your story to tell but nobody wants to listen. Or at least, that’s how it feels. You start your story anyway, pushing on bravely. But it’s clear that minds are elsewhere. Who wants to be ignored or rejected? Then you remember all the times you’ve seen them chatting in corridors or telling you about a new TV series they’ve found in English. And what about those students who always manage to find a quiet corner on their own to carry on reading their novel during break? No, the problem is not with the story. It’s with the smoke signal.

Source Unsplash

All smoke and no signal

In fact, at the beginning of a story, you’re trying to send out a smoke signal, but people may turn away because they can’t see the signal – all they see is smoke. And after all, smoking fires can be unpleasant. Anyone who has tried themselves, or watched patiently as another family member or neighbour tries in vain, to light a traditional barbecue by fanning the smoke until the flame comes can tell you that. Nobody wants smoke in their eyes.

Don’t give up on that story yet. Take your time. You’re doing something you’ve inherited from an older culture. Someone who seeks to make a smoking fire by deliberately using damp grass and not dry tinder has other intentions. Remember the smoke signal is an age-old form of visual communication used the world over until other forms took over.

If you have ever been in a situation where you can’t get your story out, the discouragement and frustration you feel can stop you from taking that story further, or even of continuing as a storyteller. If you are a language teacher, it’s particularly worth thinking again before giving up. Story is one of the forms of communication in which can send learners travelling beyond the things they themselves are able to say; story can send them sailing on the unexpected vastness of the sea of things they are able to understand. The spoken word is built in to the way humans are made, and narrative is how we learn from others and discover ourselves.

Bringing listeners into the world of a story

Bull’s-eye : basic skeleton

There is a story I have been telling for a number of years which I call Bull’s-eye. The story came to my ears while half-listening to a talk programme on French radio about the way populations long ago in central Europe fought back against decades of war, invasions and the redefining of borders by using jokes and stories. Narrative and commentary were the only things that couldn’t be taken away from them, and they defended that territory by constantly finding new stories to tell and to remember. I particularly liked the final twist which I hadn’t seen coming.

The skeleton shown here was made in English for remembering this story for future use in class. Sometimes stories we hear can be like dreams : crystal clear in the moment, then suddenly gone. We don’t want to lose some stories so we keep them as outlines or skeletons. I have already touched the role of story skeletons in a previous post. Basically the idea is to reduce a narrative to its bare bones on one page to serve as a basis for developing an oral version when the time comes. The most delicate part is finding a way to bring listeners into the world of a story.

A picture starter to share ownership of the story

The main way I have told Bull’s-eye in class involves first using a collaborative picture starter.1 Here the students are invited to imagine a story by using a limited number of visual elements drawn on the board but which in fact come from the telling of Bull’s-eye which they will hear afterwards.

To decide which visuals you want the class to create, pick out four key elements from the telling of Bull’s-eye you have in mind and decide on ways to name them with a word or a phrase. For example :

a pair of glasses – a moustache – a city in ruins – a circle with a dot in the centre

Your choice of elements will depend on the telling you prepare, but here is the background for my choices. The pair of glasses is a defining characteristic of the tailor as someone old with poor eyesight, and easy to draw. Next comes the moustache, also simple enough to draw, which comes from my mental image of the general’s rank and a certain rough elegance which goes with his character. The context of war in which the story is set is crucial to grasp, but the word war is too abstract a word to give on its own; the city in ruins, a result of war, may seem like a challenge to draw, but it complexifies the context and always produces original results. Finally, the circle with a dot in the centre contrasts with the city in ruins by virtue of its simplicity; it is the bull’s-eye shot in the original story, but as a visual it is also open to multiple interpretations.

Of course, when doing the picture starter, don’t tell the class any of these details. Just invite volunteers to come to the board one by one. Say quietly to each artist what to draw but let them decide how they want to do it. This is the first step in asking the class to share ownership of a story without telling them what the story is just yet. All they need to see are the resulting four visuals drawn by their classmates.

Next, ask What do we do now? Somebody in the class may say, half jokingly : We are going to tell a story using these elements. If nobody says this, then say it yourself, because this is exactly what the class do next, working in small groups in limited time – 5 minutes – to prepare a story including all these elements to be then shared orally with the rest of the class.

In practice, this taking charge of the four elements happens quite fast. The glasses and the moustache are often attributed to one or two imagined characters. These characters then somehow get connected to the other two elements which get variously interpreted as, for example, a bombed city, a house in construction or an ancient civilisation for the one, and an eye, a camera, or something seen from a drone for the other. The stories told are either funny, tragic or just plain absurd. The stories tend to differ widely in the way they interpret the visuals. They also clear the air in class.

Now the air is clear of smoke, it is time to give them the signal. Something like this : All these visual elements actually come from a story I know. To say thanks for your stories, I’d like to tell the original story. Would you like to hear the story?

Telling a story means changing functions

How to begin a story? There is a road-movie called Smoke Signals (Chris Eyre, 1998) about what American Indians are really like which treads a fine line between seriousness and humour. One of the main characters in the film, Thomas Builds-a-fire, dodges between all the teasing and occasional rejection he encounters  as he accompanies his friend, Victor, in search of the truth about his father, Arnold Joseph.  Thomas’ secret strength throughout the story is his belonging to the Oral Tradition. He is great at beginning stories.

In the early scene shown in the movie clip, two girls have stopped their car for their friends Thomas and Victor. They  clearly find Victor handsome and seem happy to give him a ride – but Thomas has to tell them a story to get his. In spite of their gently teasing tone, the girls communicate recognition of Thomas’ narrative powers by the eye contact they give him, their amused facial expressions, and their listening postures – particularly the girl in the passenger seat who almost snuggles up to the open window.

Notice how actor Evan Adams, who plays Thomas, starts his story in response.

Thomas Builds-a-fire tells a story

First, he has to change functions : he goes from being Thomas-the-friend-who-wants-a-lift to Thomas-the-storyteller-ready-for-action. He frees up his hands by putting what he was holding on the roof of the car, gently moving into the listeners’ space. He leans forward so he is framed by the open car window. He adjusts his glasses, closes his eyes, clears his throat, puts his hands together, takes a deep breath, and then says with great deliberation : During the sixties … Arnold Joseph was the perfect hippie. And the story is underway. It takes less than two minutes to tell.

Meanwhile, back in class, the students are ready for Bull’s-eye.

From teacher to story teller

First, it’s time to change functions from teacher to storyteller.

As teacher, say that you going to tell your story using the four visual elements the students just used to create stories in their groups. You want them to listen as  closely as they can. No note-taking, please, just eyes and ears. When you finish telling the story, you don’t want them to speak to anyone else immediately. They are simply to note down any words or expressions which they remember from the story you told. It must be something they heard. They will only have a minute or so to do this.

Then as storyteller look at the board, gesturing to each of the four elements silently, perhaps nodding your head a little, as if putting things back in place in memory, but also moving into the students’ territory by taking possession of what they have just used. Adjust your glasses if you wear glasses, take a deep breath and begin. In the telling, point towards each of the elements as you use them – to show you’re following the rules but also to clarify how you are interpreting what is on the board – otherwise, speak facing the students, looking at each of them as your eyes scan the group.

Retrieving remembered elements

Once the story is over, there is a pause as the final twist goes to work. Students then get a reminder that they have one minute – this is a flexible learner-minute which needs to short but long enough to recall something – to note down words or expressions recalled from the telling. Neighbours are allowed to confer briefly once the minute is up. Then people call out the words or expressions they’ve written down and you write these on the board at random, spacing them out. There will naturally be certain words or expressions in common for some listeners.

Next everyone gets a copy of the Bull’s-eye skeleton – see above – for silent reading. The connection between the story and the skeleton emerges in the ensuing discussion. Is it the same as the story I told? Yes, but it’s simpler and the formulation is different. Some things you said aren’t in the skeleton.

Now focus on the selection of words the class have just collected on the board. Check the document carefully to see if any of the words on the board are also in the skeleton. If they are, underline them or highlight them using a coloured pen. If a word is used more than once, it gets underlined or highlighted every time it appears.

Once this is done, check the result by having students call out the words they have underlined. These elements get erased from the board because they are now identified on the page.

What about the remaining words on the board? These were words or expressions used while telling the story which weren’t in the original skeleton. You don’t want to lose these words, so ask students to add these to their skeleton using the space around the text. This means writing the words or expressions on the page where they were said during the story : something from the beginning, goes at the top; something from the middle goes with the central part of the skeleton and so on. Try and place all the elements. When you have finished compare with someone else. We’ll share our results once everyone is ready.

Collectively, the final distribution of words can be done very accurately because people remember different details. A parallel visual of the result for projection – see below – makes this more satisfying for the class, especially when there is disagreement on where things should go.

Reflecting on the results

Bull’s-eye : post story version completed by the class

When I first started using this procedure in class, I must confess that it was a very loose experiment. I wanted to show students the difference between a skeleton and an oral telling of a story so they would understand how to prepare for oral expression from notes rather than simply oralizing a text.

However, as you can see from the post-story skeleton – a copy of what happened last time I told the story in class – memory is selective. The highlighted words show that listeners tend to remember characters, probably because these are repeated.

The way a teller develops a skeleton can also determine whether a group of listeners can hear a word and retain it. For example, the word tailor appears several times in the skeleton but was not proposed by the students for the board. Did I say tailor? Not this time, because in my characterization – frail, poor eyesight – he was more old man than tailor.

By contrast, house was recalled even though it only appears once in the skeleton because I know I put three houses in my telling : the General gets off his horse and walks slowly towards three houses in the abandoned village … He pushes open the door of the first house but it’s empty … He pushes opens the door of the second house and a young boy runs out and goes through the door of the third house … This time the General doesn’t push the door open, he knocks on the door because he knows someone is inside …the little boy opens the door and behind him there is an old man, a tailor, sitting on the floor sewing … These ingredients also explain the extra words added by hand in the margin at this point in the skeleton.

Now comes the interesting part which turned my loose experiment into something more organized. Apart from the extra words added around house explained by my development in the telling, all the other words you see handwritten on the skeleton are remembered from the beginning. This means that listeners who have just heard a story which took several minutes will spontaneously recall more words or expressions from the beginning of the story than anywhere else. Let me give you a little more detail.

In telling Bull’s-eye, I start by moving the listeners to another time and place. It is the development of the first line of the skeleton which reads :

Countryside – defeated General on horseback.

This is fine for a written text, but far too compact for a one-time oral delivery. Here is that same first line as it re-emerged in the beginning of the story told in class. Transcription :

You are in another time and place. It’s early in the morning, the light is beginning to come … but you can’t see very far because when you try to look at the horizon there’s fog … or is it mist? … yes, it’s too light for fog, there’s mist on the horizon … another day in this neverending war … death, battles … day after day … your village is very quiet … in fact nobody has been here for days … but there in the mist is a shape … and the shape is moving closer … it’s the shape of a man who seems tired, exhausted … he can hardly sit straight on his horse … he is hunched over with his head down … he has been riding for two days … now as he comes closer you can see his horse is limping … he is the General in charge of the army defending your country, your region, your village … and he is exhausted because he understands that he has just lost the war

The remembered words from the opening are in bold. You will notice that they are also often used more than once – something less likely to occur in a written story. Listeners appreciate repetition which a reader may see as redundant, because the listener only gets the words orally. And visually, of course. Words like hunched over or limping were accompanied by corresponding actions.

The initial thinking behind this opening was simply to flesh out Countryside – defeated General on horseback. However, this process, followed by the remembered words phase after the telling, highlighted the impact which the beginning of an oral story can have on listeners. So I began to deliberately give the opening – the smoke signal – more importance whichever story I was telling. It became part of my technique. Sometimes it was longer than others, but I tried to make it count because I had discovered that listeners memorize beginnings: observed audience reponse taught me that the beginning is when tellers send out smoke signals, when we draw listeners’ attention. Traditionally, Once upon a time does this. But that is appropriate for certain settings when someone is receptive and ready to listen. For all the other times, we have to find ways to make people want to listen.

Final thoughts

We remember the first time we meet people, do or discover things or places and so on. Not that we necessarily have all those starting points constantly in mind but, strangely, if we stop and think for a moment, we can find almost any beginning stocked in memory and from there rebuild the chain of events. Just do a websearch on “lists of firsts in life” and follow the link of your choice to see how much you can still remember. If you remember how things start, you are on your way to remembering what happens next. That is what we call narrative.

So now I don’t rush beginnings when telling a story or when simply speaking in public. I try to set the frame, create the mood, silence the interfering thoughts about other things. The pressure is there to get on with the story or the speech, but make sure you tune your listeners in.

To finish with this story, the students go back to the groups they formed for the picture starter. They decide on the moral of this story. Here is a video of what one class wrote as it stood on our board at the end of the session. That was a busy lesson.

Bull’seye : The moral of the story (Board video)

Do you like stories? Do you prefer listening or telling them? I’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to comment.

  1. The original technique is called a Picture Rose, Section 4.4, Morgan & Rinvolucri, Once Upon A Time p.60-63, CUP 1983 ↩︎

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