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The following material is provided by WRITERLIST a Free service providing marketing and other information to writers. This material is copyrighted by Allen Rolf, but permission is hereby given for reproduction and distribution for non-commercial purposes. For more information, email WRITERLIST

Setting The Stage In Story Telling

by Allen Rolf

Stories just don't happen ..... they happen some place!

Can you imagine, before the dawn of the written word, sitting at the fire and having the tribal storyteller carry you off to distant magical places? We, of course, still repeat this ritual today when we watch TV, a natural outgrowth of ritual storytelling and parents all over the planet still continue to educate and entertain their children with ...."Once upon a time...."!

But none of the stories that we use today just happen. They never did. They all happen some place, and the storyteller's job is still to transport his listener, by imagination, to some distant magical place. In modern story telling, this is called building a scene. a backdrop if you will, on which the magic unfolds.

Building a scene is one of the most important aspects of telling a story. Even today, primitive cultures who use the sterytelling experience understand the importance of putting the magic against a back-drop of scenery. It takes the listener to a place where he as never been before.

So, of what does a scene require. It, first, must happen in a time; whether at some future date, or primeval time past. In the stories of the North American Indian it is common practice for the story teller to start his tale in this manner:

"This is the story of Raven as told to me by my father, who heard it from his father, who heard it from his father ....."

Here a simple primitive device is used to let the listener know that the story setting is in some ancient past. The teller is apt to continue ....

".... Water covered the earth and there was no place for Raven to rest. He flew a great distance until he came to an island that moved upon the water ...."

Already the storyteller has given his audience a time and place. To liven his story, the storyteller may add the sound of wind, the crash of waves, providing an imaginary environment for his audience. He wants his listener to "feel" the place in which the story takes place!

Now, for fun, let's use the same device for a more modern story:

"The rush-hour traffic had dropped. Across the way, the nightlights had popped on in the park as the few remaining pedestrians hurried to their dinner.

"Chuck Stevens never imagined that he would end it all right here. End his misery with a 38 slug to his brain ....."

Hopefully, this opening scene is a little more suttle than than our Indian friend's. We can only hope that our opening will paint a picture just as in the opening scene of the Raven.

There are, of course, a dozen openings for both our story and the story of the Raven. We can open our Raven story with Raven flying across mountains; Chuck Stevens preparing to put his airplane into a suicidal dive. It is our story and we must select a time and place for everything to happen.

Aptly, the beginning scene is used by the storyteller to introduce his character and the story's location. It also can point to a crisis that the hero must recognize, face, and overcome in the scenes that follow.

There is an old adage in storytelling, "Show and Don't Tell." It is probably one of the hardest tools for new storytellers to master.

In our example, we could simply say that Chuck Stevens simply went out to kill himself. This approach, unfortunately, would leave most readers saying "so what?" There would be little, or no, sympathy. We must allow the reader to feel the futility of life as it is felt that very moment by Chuck Stevens!

It is very difficult to love a cardboard cutout! In the next paragraph that we have not written yet, we must create a more rounded human being. Here, again, dozens of ploys can be used, ranging from a flash-back, or a sub-scene, to describing something as simple as lighting a cigarette.

"So this is how it worked? The last cigarette. Chuck studied the pack of Winston's, How strange? The last cigarette, that one thing that now stood between being and not being. Yes, it was hopeless. He would light the cigarette and the path would be clear .... a neat hole just above his right ear. Would he hear it? Would he know? ....."

Generally speaking, our language lends itself to storytelling because of the strong Anglo-Saxon words that it possesses. Both Hemingway and O'Henry, great American storytellers, were acutely aware of this. These are also called "action-words" and can evoke strong emotional reactions from most of us. Short choppy sentences also cause the reader to react well, particularly when the hero meets a crisis.

For instance, we could say: "Raven was very fatigued," but why not just say "Raven was tired as hell!" Chances are, it he had been just fatigued, he would not have rested on that moving island which turned out to be a turtle! Then we could go on:

"Raven breathed hard. His wings ached. His feathers were crooked. Raven wanted to take a nap....."

Anyone can understand and appreciate Raven's dilemma. They have been brought to the back of the turtle by the storyteller. They have become emotionally involved in the magic story!

It is fun to practice writing scenes, but remember a scene must always contribute to the story line. It is the canvas on which the storyteller paints his tale.