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A Beginner's Guide to Storytelling - Not Only for Beginners!
By Chris King

Very few days go by without my receiving an e-mail from someone who wants to become a storyteller and wonders how to start. Where can they find stories? How do they learn them? How do they make stories sparkle? Along with the e-mails come the same questions when I have performed as a storyteller. Well, at last, a dedicated group of some of the finest storytellers in the country, working in conjunction with the National Storytelling Network, have produced The Beginner's Guide to Storytelling.

In this one slim, loaded volume you'll learn how to choose stories, develop stories, find a good place to start, put a program together, set the stage for storytelling, cope with stage fright, use a microphone, take care of your voice, mind your manners, and much, much more plus an extensive, annotated bibliography. I feel that this delightful guide is not only a "must" for beginners to the joyful pursuit of storytelling, but can also serve as a straight forward, tell it like "it is and should be" guide for veteran tellers. You will find a succinctly, well thought out and truthful reference for all areas of storytelling. And the bibliography alone is worth the reasonable cost. In this article/review, I am going to include some useful quotes and comments that I know will pique your interest and convince you of the volume's value and delightful approach. Read on.

In Choosing a Story, Gay Ducey makes use of vivid metaphors to help you with your search, for example she writes, "Choosing a story is a little like a romance or a seduction. Or maybe love at first sight. As you thumb through collections of stories you may find yourself with opinions like 'good, but not great' or 'lame story.' You begin the next one with mild interest, then a growing excitement. This story says, 'You're mine!' This is the story that has plans for you." Gay helps us to learn how to evaluate and grow our repertoire, filling it with different sorts of stories.

In Developing Your Story, Caren Niele take us on a thoughtful journey of six developmental stages. I was especially drawn to "Stage Three: Getting over the humps with CAMELS." What are the CAMELS, you ask? It is an acronym for Characters, Audience, Message, Energy, Language, and Setting - all containing complete descriptions and how tos.

In Developing Personal Stories, Barbara H. Clark answers the ever-present statements: "I don't know what to write about, nothing interesting ever happens to me." and "I've got so many things I want to write about, I don't know where to start." Barbara helps us get started by writing, "Potential subjects generally fall into three broad categories: 1) a minor incident, 2) a memorable person, and 3) a major life-changing event." She then illustrates what these may be, how to review, shape the stories and fine tune them.

In Taking Care of the Audience, Glen Morrow reminds us that as a responsible storyteller, we are like a mountain guide. "When we engage a mountain guide, we want to know three basic things: Does the guide know the way? Is the guide in shape to complete the journey? Do we trust the guide to lead us safely home? The same basic questions apply to the storyteller as guide to the imagination." Glen proceeds to tell us how to achieve the status of a trusted guide.

In Where to Get Started, Katy Rydell suggests that, "When you're ready to tell your first story in public, find a good, safe place." She continues with attention to many of the opportune places coupled with short anecdotes and stories of locations that have worked for other tellers. These include: day care centers, classrooms, libraries, adult venues, senior centers, at work, other places and bad places to start. She also includes advice on when to start charging for performances.

In After Telling-Evaluation, Margaret Read MacDonald describes the important step that so many of us avoid or overlook - evaluation. She suggests that we keep a journal for making notes to ourselves about the stories we told, what worked and what didn't. I found that the proposed checklist that she provides her students for self-critiquing was loaded with excellent questions that address value, communication and audience caretaking, delivery and scripting.

In Don't Stand under the Clock: Performance Tips, Nancy Schimmel, in her easy, down-to-earth style, shares how to arrange a full program, how to introduce the stories, what one should know about the performance setting, how to handle interruptions, what other details to think about, and what to do if you make a mistake. I found her chapter to be positive, sincere, inspiring and motivating.

In Dealing with Stage Fright, Elizabeth Ellis says she laughs when people take it for granted that she never has to deal with stage fright because of her years of storytelling experience. In her friendly and compassionate style, Elizabeth helps us to face this demon with courage by using knowledge and preparation. She writes, "The better you know your story the less you have to be nervous about. So, make sure you give yourself ample time to prepare. The more important the event is, the more time you may need in order to feel prepared."

In Taming the Wild Beast: Family Audiences and Survival, Bill Harley, who for the past sixteen years has focused more of his work on family audiences, writes about how to handle the broad age spans by being flexible and having the ability to work on several different levels. He writes that, "Some of my early shows were nightmares. Some still are. It took me a long time to develop a sense of balance - to learn how to speak to adults while still honoring children, and vice versa."

In Caring for Your Instrument: The Voice, Bonnie Greenberg reminds us that our voice is our instrument and that, "The more you care for it, the better it will sound. Think of yourself as being in training. Like most athletes, you want to keep yourself tuned up for peak performance." Bonnie goes on to giving suggestions on how to take care of your body and your vocal mechanism, along with what to do when you wake up hoarse. I found her short warm-up routine to be and excellent way to get ready for any and all presentations.

In Eep! I Have to Use a Microphone, Katy Rydell makes us realize that the microphone is our friend and, "It's there to help bridge the distance between you and your listeners." She wisely advises us to find out the kind of microphone we will be using and then describes the differences and what to do to make them work to our advantage. "Like all friends, microphones get more comfortable the longer you're with them."

In My Story Your Story, Olga Loya discusses the question and issue of who owns what story - a struggle in the storytelling community for years. A Storytelling Etiquette statement that appears everywhere is also included in the guide. "Yet, although most people agree with the statement, many people still use other people's stories without permission… In essence, this is all about respect. Respect for the story. Respect for other tellers. Respect for the audience. Respect for ourselves."

In What You Need to Know about Copyright Law, Aaron Shepard outlines the basics - at least enough of them that we as storytellers should know what to adhere to.

In The ABCs of Storytelling, Yvonne Young brings us to the end of the book (except for the extraordinary bibliography) with a storyteller's journey through the alphabet. Each letter offers three postings of storytelling wisdom and fun. When we reach Z, we find "Zest, Zeal and Zip give life to your stories, to you, and to your audience." How true!

I have merely shared a few crumbs from this delectable storytelling guide. And, by now, I am sure that you are eager to find out where you can get your own copy to fill in the rest of the meal. You may purchase a copy for only $10 at Mary Hamilton's website. Visit her Story Store at and click on the Books. Or, if you have some extra time, start at the top of the page, scrolling down to see all of the goodies Mary offers. You will be glad you did!


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