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Those Juniors, Part 39: Story-Telling Stratagem, #3

by Eric B. Hare

Last week: Story-telling is one of the best ways to impress a lesson or point on others. There are many wholesome, true stories out there for all ages. When telling a story, there are certain things you must do: know your story, see it, adapt it, tell it, live it, feel it, and have a climax.

Live Your StoryYou can only tell with the power of conviction those things you have experienced. As pity is hollow and shallow and unwanted, because it is formed of only empty words, and as sympathy comforts, cheers, and encourages, because it is spoken by one who understands from experience, so the teller of stories must live life. He must know children; he must know mothers and fathers and people. He must know how they live, how they talk, how they love, how they hope, how they pray. He must drink the cup of sorrow and must understand loneliness, as well as the thrill of joy. He must know what it means to ascend to the mountaintop and to descend into the valley. If he would tell of the love of God he must know the love of God. If he would tell of the saving power of Christ he must know the saving power of Christ.

On a certain occasion a number of people were enjoying a social evening in the parlor of a beautiful home. Among the guests were a very talented actor and a venerable old clergyman. As guest after guest added to the entertainment of the evening, someone turned to the actor and said, “Won’t you please recite something for us?”

“Yes, please do,” urged the clergyman. “Recite for us the Twenty-third Psalm.”

“Well, I can, and I will,” rejoined the actor, turning to the minister, “but only on condition that after I have recited the psalm, you will recite it also.”

“All right, if you desire it that way,” replied the clergyman, and the actor rose and commenced his recitation. He was well trained and talented. His studies in elocution enabled him to speak the words with beauty and pathos. His gestures perfectly fitted to every phrase, added charm, and the group followed spellbound to the very last word, and broke into a thunder of applause.

They then urged the old clergyman to do his part. Slowly he rose, and began, “The Lord is my shepherd——” but his voice was not so well trained nor was it perfect. At times it faltered and broke. His hands trembled as he moved them here or there, but breathlessly the group drank in his words, and tears filled every eye as he closed with the words, “in the house of the Lord forever.” He sat down, but there was no applause. The simple telling of those words held them in a spell of profound silence. For a moment no one stirred. Then the actor rose, grasped the old clergyman’s hand, and said, “Oh, sir, thank you,” and turning to the group, he said, “Folks, I know the Twenty-third Psalm, but this dear man knows the Shepherd.”1

It does make a difference if you live your story.

Feel Your Story—Under this heading we study another phase in the art of telling stories. The feeling we put into a story brings it to life and makes the characters live and speak before our listeners. Call it “coloring the story,” or “putting on the arms and legs,” as you wish, the mastery of this skill decides above all else your success or failure as a storyteller.

Let us for a moment liken the building of a story to the taking of a photograph. We go to the country, we see the golden sun setting behind the hills. A little white cottage nestles in the shade of a great pine tree. The scene is enchanting, but you do not snap the picture at once. You lift the camera to your eye and look through the viewfinder. But there is too much foreground, too much sky, too much mountain. You do not want it all. You approach closer, look with the viewfinder again and again, from this angle and from that angle, till you have just enough sun, sky, tree, path, to make a lovely picture. Surely, the rest of the mountain is all there, but you don’t need everything in the picture. You snap the photograph and send the film to the photographers to be developed and printed, and back it comes in a beautiful black-and-white print. Is this a perfectly true picture? Yes—no.

What parts are perfectly true? The outline. What part is not true? The color.

So next you take your brushes and your colors, and as carefully as you can, you paint the tree green, the smoke gray, the sun golden yellow, the sky blue fading into yellow on the horizon, the path brown, and the grass green. How do you know what color to paint them? You can remember those details very accurately. And you paint the house white, for you can remember that, too; but when it comes to the roof you can’t remember whether it was green or red. In the picture it is a dark gray. You can remember some houses in that district had red roofs and some had green roofs. You think, try to recall, then finally paint the roof red. Now is the picture perfectly true? Maybe yes, maybe no. But is it nearer to the truth than the black-and-white picture? It most certainly is. And so it is the storyteller’s license to color his story and make it as nearly lifelike as he can possibly make it, and the two brushes that are his to use are the modulation of the voice and the use of probable conversation.

When Spalding says, “It is not easy, indeed it is not possible, to draw an exact line in the employment of the imagination, on the one side of which is truth and on the other side error,”2  how can I presume to tell you where to draw this line between truth and fiction? Let me, however, tell you where I draw the line for myself and still maintain a clear conscience toward God and man. I hold accurately to the outline—the facts, not daring to put in another tree where there was no tree, or to put in a horse where there was no horse. I feel honor bound to hold absolutely to the facts. But the color? Ah, that is mine to add, and, dipping my brush into life, it is mine to bring that story to life. There were no stenographers to take down the exact words of Jochebed on the morning she took her little babe to the river, but because I know how brokenhearted, anxious mothers talk, can I not put in words that will produce that color? And because I know how mothers pray, I can put words into that praying mother’s lips, too.

Let us notice the possibilities of adding life by the inflection of the voice. Take the little word “good-bye.” How does a man say good-bye to his son who is starting off for college? “Good-bye, son.” (Slow and measured.) How does an adolescent boy say good-bye to his mother? Does he say, “Good-bye, Mother”? The adolescents that I know don’t. They say, “‘Bye, Ma.” Does a lisping infant say, “Good-bye, Father?” Oh, dear, no. She says, “Bye-bye, Daddy.” How does a husband say good-bye to his wife as he starts to work in the morning? Most likely he would say something like, “So long, honey.”

Now let us turn to the story of “The Girl Who Tended the Door,” in Christian Storytelling, pages 105–108, and practice some inflection of the voice:

“And all the people said, ‘Now, Rhoda, she’s only a little girl. She’ll not want to come into the prayer meeting with us. We’ll put her out here to tend the door.’ ”

What is the color? Great importance on their prayer meeting, and a belittling of Rhoda and her importance. So put something like a sneer into that word “little.”

“And Peter rapped.

“And Rhoda said, ‘Who is it?’ [Whispered, fearful.]

“And Peter said,’It’s Peter. Let me in!’ [Quietly.]

“But Rhoda was so glad to hear him she didn’t stop to open the door; but she ran in where all the people were praying for the Lord to let Peter out of prison, and she cried, ‘Peter’s here; Peter’s here!’ [Quickly, excitedly.]

“They looked at her, and then they said, ‘You’re crazy!’ [Drawl out the word “crazy” and put into it all the disbelief you can muster.]

“But she said, ‘No! Peter’s here; he is at the door! He’s at the door!’ [Now put all a little girl’s ardent enthusiasm and earnestness into these words.]

“They looked at her, and they said: ‘O-o-oh! It must be his angel.’ [Open your eyes wide to assist in coloring these words with fear and awe.]

“But Rhoda was so excited she jumped up and down, and she cried, ‘It’s Peter! It’s Peter! He’s at the door! You come and see!’ [You must squeal and nearly jump up and down to give the proper color to these words.]”

It is very evident what a little change in the voice will do. God has given us a harp of a thousand strings, and yet so many of us are content to talk along in just one voice, with rarely any change, whether we be giving the words of an old professor, an ardent lover, an anxious mother, a feeble grandpa, or a lisping babe.

(Next week: “Story-Telling Stratagem, Part 4.”)

1. See Principles of Sabbath School Teaching, p. 43.
2. Christian Storytelling, p. 53.

Copyright © 1973 by Eric B. Hare. Used by permission

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