How to tell a perfect story
Even in our multimedia culture, the art of spinning a yarn is thriving
In a visual age, the art of storytelling really ought to be dead. Instead, it’s alive and kicking. Seminars on how to tell a good story are all the rage in the business world, and regular sessions such as New York’s The Moth are creating new audiences on the international stage.
In Ireland, we’ve always fancied ourselves as first-rate storytellers. But how do the professionals do it?
Nuala Hayes, who will be in action at the forthcoming Yarn festival of story and song in Bray, gave up a career in the theatre to work as a storyteller. “A good story brings you somewhere that you hadn’t intended to go,” she says. “Something happens, and a transformation takes place. It can be imaginative; it can be terrifying; it can make you uncomfortable. But a good story will always bring you safely home.”
A good story should also raise a smile, if not an outright laugh, she says. Given that unpredictability is a major part of the appeal, however, the storyteller’s chief skill is to be tuned in to the emotions of her audience.
Festival audiences are, says Hayes, a doddle; they come with an open mind and are already in the mood for a story. Faced with a room full of sceptical teenagers, on the other hand, she needs to work a bit harder. “If they’re used to all their imaginative experience coming from television or DVDs or film, which is often the case with kids, I explain to them that if you’re listening to a story, you’re part of it, and the story won’t work if you don’t take part. Once you explain that they’ll see the pictures in their minds, they get it.”
Nowadays, we tend to associate stories with children. But in the old days, when a seanchaí was part of the evening’s entertainment, storytelling was an adult-only zone. “Children might be there; they might be heading off to bed, or listening with the crack in the door open.” And if they scared the bejeepers out of themselves, tough luck. Many of our traditional stories were designed to get the hairs on the back of the neck into overdrive. An experienced storyteller such as Hayes is careful not to go into such dark areas unless she feels her audience is able to cope.
If some stories don’t work in certain situations, are there any stories which always work? “Oh, yes,” she says. One of them is The Curse of Macha, a kind of prequel to the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Another favourite is based on a short story by Mary Lavin, about a boy who has an extraordinary adventure. “It’s a pretty dodgy experience,” Hayes admits. “Not one that you’d encourage kids to go through in the real world, to be honest. But anyway, he comes back safely.” As does the A Likely Story, which despite its dodgy moments is a firm favourite with audiences of all ages.
“When you tell a story, you’re always treading that fine line between ‘Is it true, or is it not?’ Are you convincing me, or are you not? It’s a fine, fine line. And sometimes it’s like a precipice.”
You have been warned.
The Yarn festival takes place from November 10th to 18th in various venues. The Brewery of Eggshells, a family storytelling session with Nuala Hayes and Kate Corkery, is on November 17th at 1.30 pm.