storytelling as image evocation

Imagination (tiles) - HNBDAt a recent workshop for the Jung Society in Melbourne, one of the participants asked me for more details about the way that I teach storytelling. Of course, I’m profoundly influenced by my training with Ashley Ramsden and Sue Hollingsworth[1], of the International School of Storytelling. Much of what I’ve developed in my own work is adapted from what I learned from them, and also from my training and practice in storytelling as a Steiner or Waldorf educator in the mid 1990s.

I believe we are all storytellers, with the imaginative capacities to tell stories with enthusiasm and truth, in ways that engage our listeners, and often, with minimal training. We can all offer the gifts of stories to others. Of course, we can also improve with technical assistance, but sometimes too much focus on technique and crafting can get in the way. As with most things, noticing our bad habits and letting those lessen, whilst we enhance a few good habits should be the major focus of development. And any work on voice, speech, and gesture will definitely not go astray. Stories need to be heard, and the human voice and body are exquisite instruments. Care for yours.

Yet for me, the most significant thing that we do as storytellers is to use our imagination. Through our own imaginative capacity, we engage and evoke the image-making capacities of our listeners. When I say image, I don’t mean just visual imagination, because images can be rich with sensual detail from all dimensions, and scenes can be enhanced with the feeling life of the characters, the texture of the landscape. Interestingly, we don’t have to describe everything we imagine, but a few telling details will help.

As a listener to stories, I believe the most powerful storytelling arises when you experience the strong images—auditory, visual, tactile, emotional, bodily, the whole gamut—that the storyteller is carrying for you through gesture, movement and of course, most significantly, through words and voice. This is what creates the childlike trance we may experience when listening to a story. We receive the images as purely as possible, without analysis, interpretation, and mental effort. What a relief for our over-busy minds to relax into a different relationship to words! No longer filters of information, we become open to wisdom.

When learning or remembering stories, storytellers often speak of the ‘bones’ or basic elements of each story. Every story, from the most ancient creation story, through myth, legend, wonder tale, and teaching fable, can be condensed into a few ‘bones’—the basic scenes of the story that each storyteller fleshes out in her or his unique style and vocabulary. Admittedly, many of the most ancient stories would have been learned as a kind of oral incantation to be performed as part of a ritual, but few of us tell stories in that way today. Although contemporary storytelling no longer has such an explicit ritual orientation, you may enrich your story with some spoken incantation as part of the story. I use that in a couple of stories—repeated phrases that I learn accurately to create a sense of connection such as this one which I use to tell at the beginning of one story I tell:
Beast from the deep
Two headed serpent
Seeker of truth (x three)

So, remember some well-crafted highlights if you wish, but for contemporary listeners, I believe the wisdom of most stories can be conveyed with very little reliance on word-for-word accuracy. Each story may be adapted uniquely, according to the individuality of the teller, and as a gift of the images to their listeners.

As you start to learn a story from one you have heard or read, then I suggest that you write down, or draw, the ‘bones’ of the story. Think of each scene in the story, and create an image for yourself of that whole scene. You may release your inner sub-editor and write these ‘bones’  as headlines from a tabloid newspaper (Youngest prince leaves home, Dragon serial killer on loose, Young prince in league with minor fairy, Prince suffers major setback, Prince finds dragon-subduing sword etc.) Alternatively you may choose to style yourself as a film director. Draw a quick storyboard for each scene, or construct something simple that suits your preference, but captures the essence of each scene of the story. Once you can imagine the scene as richly as possible, then you will clothe it in your own vocabulary which will be absolutely perfect for your version of the story.

You may want to craft particular sections in very special words (like the phrases I spoke about before), perhaps around the story transitions, or major thresholds, and at the beginning and ending, but most importantly, remember the images, the sensory images of the story. This is what gives your story its power and awakens that most necessary and neglected faculty in your listeners: their imaginations. As storytellers we are facilitators of imagination, of images that can penetrate the soul in ways that are not literal but slantwise. Images are potent and they work where they are needed most, often unheeded in explicit ways by our rather too active heads. Phew! As storytellers we can set images free to work where they are needed—in our souls, in our hearts, in those ineffable places that need attention in our world which is far too busy trying to make everything effable (it won’t work—mystery will always out).

So, here are the steps that I suggest for story learning

  1. Hear a story or read a story (the former is preferable).
  2. Construct the story as seven or eight scenes. Truly, the fewer the better. The more active your imagination, the more you evoke the imaginations of your listeners. Learn to trust your storytelling abilities and they will trust you.
  3. Draw the storyboards or write the headlines for each scene.
  4. Practice telling your story in 1 minute, 2 minute and 3 minute versions to yourself, or preferably to someone else. *DO NOT take the text, the bones, or the storyboards with you.
  5. Tell your story in a full length version, again telling to someone else is ideal. *
  6. Take your story for a walk. Tell it to yourself in the great outdoors and convince the neighbours of your eccentricity. *
  7. Find occasions to tell the story. They will also find you.

Become a story researcher. Observe your experiences of telling and sharing stories. What happens when you tell it to two or three people? What about 100? How is it when you tell it to yourself? Storytelling is not about being a PERFORMER but allowing the wisdom of your story to be shared. Let go of worrying about what the audience think of you, just give them the gift of the story. It will be more than enough and you, I guarantee, will be perfect (in a wabi sabi way).


and here’s a PDF copy of storytelling as image evocation if you want to download it.


[1]See their book, Ashley Ramsden and Sue Hollingsworth, The Storyteller’s Way: sourcebook for inspired storytelling, Hawthorn Press, 2013

Photo by Jeff Arsenault.

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