The words “once upon a time” bring back wonderful stories from my childhood. Cinderella struggles with a cruel stepmother and stepsisters and wins a handsome prince. Little Red Riding Hood faces the dangers of the forest when she encounters the wolf. Hansel and Gretel overcome the horrible witch and end up
with her treasure. The ugly duckling deals with an awkward adolescence, learns acceptance, and turns into a beautiful swan.
October 27th is National Tell a Story Day in the United States. Folktales and fairy tales give us pleasant entertainment, sometimes even shocking or scary moments. Some are passed down in writing. Some in the oral tradition. We’ve all heard of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm. But where did the Brothers Grimm get their stories? What are the origins of the folktales you heard as a child? And why did people preserve the art of storytelling?
Long before the written word, people related events and significant moments through stories. Think of the caveman. “You’ll never guess what Zug did. He waited so long I thought he was a goner, but at the last moment he hurled his spear right between the mammoth’s eyes. It was amazing.” The speech was probably a series of grunts, but so begins the tale of Zug and the mammoth, with each “telling” adding little touches or exaggerations so that Zug and the mammoth became bigger and stronger until the story resembled Hercules and the Twelve Labors.
If your ancestors come from Norway you heard about the Vikings. If you hailed from Ireland you had faeries and leprechauns. The Greek and Roman tales are full of gods and monsters. Every culture and country has its own folktales. The Brothers Grimm studied the history of the Germanic language and collected samples of German folk literature, and hence Grimm’s fairy tales were born.
Oral storytelling shares many similarities with written storytelling. Ira Glass (from the NPR show “This American Life”) says that good stories begin with an anecdote (a sequence of actions – this happened, then this,) followed by a moment of reflection (the point of the story). Your anecdote should raise questions. In the above example of Zug, the storyteller could describe the scenery, elaborate how huge the mammoths are in comparison with the hunters, talk about how difficult it is to kill one. He might emphasize that Zug had only one spear or that the last time Zug hunted mammoth he hurt his leg and now he can’t run. You build the tension to create suspense, just as you do in writing.
Mr. Glass points out how difficult it is to find a good story to tell. Not all stories are worthwhile. If Zug was the first hunter on the scene and he threw his spear and missed, that’s not very exciting. The storyteller has to be willing to discard what doesn’t work, be willing to “fail” in order to find the one that feels right. The same applies to written stories. When inspiration comes magical words pour forth. You feel blessed by the gods. Your heart is full and your soul is moved. But if that magic doesn’t move your story along and/or create more tension (aka conflict), then you have to be willing to cut it out and move on.
In Edinburgh, Scotland, October is the month for the International Storytelling Festival. For 10 days you can listen to spellbinding stories, learn how to tell stories and how to use props, discover the origins of your favorite folktales (from Norway, Ireland, Britain, Poland, Russia, and more), take a city tour, and browse a museum. Come away enriched, enthused, and enchanted.
Whether you speak your stories or write them, folktales and fairy tales have been with us for thousands of years. Handed down from generation to generation, these tales of courage, hardship, determination, and victory teach us how to battle the problems of life. Think of all the romance books and movies with the Cinderella theme or the good vs. evil theme from Snow White that carried over into comic books and Harry Potter. What stories from your culture influence your writing? What folk tale themes are repeated in your stories?
Dust off those old fairy tales and see what repeating themes come up. If you’re writing romance, your heroine is probably looking for her Prince Charming. If you’re writing about someone who doesn’t fit in, think of the ugly duckling. Start with an anecdote, add in a moment of reflection, build the tension, and use the theme to tie everything together.
Let me know how your “Once upon a time” turns out.