God’s Message came to Ezekiel: “Son of man, make a riddle for the house of Israel. Tell them a story…” Ezekiel 17:1
I mentioned the centrality of storytelling in my teaching in yesterday’s post. I am often asked to suggest books on storytelling for people interested in learning more. I rarely have a good response. I learned to tell stories from Mark Ellwood, my high school history teacher. I learned more as an improviser from The Second City and The Groundlings. I learned about story as a kid from the wisdom of Joseph Campbell as translated to me via the imagination of George Lucas in the Star Wars Trilogy.
But I’ve learned the most about storytelling by…
It’s kind of like driving or eating sushi. You just get used to it and then you are good at it.
Yesterday I wrote about how I prepare as a public speaker. Someone in response asked me to write about how I specifically prepare to tell a Bible story. Again, for me it is very instinctive. I’ll give it my best shot.
My Storytelling Preparation Process:
1. Read the story.
2. Study the historical context.
This is basic preacher stuff. I have a few favorite commentaries, websites, etc. I will be looking for things unique to the setting of the story. What city is it in? What time of year? What customs are in play that I might overlook at first glance? Is the author calling back to previous Scripture? All that kind of stuff. Luckily, I have been at it long enough to just remember a lot of these things.
3. Watch it as a movie in my imagination.
Study time is over. Time to stare at the wall. I simply watch the movie of the story in my head. I make sure to use all of my senses. How does it sound, smell, taste, feel?
4. Read it again.
I want to make sure my movie hasn’t evolved too far from the original text. I’m also looking to see if I have left out any significant beats or lines of dialogue.
5. Hit play on the movie again.
Repeat step #3 after any corrections from #4.
6. Now switch to a personal POV (point of view).
Originally I watch the movie as if from a camera, not through the eyes of any particular character. In this stage I will inhabit the eyes of one of the characters. Here I move from thinking like a director to thinking like an actor. I wil continue this exercise until I exhaust the characters.
For instance, in the story I recently wrote about – the woman caught in adultery in John 8 – I first see the story through a director’s POV. Then I watch it happen through Jesus’ eyes. Then the woman. Then the Pharisees. Then one of Jesus’ followers.
7. Reflect on the POV(s) that surprised me most.
There are always surprises. I just take time notice them and ponder why they were surprising to me. Even if I have told the story 100 times, something new will usually appear.
8. With the different POVs in mind, I will watch the story again through the camera (director view).
9. I speak the story outloud.
All I am doing is watching the movie in slow-motion, spitting out as many details as I can. In essence, I am working as camera and projector (director and actors) simultaneously.
10. Tell the story to others.
The public telling is the same as the private telling except that I notice any crowd reactions that are signals. (A big laugh or silent hush, for instance, tells me something about what POV the crowd is most connected with. I will tend to favor that POV.) I always tell the story as a narrator in third person because it lets me jump in and out of director/actor mode at any moment.
Maybe the most important thing is that I never memorize words. I memorize images from various POVs.
In the moment I am free to use any words I can to describe what I am seeing in my mind.
This process may take you longer at first, but I can do the first 9 steps in about 30 minutes. I have found that if I do this once for a live audience, it stays with me for several years. All I have to do is read the story a few times and I can tell the story without much more preparation. For the 30 or so stories I have told dozens of times, I don’t really have to prepare at all. I know the movie, so I can just hit play. I do try to repeat this process for the old favorites as well because something hidden is always wanting to be found.
These stories exist in my mind now as memories. It is easy to tell the story of something we actually experienced. We just remember it and tell people what we see. That’s all I do. I just make imaginary memories.
If you are a storyteller or public speaker, I’d love to know if this was helpful to you…especially since I’ve never really tried to explain it before.
What do you think? Will you use any of this the next time you tell a story?