A shaggy dog story by Tristan Bayliss
Stories are the best way to entertain the kids around a camp fire, and they need to be adaptably long, shaggy, and with a structure that makes them easy to remember.
Last week, rafting and camping on the side of the Mohaka river, our storyteller had a group of kids enraptured by The Ballard of Henry Tidwell, the last man to suffer the death penalty in New Zealand. (Only he wasn’t, I found out later.)
I asked him how he did it and here is his advice.
When I tell a very long shaggy dog story, people ask how it is possible to remember so many details, and often dismiss it as impossible for themselves. The truth is, if you follow these few simple tips, anyone can (and should) tell a long and complex story to entertain friends and family around those campfires or on long trips. For the purposes of explanation I have included a very long story, The Ballard of Henry Tidswell, a version of which was told recently on a camping trip.
The shaggy dog story starts with the ending, with an idea of a pun, or a joke. It doesn’t have to be uproarious, as the whole point of this sort of story is the journey to get there. In some ways, an ending that makes your audience groan rather than laugh is a good result. In this example it started with an old joke around the ambiguous meanings of the term ‘conductor’.
This is the most important rule for successfully telling a longer story. This is the skeleton that you hang the story on, and what makes the whole thing possible to remember and achieve. The structures can be familiar pictures or simple sequences, with a finite pattern or infinitely expandable. The example story is full of different structures, some obvious, some less:
- Henry keeps one penny for each shilling, then 2, then 3 etc. For the purposes of this story, it finished at 4, but could easily have expanded to 12
- The time between Mary’s spending sprees halves each time, first 2 months, then 1 month, 2 weeks, 1 week etc. Also the cost of each purchase rises; first a shilling a week, then 2, then 3 etc. These structures build tension by creating the sense of rapidly approaching disaster
- Each time Mary makes a deal, she gets a new dress of a different colour, and the sequence is red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Not only is it easy to remember the rainbow, but the darkening end of the spectrum matches the story as it darkens towards the end
This technique is what enables you to include the richness of detail which makes a good story. It requires developing a pictorial thinking and memory, which is far richer and more effective than a language or conceptual one. Make a visual picture of each scene, and when it comes to that point in the story, simply recall the picture in your mind’s eye and describe what you see. It will be different each time as you forget some things and include others, but it will be more alive and the amount of detail possible will be limitless. Also you can include visual themes that are connected to the structures, which aid the memory.
In this story, for example, the things Mary purchases are associated with the colour of her dress, e.g red for Rosie the house help, orange for the copper and brass washing machine, yellow for the yellow curtains and furniture etc.
This also is related to the structures, as you naturally have repeated scenes and dialogues, but if you can focus on a particular catchphrase and repeat this at opportune moments, this is like a little homecoming within the story and can bring great delight to your listeners, especially children. If done well, you can merely suggest the line and the audience will finish it for you. In the example, we have the repetition of “because she was clever with her hands” which has been given subtle variations for the benefit of an older audience. Also the punchline itself has been used as a catchphrase in this story, which rather than lessening its impact as an ending, enhances it, for the listeners have to think twice before realizing it now has a new meaning.
These are what bring the humour and life to a story. Give your characters a back story (even if you don’t relate it, but just for your own sake to bring the character alive). Use mannerisms, accents, speech impediments, anything that makes them interesting. The only caution I would place on this is to leave your main protagonist quite plain, as it can be tiring for an audience to listen to a constant put-on voice, and also it allows their imagination to inhabit the character easier if it remains slightly amorphous.
Lastly, eloquence is not something you are either born with or without. It requires practice to develop, and then constant practice to maintain. Take whatever opportunities you have, the best practice being, of course, telling bedtime stories to your children. Start by memorizing traditional folk tales or fairy tales (practise using your pictorial memory) and telling these without the book there (perhaps by candlelight). This will build up a rich store of phrases, characters and story archetypes which you can use in your own made-up stories later.