What’s important in a tale?

By Limor Shiponi

G looked for a tool to help him discern the important stuff in Rapunzel, so he can keep the essence while telling it in his own words. He told the story to many people throughout the week but when he arrived to our lesson, he was not happy with the results. He told me the story and although fluent, it sounded flat, technical.

I offered him a tool: argue or rationalize the necessity of each word in the written tale. Leave out explaining the syntax; I want to know about the rest. Since it is a folktale, the answer cannot be “because that is how the author wanted it”.

(Rapunzel, translated by D. L. Ashliman)

Once upon a time there was a man and a woman who had long, but to no avail, wished for a child.

“Once upon a time” marks the beginning of a tale. There is no place marker; hence, it is not important. “…a man and a woman” meaning ordinary people. “…had long, but to no avail, wished for a child” so now we know the deep kick-start for the story and it is sustained. Action will appear.

Finally the woman came to believe that the good Lord would fulfill her wish.

“Finally” is a definite time marker. It cuts the “had long”. “…came to believe” tells us the wishing transformed into something else, more solid you could say. “…the good Lord” is a common address for such wishes.

Through the small rear window of these people’s house they could see into a splendid garden that was filled with the most beautiful flowers and herbs.

The words move us through the narrative to look exactly at what we need to see and only there: the small rear window of their house, splendid garden, what it looks like. This is necessary information and nothing else.

The garden was surrounded by a high wall, and no one dared enter, because it belonged to a sorceress who possessed great power and was feared by everyone.

A barrier erects and we hear what it is about, in a very definite way. Another character appears and we know she will be important through the story. We’ve heard about the good Lord, now a sorceress. This makes you wonder what she is here for and why there are two ‘mighty’ forces. It’s a little spooky.

One day the woman was standing at this window, and she saw a bed planted with the most beautiful rapunzel.

“One day” means – action. The story will start rolling now, after we have all the background. We are invited to look at the garden again through “this window” marking familiarity. Only now, the resolution is different, more specific. “What’s rapunzel?” you might ask yourself. Something new is introduced and you wonder what for. The words keep up your attention.

It looked so fresh and green that she longed for some.

It sounds really good, “fresh and green”. Is it something you look at or eat?

It was her greatest desire to eat some of the rapunzel. This desire increased with every day, and not knowing how to get any, she became miserably ill.

Aha, it’s something you eat. There is a buildup of desire. It’s a little too short in the text, reaching “miserably ill” quite fast. Hence, the teller needs to build it starting on an earlier sentence. I think from “fresh and green”.

Her husband was frightened, and asked her, “What ails you, dear wife?”

This explains the word “ill”. The husband would not be “frightened” if he didn’t see a dramatic change, if she was only, say, a little sad.

G continued through the text, arguing and rationalizing the necessity of each word in the written tale. Upon concluding the exercise, he looked a little stunned. “Except for ‘as fine as spun gold’ I can’t find anything unnecessary,” he said. “But then,” he added, “how can I tell it in my own words?”

Great question. To be continued…

12 thoughts on “What’s important in a tale?”

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  3. Great! I admire the time you take and the guts to explain some practivcal theory in a time when clients demand ‘quick’ work. It (very positively) reminds me of one of my lighthouses in storytelling, Italo Calvino and his wonderful analysis of literature and storytelling: ‘Six memos for the next millennium’. Themes like ‘lightness’, ‘quickness’, ‘exactitude’, ‘visibility’ and ‘multiplicity’… One of my favourites is the simple example he gives on detail (when is it necessary and when not): “The king was very ill”. One already ‘sees’ the king in detail and imagine the most terrible illness you know in just five words… It’s the yet unknown details we should elaborate on (and make them exciting).

    1. Hi Peter, thanks for paying a visit. I hear Calvino’s “the king was very ill” as a way to say “Things went terribly wrong. This is how it happened…” and off goes a story 🙂

      1. Of course it goes off! I agree and so would Calvino! The passage I mentioned was about acceleration (no detail required and or jumping to future etc) and slowing down (detail and/or explanation/information etc) when necessary. Do you know the six memos?

          1. Fell in love after having read ‘Invisible cities’, such a rich and layered narrative, which I re-read once in a while. After that I started collecting his books and of course, the memos. He was also known as an explorer, collector and admirer of Italian folk stories.

  4. Pingback: Italo Calvino | Narratives | Limor's Storytelling Agora

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