A Masterful Book
by a Master Storyteller
"Elizabeth listens as a storytelling midwife who is kind to both me and my fledgling story. She tells me what is working in my story and what is not. She makes sure that I am layering my story to draw my listener into my story via: dialog; sensory images; an emotional arc for my listeners to travel - the relationships between characters - and the subtext - the unsaid information that I want people to go away with. She offers valuable suggestions for improvements. I always leave a coaching session knowing that my story will be much better the next time I tell it."
--Kate Dudding, storyteller and event organizer
"To think that Elizabeth Ellis' voice could be even more powerful in print than in performance is unimaginable, but here she is in this inspiring and insightful book. She teaches us with humor and generosity, asking that we dig deeper – layer after layer - until we come to love and understand the characters we've created. It's hard work! but our stories are stronger and so are we. Thank you for this volume, Elizabeth."
--Jane Stenson, storyteller, author, educator
"PLOT is a word everyone has heard but few can explain. It is so much more than “a beginning, a middle, and an end” in a story – as textbooks often define it. Elizabeth Ellis, a master storyteller and teacher, whose own life is an ongoing journey from plot to narrative, knows better than anyone how to describe the elements of plot and demonstrate how they can be crafted into meaningful stories. I look forward to using this long-awaited book as required reading for my students."
--Barbara McBride-Smith, storyteller, librarian, and instructor at Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, OK
Photos by Paul Porter
Paperback • $12.00 • 978-1-935166-81-8
156 Pages @ 6” x 9”
Ebook • $9.60 • 978-1-935166-82-
An Essay from Elizabeth Ellis,
grande dame of the American storytelling movement:
In the last thirty years I have traveled the length and breath of America (and some other places, too) telling stories and trying to help other people become more effective story-writers and storytellers. I love to tell stories. In fact, I would rather tell stories than eat when I’m hungry. But, the plain truth is that no matter how much pleasure I take from telling stories myself, nothing can compare with the joy of helping someone else become a stronger and more proficient story-crafter.
Traveling around I get to hear a lot of less experienced tellers. I would sometimes think, “There is a good story there. Maybe there’s a great story. It is just waiting to be developed, that’s all!” It is like bread that got taken out of the oven too soon. It never really had a chance to rise.
Maybe you have found yourself in the same situation. You hear a teller sharing their work and think, Well, that was an interesting anecdote, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a story. Surely a story has more meaning than that.
Or maybe you’ve sat through a presentation of historical material, fighting to keep your eyes open, because the speaker droned on until you found yourself not caring about what was being presented. You just wanted it to be over, so you could go home and put on your pajamas, because sleeping in your bed is so much more comfortable than pretending not to be sleeping in a chair in a public place.
Or maybe you were seated in a pew when your head began to droop. And your last conscious thought before you descended into full blown, head back, mouth open, humiliating snoring was, The stories in this holy book couldn’t possibly have started out this boring. If they had been, no one would have bothered to write them down. Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.
All of us have experienced these kinds of situations as listeners. Our real fear is that we will be in the role of presenters in these situations. I understand your concern. I have the same fears. Yes, really. I have spent a lot of time sharpening my skills in order to prevent my listeners from having that reaction. I feel I have developed some story building skills that could be useful to you and help you develop stories that are both meaningful and memorable.
I have talked to lots of people. Many of them were willing to share their story crafting process with me. It often went something like this: they would sit at the computer and stare at the blank page for extended periods of time. Then they would agonize over writing out their story word for word. Next, they would devote hours to memorizing what they had written. Then they would get up in front of a group of people and try to share the story without having it sound like they had memorized it.
What a lot of work! It makes my head hurt just to think about it. The thing that makes the pain worse is the realization that they weren’t getting much of a response after all that effort. It hardly seems fair.
Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with writing down a story. I’ve been known to do it myself from time to time. The problem from my point of view is folks tend to begin in the middle of the process by sitting down at the computer. They really aren’t yet ready to write out the story. There is a whole set of pre-writing exercises that they could do before attempting to capture the story on paper that would lay a strong and effective foundation for more engaging story.
A few years back I read a quote at the bottom of an email from a friend. It said,
“The term ‘narrative’ is often confused with the term ‘plot’, but they’re not the same thing. If I tell you that the king died, and then the queen died, that’s not narrative; that’s plot. But, if I tell you that the king died and then the queen died of a broken heart, that’s narrative.”
I was really struck by the quote. I kept thinking of it over and over. It was attributed to Vladimir Nabokov. I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. In workshops and master classes, I began to develop ways to help get from plot to meaningful narrative.
I began to think about my own process for story crafting. I could easily identify all the aspects of story that I examine when creating a tale or crafting one for telling. I started to create exercises that would be helpful in developing a deeper level of storying. I wanted to test them and see if the process was useful for people. Workshops seemed the obvious way to test drive the material.
In the first workshop, I used the quote that had been the foundation of my thinking about this new process: how to get from plot to narrative. As soon as I spoke it to the group, one of the participants said, “Oh, that’s a famous quote from E.M. Forster.”
Forster? No, that’s a quote from Nabokov! It’s got to be! In my search to find the true source of the quote, not only did I find out it wasn’t from Nabokov, I discovered it wasn’t even quoted correctly. Life sure is a funny old dog!
It turns out what Forster really said is,
“Let us define plot. We have defined story as a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died, and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot. The time sequence is preserved, the sense of causality overshadows it.”
I read the real quote from Forster several times, but what he really said did not move me nearly as deeply as the original misquote with which I had started. I found myself waking up in the middle of the night, realizing I had been dreaming about how to move a story from plot to narrative.
I came to think the quote was so well known and so often quoted, it entered into the folk process. Every writer or storyteller who quoted it changed it to fit their own needs and beliefs. Riffing on Forster’s original quote, people had molded it into something that met their needs. Perhaps what they had developed worked better than the original quote.
I stopped caring about who said what or how accurate the quote might be. I decided to continue working on developing experiences that could help tellers and writers move through the layers to get from simple plot to compelling narrative.
So, my definitions for this book are simple and direct. Plot is what happens in the story. Narrative is why the story matters. . . .