How to be a Riveting Storyteller

Written By: Barnali Sarkar

As a five-year-old kid, I used to wait for my mother to lie down next to me with a book or snuggle up beside her on those lazy winter afternoons and listen to her read out stories to me about kings and queens, faraway lands, fairies and pixies, and much more. And I also remember when my father was given the onerous task of reading aloud to me on those awfully boring nothing-much-to-do weekends when my mom would go visiting my ailing grandparents, how I would make an excuse and go outside to play with my friends or switch on the telly and immerse myself in cartoons rather than hearing him read to me. In hindsight, I don’t know which one of us was more thankful — my father for being relieved of the task of reading aloud to me or five-year-old me, who could do whatever I wished as long as I didn’t get hurt or indulge in any mischief. It’s not that I didn’t like to spend time with my father or he was a strict disciplinarian who would bark orders and ask me to sit still, it was just the way he read out the stories that either made me yawn and fall asleep or simply lose interest pretty soon.
I reckon parents usually go over their mental checklist of dimming the lights and waiting for their children to settle down before reading out to them. My mom was no different and followed these already known and widely practiced exercises. And of course she used soft toys or other objects lying around the house to create an atmosphere conducive to a particular story along with voice modulation to describe funny characters or bring out the emotions and feelings of the protagonists in the stories. By now I can almost picture the look on your face and even completely agree with you when you feel as to what’s new in that. But then what did my mom do differently that I loved listening to her while my father would be a disaster from the word “go”?
As we explored the highs and lows of various characters in the stories, my mom would hit the pause button and ask me about the choices that the characters made in a story or how they felt or behaved in a particular situation. For instance, she would ask me to guess “what do you think [a particular character in the story] would do next?” And it made me look at characters, settings, and emotionally charged events from a wider angle, and try to predict what might or could happen next. It made me an avid listener and at the same time, opened the window of my mind to delve deeper into the character and/or situations. In other words, I learned to use the Art of Predictability. This helped me later in my chosen profession as I could decide when to use it and how to build suspense in a story.
If I rooted and cheered for a particular character, occasionally my mother would ask me “do you know someone who has felt that way” or “how would you feel if something like this happened to you or someone did this to you?” As I now realize it helped her gauge my feelings and point my thoughts in the right direction. Or if she asked me “Would you react in the same way if you were in his/her place?” it not only made me think but also Helped Me Tell A Story. I don’t want to impart moral science lessons as it’s hardly my area of expertise, but I do understand now that she was trying in her way to foster feelings of compassion and empathy in my mind while at the same time, encouraging me to think independently.
My mom was certainly no Hitchcock. But she would love to build suspense and effectively Use Cliff-Hangers to add to the climax or leave me on tenterhooks as she paused briefly and asked questions like “What do you think will happen next?” It challenged my mind to come up with answers as I imagined myself in the shoes of the character and tried to think like him/her.
And when my mother would Use Model Connections and Help Join the Dots by weaving instances of fond memories or places I had visited, and events I had experienced as a story progressed, I would instantly be able to relate to the setting or understand what a character was feeling. For instance, if she read a story about beautiful landscapes and magnificent mountains, she would talk about the wonderful time we had when we went on a family holiday to Kashmir. Or if we were enjoying a story about a child who was nervous about moving to a new neighborhood, she would ask me whether I remembered how I felt when we shifted home a year ago?
Today when I look back upon those priceless childhood memories, I realize that when my mom read the stories with enthusiasm and showed her silly side by making funny faces or used her vocal expressions to add color to the descriptions of places or depict the emotional upheavals of the characters, it always took my mind on a holiday of its own. Although she had never read any works of the famed British writer Clive Staples Lewis, somewhere in her heart she put to practice his saying — “…a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.” Because when she read aloud to me, it seemed to reflect her joy and happiness of embarking on a journey along with me. And I guess that’s what made her style tick.

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