Neil Mach

Author – Fantasy Realism

The storyteller as a hero

Let me tell you a secret … my wife can’t tell a funny story…

It’s not that she doesn’t try, you understand? But she gets bogged down in the details. For example, is it three men or four who walked into a pub? Was one man Scottish or was he only raised in Scotland, yet born elsewhere? Did they really go to a pub… or was it a bar or a club? Why were there only three? How did they meet?

And then there’s the punchline…

Most of the time, my wife forgets the punchline completely. But on the rare occasions that she does manage to remember it, she tells it in exactly the same tone that she had used before for all the sad intricacies of the joke. So listeners often miss the punchline entirely. Not that it matters, though, because by then most of her listeners will have lost interest in the funny story and are no longer actively listening. Instead, they check their phones and think about what they will have for dinner.

You can’t tell a story… that’s what I tell my wife.

She says, right back, “But, oh yeah, you can… can’t you?” And we all know what she means by that, don’t we, right? She means I’m a liar. Because that’s what “telling stories” means in our culture. For our society, telling stories means “telling lies.”

It’s no wonder people distrust journalists…

My “other” job (when I’m not writing fiction) is working as a “journalist” (I admit I’m a lightweight one. On my press pass it says “Entertainment” so you can guess I’m quite insignificant though I like to think I make a marginal difference in the world.) But, yeah, I write stories for magazines. My stories are sometimes published in newspapers too. And those papers become chip wrappers. Often they become chip wrappers the very next day. Sometimes people believe my stories. Most often, they do not. That’s fine. As long as they’ve been entertained by them…

native storyteller

I once went to one of those medieval fairs that they organize in historical places (like Castles or National Trust gardens) — the one I attended was set in a Royal Park. I enjoyed the pork roast, I really enjoyed the mead served by buxom wenches, and I very much enjoyed watching the folk dances. In a corner of a barn I found a large man with luscious, rosy cheeks and a long ragged beard. He sat on a pile of hay in front of a smoking fire. So I asked the man: “What do you do?

I am a storyteller,” he told me, with a gummy smile. He ran his stained fingers through his beard. “Storytelling is the oldest of all professions,” he declared, with confidence.

I looked at this guy and thought: well, someone had to find the sticks to make that fire, right? Someone had to produce the hay that you are sitting on. Someone had to spin the thread that made all those clothes that cover your limbs. I guess an entire army of planters, growers, and gardeners had to work hard all year to fill that big belly. But I didn’t say anything about those professions (which I thought were probably older) because I didn’t want to offend him. So instead I smiled and allowed him to tell me a story. And his story was so good that I forgot all about his claim to be a representative of the oldest of all professions.

But this week I came up with a definition for storytelling that makes sense of my wife’s desperate inability to tell a joke, while at the same time acknowledging the fat man’s claim that storytelling is the world’s oldest profession.

Here is my definition of storytelling:

“Storytelling is the urge to organize the boring randomness of life and all its mundanity, and to spin it (to take away the uncertainty & abstractness) and retell it to make things more entertaining.”

— Author Neil Mach

I like this definition: it admits life is dull. It admits life throws up randomness. It admits life is filled with unexpected detail. It admits storytellers have an urge to tell tales.

My definition also suggests that a good storyteller will discard randomness & monotony and replace those things with conflict, resolution, a beginning and an end. In other words, a storyteller will make a good story out of what they’ve got! This means storytellers are craftspeople too! Just like potters, weavers, tinsmiths and woodworkers — the storytellers make the best out of the odds-and-ends they find around them…

Are storytellers liars? Erm, no not really. Storytellers are not telling the whole truth (I grant you) because the whole truth is filled with boring bits of detail and randomness. So storytellers select a truth: they select the best bits of truth and they use those select cuts for their valuable craft-work.

Yes, I think, storytellers are admirable crafters…

I’d love to hear your thoughts about storytelling Do you have more tips? Tweet @neilmach

Words: @neilmach July 2021 ©

Neil Mach is the author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast

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