Words Matter

by brendanthebard

This is LONG.  I hope that it’ll worth be your while.  There is no TL;DR version apart from the title, sorry.

The past few posts have been pretty philosophical.  Seven bardic virtues, bardic deadly sins…

So let’s do something different, and get technical about storytelling.

(NB:  This assumes you’re familiar with the basic plot of “Gawain and the Green Knight.”  If not, look it up. It’s a classic Arthurian tale of Knightly Virtue.  I also draw on my story of the death of El Cid, which frankly comes from the movie with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren.  It’s worth watching.  Ergo, spoilers galore below.)

A quick overview

What follows comes out of a class I teach about a four-step process for taking textual source material and turning it into a compelling storytelling performance.

The four steps are:

  1. Decide which story to tell
  2. Do research
  3. Edit
  4. Rehearse,  rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse…

1 and 2 often change order and/or intertwine.

Sometimes you read a lot of stories (Research) in order to find one that tickles your fancy (Decide).  Other times you Decide to tell a particular story but need to do Research to flesh out the details.

Same with 3 and 4.

In period, a storytelling might last for hours (cf the Beowulf and Njallsaga events).  But in most SCA venues, you’ve got… five minutes?   The stories you find in source material often (*koff* darn near always!) need to be cut down to fit within the time constraints of a bardic competition or bardic circles.

So, for my telling of “Gawain and Green Knight,” (which runs 30+ minutes even after Editing) I cut out the hunting scenes and most of the bedroom banter in order to focus on the plot and character development.

But I leave in the description of the shield, because it symbolizes  the Knightly Virtues which are central to the story.  The unapologetic religious symbolism also helps create the “time travel” aspect of SCA storytelling: transporting the audience to another time and place.

As for Rehearsal, I don’t write a story and then memorize what I’ve written.  I just tell it to myself  over and over again until I’m satisfied that I’m moving things along, covering the essentials with enough-but-not-too-much embellishment.

As I rehearse, I try out different turns of phrase at different points of the story.  When I find something I like, I repeat it until my voice muscles can reliably produce those phonemes with minimal oversight.

Which leads us to the point of this essay:  Words matter.

Point One:  Speak Easy

When you speak or sing, muscles in your face and throat form the sounds.  As with anything involving muscle movement, repetition equals reliability.  Serving a tennis ball, shooting an arrow, throwing a sword blow,  rattling off “When tweedle beetles battle,” riding a bike – the principle is the same: Do it over and over until you don’t have to think about it.

There’s a reason the old epic tales used rhyme and alliteration – the muscle movements are repetitive.  That makes things easy.  Conversely, tongue-twisters deliberately twist similar-sounding but differently-muscled phonemes.  Prove this to yourself:  Say each of these VERY slowly into a mirror, paying attention to your face muscles:

  1. “Harsh that hearing for Houston the Raven”* – pretty easy, right?
  2. “She sells sea shells by the sea shore” – that back and forth between “s” and “sh” is tricky, right?

So when you’re practicing a story, choose phrases that roll off the tongue – strings of words that are easy to say.  Alliteration and vowel-rhyme are your friend!  Say these out loud, slowly, paying attention to how your mouth muscles move:

  1. “And no dry eye saw his going.”
  2. “They defeated King Alfonso at the Battle of al-Fallaqa, where the fields were slick with blood.”

    These aren’t tongue-twisters.  That’s the point.

Point Two: Hit Home

Your words need to have an impact on the listener.  Listener, not reader. There’s a huge difference.

When you’re writing text to be read from the page, you know that the reader can stop and go back to re-read if they missed something.  Storytelling is different.  It’s live, in real-time.  There’s no pause-rewind-replay.

You not only have to be clear at every moment about what’s happening to whom, but you need to also choose your words to maximize the impact at that moment, even if you’re just introducing characters or moving the plot along.

For my El Cid story, I needed to introduce the hero’s wife, a princess in time of war who made The Thing in the story Happen.  Immediate problem:  The word “princess” instantly summons Disney in the listener’s mind!

We may play at being medieval folks, but in truth we’re modern.  As a performer, you have to accept and deal with that.  Indeed, it’s your task (and privilege) to draw them back in time.

El Cid’s wife is NO Disney princess!  So I can’t use the word, “princess.”  How about, “a king’s daughter”?  Might work.  But say it out loud a few times.  “DAUghtTerrr…”  It falls off into nothing.  Remember, you have listeners, not readers.

Now turn the words around.  Instead of “a king’s daughter,” you have, “daughter of a king.”  Say that out loud. Several times.  While stamping your foot in a steady beat on time to the words.

“DAUGH-TER… of-a KING.”  BUM-bum… buhbuh BUM!  That’s a march beat – a war drum!  Can you imagine a hall full of armored warriors shouting this?  “DAUGH-TER… of-a KING! DAUGH-TER… of-a KING!! DAUGH-TER… of-a KING!!!! YYYEEEAAAAAGGGHHHH!!!”

Beats “she was a princess” by a long shot, eh?

So in  my telling, I introduce her as, “Jimena, the beautiful… Jimena, daughter of a king.”  She is NOT the “beautiful daughter” of a king!!!  She’s NO Disney princess.  She is the daughter of a king,  who just happens to be easy on the eyes.

(Side note: Princesses being beautiful is expected in stories.  After all, what prince marries to have kids who look like him?  Yes, this is horribly sexist by modern standards. But just dropping the casual expectation can jar a modern, “woke,” audience back in time.)  Don’t stress it or make a big deal out of it, though.

As I was working up the El Cid story I realized that I could re-use that bit in the build-up to the climax:

“Jimena, the beautiful… Jimena, the wise… Jimena, daughter of a king, widow of a warlord, gave orders….”

Say that out loud, with accelerando and crescendo (musical terms come in handy with storytelling).  Note the repetition and especially the open vowels: “wid-Ow… Of A wAr-lOrd… gAve Orders.”

The vowel-rhyme reinforces the war drum in the rhythm.

Consonants matter, too. 

Read it out loud: “… who defeated King Alfonso at the Battle of al-Fallaqa, where the fields were slick with blood.”  (The q is a gutteral k sound)

There’s some soft initial-sound alliteration.  “deFeated king alFonzo at the battle of al-Fallaqa, where the Fields were..” That’s low-hanging fruit.  We already covered that.  Easy stuff.  Go deeper…

The fields were “slick.”  Not “slippery,” but “slick.”

“Slippery” is funny, right?   It’s a banana peel, a slapstick pratfall.  A fish getting away.

“Slick,” though, has hard, sharp edges.  It’s a hard stop.  “Slick” is dangerous.  It’ll hurt you.

Likewise, “The cruel sharp edge glittered in the flickering firelight,” (describing the Green Knight’s axe) has lots of sharp, dangerous edges.  Even the F sounds are ominous.

Contrast that with, “…her unbound hair and loose gown, glimmering in the dawnlight’s gleam…”

“Glittering,” surrounded by so many sharp-edged consonants, is dangerous.  But “glimmering in the dawnlight” is glamorous and downright sexy.

Choose words that make an impact on the listener.

Point Three:  Loop Back Around

Reuse phrases and forms. Remember that you’re playing to the ear – just as a song repeats a chorus, a story can repeat rhythms and phrases that help the listener keep track of what’s going on – or what might happen next.

This is especially important in children’s stories.  Think “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” (“Klopp, klopp, klopp…”) or “The Three Little Pigs” (“I’ll huff and I’ll puff…”).

Repetition helps the audience predict where things are going.

The example noted above:  “Jimena, the beautiful, daughter of a king,”  introduced the character.  The build-up to the climax goes like this: “Jimena, the beautiful… Jimena, daughter of a king, widow of a warlord, gave orders…” it repeats the war=drum rhythm.

While working up “Gawain ,” I had the Green Knight (in Arthur’s hall) sneer at Gawain’s oath, “On my honor as a knight!” with, “Certainly, that is small enough surety, but if it must suffice, it shall suffice.” (Lots of alliteration, right?)

Many weeks later, I’m bashing out the bedroom banter on the first morning of the three hunts. Lady Bertilak releases Gawain from being her “hostage” on condition that he give her “…some small token of affection, a kiss perhaps?”  He kisses her “chastely on the cheek, as a brother might his sister.”  (Note how easy “brOTH-er might-his-SIS-ter” is to say?)

And then The Muse strikes:  “The lady sighs, ‘Ah, certainly that is small enough surety.  But if it must suffice, it shall suffice.’ And she skipped lightly out of the room.”

Bam!  Thank you, Muse.  That’s golden.  I love to watch the audience’s reaction at that part.  It’s fun to see the facial expressions: “Wait, where have I heard that before? Whoah… whut???”

When you’re working up a story (Edit / Rehearse), don’t be afraid to re-use stuff if it impacts the listener.

Point Four: Who Said What?

When a story involves several characters, it can be helpful to cast them in your mind.  If you’re able to do different voices, that’s a bonus.

So with “Gawain,” the title character is played in my head by Nigel Terry (Prince John  in “The Lion in Winter”) as the young Arthur (“Excalibur”).  Ardent, headstrong, with a wee Irish lilt (Gawain *was* the son of King Lot of Orkney).

Arthur is Generic Noble Brit.  Launcelot’s one line is John Cleese’s taunting Frenchman.

The Green Knight is Geoffrey Rush as the sneering Capt. Barbossa in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” “I’m disinclined to acquiesce to your request. Means no.”

Lord Bertilak (the GK minus the enchantment) is the same gravelly mid-lower-class Brit accent, dropped a bit, with Barbossa’s sneer replaced by loud laughter and “hail good fellow well met!” bon-homie.

The Lady Bertilak is a husky, sexy contralto – mostly Marilyn Monroe. “Good morning, Sir Gawain…”  (“JFK happy birthday Mr President”)  delivered in a voice that makes 18yo males squirm. (I’ve seen it, though it’s a coin toss as to whether That Voice is every young man’s fantasy whispered in his ear or whether it’s TOO FREEKIN WEIRD for THAT voice to come out of my wrinkled, white-bearded face…)

The anonymous squire who leads Gawain to “the sinister path,” his fateful appointment with the Green Knight.  What better, more faithful squire, has there ever been (sorry, Sancho and Patsy) than Samwise Gamgee?

The voice… is tricksy, Precious!  We’ve been performing for what seems like hours, we has.  Our throat, it burns! But we has to do it, doesn’t we, Precious?  For the sake of the audience…

So I summon Nigel, but I mentally grab a mouthful of gravel and half-swallow it. Mentally.  It works, I think, most of the time.

But maybe you can’t do impressions.  So use what theater folk call “blocking” – who is standing where, looking in which direction?  Gawain talking to the Green Knight is always looking up and to the right.  The Green Knight always looks down and to the left (sinister).  And so forth.

Point Five:  Don’t be afraid to change things

After telling “Gawain” few times I switched things up a bit to make a bigger impact.

In the description of the shield I put the last point of the star as “The Five Joys of Mary,” and added in this bit which made up out of whole cloth, because I knew I was playing to a modern audience:

“The fifth point represents the Five Joys of Mary, Queen of Heaven, Mother of God, She whose image was painted on the inside of Gawain’s shield, whereupon he could gaze and draw courage when e’er he felt afraid. *pause*  I see confusion in your eyes.  Think it you strange that a hero should feel fear?  Nay, ’tis not so.

*lean forward*

“Only a FOOL knows not fear.  The hero! Takes his fear in hand.  Examines it from every angle.  Peruses each page, until he Knows His Fear In Full.

And then he sets it behind him *mime action* To Do The Thing That Must Be Done.”

Our deployed troops were taking a lot of casualties at the time I rewrote that bit.  It took me MANY repetitions to get through that part without losing it.  But it really ends the scene with a bang.

The next line is,  “And so, armed and armored as no knight before or since, Gawain set the gates of Camelot behind him.  And no dry eye saw his going.”

At that point I pause and take a drink of water.  And so shall I now.


*  “The Death Lay of Bowie Gizzardsbane” from “Silverlock” by John Myers Myers

Un-cited quotes are either by the author or (“She sells sea shells”) public domain