Saturday, June 13, 2015

Story Saturday: The Seven Deadly Sins of Storytelling

I am working on a book (in Hungarian) on storytelling, and I have been doing a lot of thinking about the difference between 'good' and 'bad' storytelling. I believe that the difference is not between styles or traditions - those are up to everyone's taste - but rather in quality. There are certain things that can ruin a performance or a show, whatever the style is.
So, for Story Saturday I present to you my (completely subjective) list of Seven Deadly Sins of Storytelling (in no particular order):

Sloth: Having a small repertoire
No one wants to hear the same stories over and over again, even if they are amazing. A storyteller should be constantly expanding their repertoire, learning new things, discovering new tales. A small repertoire doesn't only bore an audience (and make getting repeat gigs a lot harder), but it also shows in the storyteller's attitude: One gets bored even with their favorite stories sometimes, and telling something you are bored with is never very entertaining.

Greed: A lack of integrity
Sometimes storytellers face choices that require integrity. These choices can be presented by event organizers (asking for stories the storyteller doesn't tell for ethical reasons, for example; or asking to tell for free instead of another storyteller who would charge them); other times they can be due to criticisms from fellow tellers. Whatever the case, integrity is just as important in a storyteller's work as in any other vocation.

Pride: Thinking it's about you
It is dangerous to believe that stories exist to make the storyteller look good on stage. Some tellers select stories not for their meaning or importance, or for liking them, but rather for their utility - how "flashy" they can be made, or how "sellable" they are. This usually comes with other questionable things, like bending stories out of shape, or a lack of respect for tales from other cultures. Especially when someone is telling traditional stories, storytelling requires a certain level of humility.

Wrath: Impatience with the audience
If you are a performing storyteller, you should be able to handle your audience. Of course it is partly up to the organizers to make sure the setting is quiet and organized - and even to gently remind parents of screaming toddles in an adult performance to please take them outside - but the storyteller can't push all responsibility on them. Being impatient with the audience if they are not engaged with the story only makes a situation worse. No one likes to be yelled or glared at from the stage.

Envy: Copying other storytellers
If this list was in order of seriousness, this would definitely be on top. Not respecting other storytellers' work shows a lack of respect for the profession of storytelling in general ("it's okay to steal it, they didn't work that hard on it anyway"). Even folktales can be a storyteller's own if they have developed their own signature telling and version. Taking anything - signature stories, original tales, workshop materials, etc. - without asking permission is rude, to say the least.

Gluttony: Taking stories that don't belong to you
Some stories, for various reasons, can be off limits. Maybe they are under copyright law, or maybe they belong to a sacred tradition that doesn't want them told out of context. Whatever the case, telling stories just because there is no "storytelling police" to stop you is not very ethical.

Lust: ?
Honestly I couldn't come up with a lust-related sin (other than "don't make kids at storytelling competitions tell bawdy stories" - I have seen that happen), so I am going to put one here that is important: Not telling well. All the passion and integrity in the world will not help you if you don't speak loud enough. It is definitely one of the deadly sins if the storyteller fails to perform as well as the stories require; if she/he mutters, stutters, drawls on forever, looses track of the plot, "umm's" and "err's", or, like, uses words that don't go with the story's mood, dude.

What other storytelling sins or mistakes do you think are important to mention?


  1. Great list. I think a lot of this could translate over to fiction writing and copycat tactics.

  2. Great post as usual Csenge. Your thoughts are always so cogent and spot on. As you said in the post, you were a bit "lost on lust" thought I have about a form of storyteller lust is this: the tendency to lust after other storytellers whose styles are intriguing and/or who are more well known.....and then to sacrifice ones own personal style and interest to do, stylisitcally, what others do instead of what you do. Kind of like the teen who lusts after inclusion in the popular sports clique when they are not sports oriented. I know you mentioned mimicry earlier and this is part of that I think...but I suspect the underlying rationale is different. Learning from others and their styles is one thing, one very important thing....and artistically sound when you apply new ideas it to your style and spin on the world. My concern is when one sacrifices his/her artistic self to lust after inclusion in a perceived in-crowd of storytelling. Because as you so wisely said, it is really not about us. 😊

    1. A very good point! Copying another teller's complete style is quite as bad as copying their repertoire :P

  3. Nicely done, Csenge! Could I offer for "lust" that desire, that craving, to "make it" without doing the work? Sure, there are those gigs and experiences that flirt with your ego and make you feel like you can take on the world! But for a longer-term, deeper relationship with stories and the storytelling world, you need to earn your chops. Thanks for your post! -- Ingrid

    1. Exactly :) No one gets into storytelling for riches and fame, but some people still act like it... :D

    2. Ingrid I think our two comments are sister-like :)

  4. Many of the points you said apply to writers too... if adapted to our medium.
    And I agree with you girls: lusting after someone else's style or themes or success it's bad for anyone and hurts us more then anyone else.

  5. Many of the points you said apply to writers too... if adapted to our medium.
    And I agree with you girls: lusting after someone else's style or themes or success it's bad for anyone and hurts us more then anyone else.