How I prepare a story to tell.


I’m quite delighted that the event that I am doing next Wednesday with my good friend Chris Roberts, More Fright By Rail,  was in the Evening Standard what’s on column yesterday. It’s nearly sold out but if you hurry you can book from this page link.

I make my living by singing songs & playing my guitar & also by storytelling.

Next Wednesday I will be telling the Dickens classic tale ‘The Signalman’


I first became aware of the story through the classic 1976 BBC adaptation starring Denholm Elliott. I thoroughly recommend the BBC ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ series; mostly M.R. James adaptations but with a few exceptions like this chilling tale.

The Dickens short story was published in 1876 & comes in at about 15 pages. It is brilliant. If you like ghost stories, treat yourself.

The process of taking a piece of literature & bringing into the more informal craft of storytelling has been an interesting one. I started in June by reading the tale 3 times a week for a month to get a feel for the story. I also read around the subject. The BFI DVD release of Signalman had a great essay by Matthew Sweet which gives excellent background to the tale. It gives a context to Dickens’ work at the time & some sensitive analysis. Having a context to tell into, a deeper understanding of the world of the story gives me confidence when working with material like this.

The story of the Signalman has a lot of dialogue in it. Over July & August, in between jobs, I transcribed the dialogue from the tale & then in September I filleted out the key exchanges to work with & the nailed the key plot points. I also had a good idea of the underlying implicit feelings & meanings I wanted to communicate.

When preparing stories to tell I have a short attention span & can only work in bursts of an hour or so per day before I lose momentum so starting well in advance of the date is key.

In October I started rehearsing; speaking into a recorder. I need some kind of audience to work to even if it is just a microphone. The first few performances are rubbish, but that’s really useful. I like mistakes; if you can find them all out in rehearsal  you won’t make them in performance. Once all the iterations of failure have been identified I stand a good chance of telling a good tale.

Now with a few days to go I have found a few trusted folk to tell the tale to. The notes I get back are really useful.

I’m really looking forward to telling The Signalman next week. Working with such great subject matter makes me realize afresh quite how brilliant Dickens was & quite how fresh his work still is. Go read him.


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