“If stories come to you, care for them.
And learn to give them away where they are needed.
Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”
— Barry Lopez, “Arctic Dreams”
It’s difficult to remember information from a lecture. Stories are much easier to remember. In fact, stories are how we remember. Most of our knowledge and experience is organized in our memory as stories. We remember and imagine in terms of narrative. Stories are the placing and pacing of facts in a context that creates an emotional impact. For example, I could tell you that the queen died and the king died. I could tell you those facts. But if I told you that the queen died, and soon thereafter the king died of a broken heart, I will have told you a story. I will have given you the same facts. However, because I placed and paced those facts in an emotional context, you will better remember them. Your heart as well as your mind has been engaged. In fact, if you have ever found yourself leaning forward while listening to a story, you know that storytelling also engages your body. It’s a total experience. That’s the reason we remember stories.
Humans have an innate love of story. Children want stories before they go to bed. We love to be the first one to share news because it gives us the opportunity to be a storyteller. We go to the movies because we love stories. We go to the movies to have an emotional experience, not to learn something. However, because we have an emotional experience at the movies, we do indeed learn something. We might not always be conscious of what we are learning, but we do in fact learn something at the movies.
Before we discuss story content, let’s look at the structure of good story telling.
PART I: The Dramatic Arc of a Story
Most good stories have a dramatic arc. That is to say, a story builds — or rises — toward a crisis, from which it then plummets toward a resolution of that crisis. A storyteller must be aware of the “arc” of his/her story, so that s/he can pace the story and put emphasis in the proper places to create emotional impact.
These are said to be the five stages to a story’s dramatic arc:
1. The Set-up
2. The Complication
3. The Crisis
4. The Face-Off
5. The Resolution
1. With the Set-up we are plunged into the world of the story and of our Main Character (the Protagonist). Most importantly we are plunged into the conflict of the story. This is not a time for description or explanation — unless it’s the descriptive detail of the conflict and pertinent details of the characters that are in conflict. The conflict usually involves “stakes” — something of value at risk. The higher the stakes, the higher is the dramatic tension. The best stories begin in medias res (in the middle of things). You’ve heard the expression “cut to the chase.” That means get to the action (i.e., the conflict) quickly. We observe this principle all the time in movies. An opening scene plunges the viewer into the action (i.e., the conflict); in succeeding scenes, only after a desire is created in us to know, do we learn the details of who, what and why.
2. The Complication is the complication of the conflict. It is sometimes called the Inciting Incident because something occurs or someone appears to “incite” a change in the main character’s current situation. Often the stakes are raised, and the character encounters a challenging situation. Sometimes it’s a new opportunity that appears. At this time in the story we are often introduced to the Antagonist.
3. The Crisis is the summit of the dramatic arc, the height or peak of the tension (i.e., the conflict) in the story. The crisis is sometimes called the Pivot or even the Point of No Return, because at this point in the story the Protagonist crosses a line that prevents him (or her) from being able to go back and say “do over” or “let’s start all over again.”
4. The Face-Off or Climax is the final confrontation between the Protagonist and the Antagonist in the story. In other words, the main character “faces off” with the person who has been trying to thwart him/her. Everything comes to a face-to-face confrontational head.
5. The Resolution is the result. After the exciting face-off, this is the quiet time that allows the “message” of the story to become clear. Now that the conflict has been resolved, we see how the world of the main character has changed and how the dramatic conflict of the story has been resolved. A “lesson” can be drawn. However, “if you have something important to say,” as director Billy Wilder warned, “wrap it in chocolate.”
The first half (or rising slope) of the story’s dramatic arc builds toward a crisis (the peak of the arc), while the second half (or descending slope) resolves the crisis.
Playwright and Harvard Professor William Alfred said that the greatest drama in human history is the four Gospels. Few stories are more compelling than the clash of the forces of light and darkness in the life of a Manifestation of God — be it Jesus, Buddha, Moses or Muhammad. For the purposes of this exercise, we will focus on four stories from the lives of the most recent Manifestations of God — the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh.
Not all peoples of the world have access to books. But nearly everywhere on the planet people have access to the Ruhi workbooks of the Bahá’í institute process. To make this storytelling exercise accessible to the most people possible, we will focus on four stories found in Ruhi book #4, The Twin Manifestations. Ruhi book #3, Teaching Children’s Classes, also has wonderful stories; however, they are a bit too short to effectively illustrate the elements of good storytelling. If a story is less than 500 to 1000 words, it is difficult for the storyteller to create the dramatic arc (defined above) that weaves the magic of storytelling.
So let us break down the dramatic arc of the following stories found in Ruhi Book #4:
1. Anís and the Martyrdom of the Báb
2. The Conference of Badasht
3. Bahá’u’lláh’s imprisonment in the Siyáh-Chál
4. Bahá’u’lláh’s exile to ‘Akká.
Note: If the art of storytelling is part of a group study circle, it’s helpful for the group to have a facilitator — or animator. For this reason, each story we will be followed by suggested activities as potential resources for the animator.
PART II: The Dramatic Arc of Four Specific Stories
1. The Story of Anís
(see Ruhi Book #4 “Life of the Báb” section 8, pp. 41–42;
also, section 6 paragraph #2 to emphasize the stakes involved)
Since 1848, when Anís first met the Báb, he has longed to be with Him. He feels so compelled to follow the Báb that his father has locked him up, because the town crier of the city (Tabríz) has warned that anyone approaching the Báb will lose his life and his property. But while praying in his room, Anís has a vision of the Báb and becomes calm, so his father unlocks his room.
The Báb is brought to the town of Tabríz to be put to death. Anís breaks through the crowd and throws himself at His feet. As a result he is imprisoned with the Báb.
In prison the Báb expresses His preference to be slain by His disciples rather than by the firing squad. Anís jumps up to comply with this request. The Báb declines the offer but rewards this instant and exact obedience with a promise to Anís that he will be with the Báb forever. The next morning the Bab is dictating a Tablet to His secretary when the executioner interrupts Him to conduct the Báb to His death.
The firing squad discharges 750 bullets. When the smoke clears the Báb is seen to have disappeared while Anís stands unharmed. After a search the Báb is found finishing the Tablet that He had been dictating when interrupted. He then rises to His feet and says He is now ready. Executioner Sám Khán resigns his post. Another executioner steps forward to proceed with the deed. The Báb addresses the on-looking multitude: “O wayward generation…” and holds Anís up as an example. Anís and the Báb are martyred together.
The martyred Báb’s face is untouched by the bullets. The pummeled remains of the Báb and Anís are united in death. Anís is buried in the Shrine of the Báb, the center of the planet, and is united with the Báb for all eternity. The storyteller emphasizes how the act of obedience to the Manifestation of God yields such tremendous rewards.
Note: The storyteller can mold the story as found in Ruhi Book #4 to maximize the dramatic arc. For example, the story may be more dramatic if the Báb’s words at the end of Section 8 are placed in context during the face-off/firing squad scene.
Activity: Discuss the concept of “instant and exact obedience.”
Activity: Review the dramatic arc of the story.
Activity: Give a name to this drama. Anís means “companion.” What might this story be called?
2. The Conference of Badasht (“The Veil and the Sword”)
(see Ruhi book #4 “Life of Bahá’u’lláh” section 7 pp.88-89)
The voice of divine guidance is isolated — almost silenced — by the Bab’s imprisonment in the castle of Máh-Kú. The Báb possesses not even a lamp by which to write. It appears as if the forces of darkness will prevent the New Day from dawning.
Through Bahá’u’lláh the Báb plans the Conference of Badasht. Its purpose will be to announce the laws of the New Dispensation in order to make a formal break with Islám. To each Bábí in attendance Bahá’u’lláh gives a new name. The new names indicate new possibilities of the New Day. Each day Bahá’u’lláh reveals a Tablet. These writings may be considered as the first emanations from His pen of Revelation.
Scene in Bahá’u’lláh’s tent. One day Bahá’u’lláh is confined to His bed with an illness. Táhirih sends her man-servant to instruct Quddús to come to her. He refuses. The man-servant, presenting his sword to Quddús, informs him that Táhirih says if he refuses to come, then Quddús must cut off his head.
“So be it,” says Quddús and accepts the sword. He raises it to strike. Right then Táhirih enters Bahá’u’lláh’s tent with her face unveiled. This pronouncement of the equality of men and women is the famed “Trumpet Blast” promised in the last days of Islám. The Bábís who cannot accept such a break with Islám side with Quddús; those Bábís ready for the New Dispensation side with Táhirih.
Bahá’u’lláh brings about a resolution. He unites the Bábís. Quddús and Táhirih depart in the same howdah. However, three factions emerge from the Conference: 1) some orthodox Bábís desert the Faith; 2) some libertine Bábís celebrate the end of Islamic law by indulging their passions in a local village; 3) some Bábís become new creations, living up to their new names — opting for immortality. Three choices are presented to all future believers.
Activity: Discuss the concept of a “change in culture” that the Bábís experienced. How does it pertain to today? How might some of us stay stuck in the past, not rise to a “change in culture” and thus be forgotten by history? Will some of us lack restraint and gratify our selfish desires? Or, like Quddús and Táhirih, will we become “a new race of men,” change the course of history and advance civilization?
Activity: Draw a veil and sword. What does a veil do? What does a sword do? Discuss the idea that “the pen is mightier than the sword.”
Activity: Would you call this story “The Sword and the Veil”? Would you choose an alternate title?
Activity: Supplement the story with more details as found in the book “Nabil’s Narrative: The Dawn-Breakers.”
Activity: Review the dramatic arc of the story
3. Bahá’u’lláh’s Imprisonment in the Siyáh-Chál
(see Ruhi Book #4, “Life of Baha’u’llah” section 11 & 12, pp. 96–99)
Falsely accused of an assassination attempt on the life of the Shah, Bahá’u’lláh is arrested. He is forced to walk bareheaded in the hot sun en route to prison in Tihran. He is pelted with stones and spit upon. He allows an old woman to throw a stone in His face. “Deny her not,” He says, “what she regards as a meritorious act in the sight of God.”
The appalling conditions of the Siyáh-Chál dungeon three stories below ground: the vermin, the filth, the stench, the pitch-black darkness. The Bábís, shackled together in groups of seven and chained to the floor, can scarcely move. The mind-numbing din raised by their felon companions keeps them from sleep. For three days they receive neither food nor drink. The spirits of some of the chained Bábís begin to flag.
Bahá’u’lláh teaches a soul-stirring chant to revive the spirits of the imprisoned Bábís. In two rows facing each other, one row chants, “God is sufficient unto me. He verily, is the All-Sufficing.” The other row of Bábís chants in reply, “In Him let the trusting trust.”
The prison is adjacent to the royal palace. The Shah, awakened by the chanting, demands to know the source of this sound. When he is told it is the Bábís, he is too cowered to command silence. Lying in a bed of silk, the Shah is uncomfortable, while the chained Bábís, sitting in sewage, are radiant.
The Maid of Heaven visits Bahá’u’lláh with a new divine revelation. Sorrow is transformed into joy. Not even a king and his jailers can chain the Hand of God or stop the New Day from dawning.
Activity: Learn the chant: “God is sufficient unto me; He verily is the All-Sufficing! In Him let the trusting trust.”
Activity: Learn to tell the story while integrating Bahá’u’lláh’s words (see section 12 of “Life of Baha’u’llah” in Ruhi Book #4)
Activity: Supplement the story with details from “Nabil’s Narrative: The Dawn-Breakers” (pp. 631-633) or “The Diary of Juliet Thompson” (p. 321)
Activity: Review the dramatic arc of the story.
Activity: Discuss the message or instructional point of this story.
4. Baha’u’llah’s Banishment to ‘Akká
(see Ruhi Book, #4, “Life of Baha’u’llah” section 25, pp. 126-127)
Bahá’u’lláh is banished to the loathsome penal colony of ‘Akká in Palestine.
The horrid conditions of the sea voyage (no food or water for five days) for the Bábís. Nineteen days at sea. One believer loses his mind; another throws himself into the sea.
The conditions of the citadel prison in ‘Akká. Bahá’u’lláh’s Words in which He names it “the Most Great Prison.”
The winning over of the hostile guards through the spiritual example of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.
The Voice of the Spirit and banners of light; fulfillment of prophecies as Bahá’u’lláh arrives in the Port of ‘Akká.
Activity: Learn the chant: “Soon will all that dwell on earth be enlisted under these banners.”
Activity: Discuss the message or instructional point of this story.
Activity: Integrate more details into the story from other sources. (see Shoghi Effendi’s “God Passes By” p. 184)
Activity: Develop a monologue based on Bahíyyih Khánum’s reminiscences as recounted by her in “The Chosen Highway”
by Lady Blomfield (pp. 65–66) and in “The Master in ‘Akká” by Myron Phelps (pp. 70–78). Learn to present the monologue.
PART III: Learning to Tell a Story
To the Animator: Below are some steps you may take in facilitating a group to become storytellers.
Familiarize the group with the four moving stories discussed above about the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh.
Consider carrying out some of the Activities suggested for each story.
Have the group choose one of the stories to learn. Together the group reads the story. Together the group supplements the story with additional details, if available.
Then a volunteer rises to attempt to recite as much of the story as he or she can remember. When he or she is finished, the animator thanks the volunteer for bravely standing up to tell the story. The animator points out how difficult it is to remember all the details of a story and compliments the volunteer for making the effort.
Next the animator asks the group if the volunteer storyteller left out any significant details, plot points, or characters. The animator emphasizes that this is not a criticism of the volunteer, but a group learning process. S/he encourages those who wish to add details to do so constructively and politely.
After the group supplies additional details, the animator may wish to add any details that were still omitted.
A second member of the group is asked to volunteer to tell the story from memory.
Again a discussion of the details follows.
The animator might then ask what the group noticed about the telling of the story that made the effect compelling. The animator encourages the group to point out “what worked” for them as listeners, rather than saying what the storyteller should have or should not have done.
The animator has to walk the fine line of exploring the elements of good storytelling — without making personal assessments of the storytellers. A good approach is to ask the group “what worked” for them rather than “what didn’t work.”
In the later stages of the learning process, once confidence has been built and the storytellers are quite familiar with their stories, the animator may introduce consultation about “what didn’t work” as well as “what worked.”
Note: Ideally, if the group has time, it is best to familiarize the participants with all four stories, so that each person can choose to learn the one story he or she feels most drawn to. If time is limited and the group is small, then perhaps the participants may focus on one single story.
These choices provide opportunities for consultation.
1) Selecting paper:
After having chosen a story for which the storyteller feels a personal connection or preference, each participant will take a large piece of blank paper—about 12” by 17” (a smaller piece can work, if larger paper is not available) to make a “story board.” Each folds his/her paper in half; then folds it in half again; then folds it in half a third time. Each participant now has 8 rectangles on either side for a total of 16 frames. Next, divide the story into major “beats” (that is, scenes or sections). By thinking of an image to represent each “beat” (one for each frame) the storyteller will visually plot his/her story. One does not have to use all 16 frames of the paper.
2) Beginning your sketches:
The participants will now draw a series of sketches to help them remember the details of their individual stories. The purpose of the storyboard is to help one remember one’s story. Its purpose is functional, not decorative. The participants are not being asked to make a work of visual art. Rather, the storyboard will serve as a memory aid.
Once the storyteller knows his or her tale by heart, the sketches will be discarded. Many people do not feel they can draw well; therefore, if they are reminded of the sketches’ functional purpose, they will feel comfortable drawing stick figures or other simple images. However, those gifted at drawing who wish to take time with their sketches may be encouraged to do so by the facilitator. But the functional purpose of the sketches should be kept uppermost in mind.
Allow time for participants to admire each other’s sketches.
Practicing the storytelling
Once the storyboard is completed, each participant can begin to practice telling his/her story. Participants should pair up. With storyboard in hand, each storyteller will consult his visual memory aid, while telling his partner his story. The purpose of the storyboard is to help the storytellers “see” their stories in their minds as they practice telling them aloud. Eventually they will discard their storyboards.
The storytellers are not to memorize their stories word for word, nor should they worry about making every word exact. Since they have used their storyboards to practice telling their stories aloud, their visual memory of the story will prompt them. The language of the story will become part of them. However, whenever storytellers feel the need to refresh their memories, they can always reread their story in Ruhi Book #4.
Each storyteller will practice the components of good story telling. Some of which are:
— telling it to someone as if relating it for the first time
— telling it as if it’s the most important news the storyteller has heard
— using demonstrative gestures
— trying not to hold one’s body too stiff or rigid
— changing voice intonation; perhaps using different voices for different characters
— practicing putting emphasis on certain words and phrases (by first deciding which are the key words in the story)
— using pauses to fix the attention of listener; especially at dramatic moments in the story
— projecting one’s voice; sometimes a storyteller may need to tell his/her story to a large group
Polishing the storytelling
The animator can encourage the storytellers to develop the above skills by urging them to do the following:
a) To tell their stories to anyone who will listen. They can tell their story to a pet, a stuffed animal — even to themselves in a mirror. The key element is to PRACTICE OUT LOUD.
b) To think about how the characters in the story look and speak. That way, the storyteller can bring the characters to life through his/her voice and body movements.
c) To invite audience participation. If the story has a song or verse that is repeated, the storyteller might consider inviting the listeners to join in.
d) To practice pauses. Pausing fixes a listener’s attention. Pausing creates emphasis. It draws a listener deeper into the story. If a storyteller speaks too fast, the listener stops listening.
e) To OVERLEARN one’s story. The more storytellers repeat their stories, the more it becomes a part of them. Telling one’s story is the only way to discover the parts of the story that need more work or practice. Remind them: telling a story isn’t just about the words; it also takes voice and body movements to bring it to life. Encourage them to feel the power of their story! To enjoy the ancient art of story telling! The more one tells a story, the more confident one becomes to tell it in front of a group.
f) To put aside the storyboard. After many times practicing with the storyboard, the storyteller will come to recall the story without a need to consult the sketches. Practicing without the storyboard is the key to building one’s confidence.
Note: Each person has a different timeline for learning to remember a story. Each participant should be allowed to set his/her own pace, while being encouraged to do so.
Once a storyteller has put aside the storyboard and “internalized” the story, s/he can solicit feedback from fellow participants. Encourage each storyteller to offer to tell his/her story in a compelling and entertaining manner to the group. This will build individual confidence as well as a sense of group unity.
After each storyteller tells his/her story to the group, the animator gives the group an opportunity to share in constructive criticism. The animator should coach the reviewers to frame their comments in the following two ways: “What worked for me was________” “What didn’t work so well for me was_______” This approach stresses the subjective/opinion nature of the comment without implying it has any objective or absolute truth. The storyteller should listen patiently to the comments and not indulge in defending himself. He should winnow the wheat and disregard any chaff-like critiques.
The group might be asked to consider each storyteller’s:
a) use of expression & tone; b) clarity of voice; c) good volume; d) use of various voices; e) use of pauses; f) emphasis on words; g) pacing
Storytelling as a Service
One’s newly learned story is an instrument of service. By asking anyone, “Would you like to hear a story I learned?” one will find many willing listeners who, after being moved by your story, will wish to converse on spiritual matters rather than the mundane events of the day.
One can tell one’s story as an inspiring part of a devotional.
The storyteller can offer to share his/her story at a Feast or Holy Day celebration.
Last Word on Storytelling:
A popular adage warns, “Never talk about politics or religion.” Both topics tend to pit people and opinions against one another. So they tend to cause division and disunity. We began this section by pointing out how we learn and remember better through stories than through lectures. A lecture, like a conversation about politics or religion, is often an exercise in convincing the listener’s mind. But storytelling attracts the listener’s heart. It’s a unifying experience. Whereas talking about religion might makes us feel uncomfortable (Does it look like I’m preaching? Does it look like I want something from the other person?), telling an inspiring, entertaining story makes us feel generous. We know we’re providing a service. And knowing that as storytellers we are giving a gift, we now will be less shy about discussing spiritual matters.
On Gossip and Backbiting:
One form of storytelling that creates division and disunity is gossip. Because we love telling and hearing stories, we are inclined to talk about others. Gossip creates an emotional experience. We feel strongly about whom we are discussing, and we have strong feelings as we backbite or listen to gossip. However, gossip is an example of storytelling that damages. It damages the reputation of the person discussed, and it damages the internal unity of both listener and speaker. Many people aren’t aware of this damage; just as sometimes people aren’t aware of certain viruses. But Bahá’u’lláh spells out the damage when he reminds us that “backbiting quencheth the light of the heart, and extinguisheth the life of the soul.”1
On the other hand, uplifting stories give light to the heart and life to the soul. When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá tells us that “if a man has ten bad qualities and one good one, to look at the one and forget the ten,” He is not merely telling us to be tolerant. He is telling us to feel good. Because when we focus on the positive in others — and in ourselves, “the hearts [are] illumined, the spirits glorified, and the human world [attains] everlasting felicity.”2 Far from being a sacrifice, seeing the good in others is a benefit — to others as well as to ourselves. The best way to learn and to remember this principle is to experience it emotionally — through a story. So ‘Abdu’l-Bahá tells the following story:
It happened one day in the time of Christ — may the life of the world be a sacrifice unto Him — that He passed by the dead body of a dog, a carcass reeking, hideous, the limbs rotting away. One of those present said: “How foul its stench!” And another said: “How sickening! How loathsome!” To be brief, each one of them had something to add to the list.
But then Christ Himself spoke, and He told them: “Look at that dog’s teeth. How gleaming white!”
The Messiah’s sin-covering gaze did not for a moment dwell upon the repulsiveness of that carrion. The one element of that dead dog’s carcass which was not abomination was the teeth: and Jesus looked upon their brightness.
Thus is it incumbent upon us, when we direct our gaze toward other people, to see where they excel, not where they fail.
Praise be to God, thy goal is to promote the well-being of humankind and to help the souls to overcome their faults. This good intention will produce laudable results.”3
As we learn to tell encouraging and inspiring stories, we will be less inclined to discourage through gossip and backbiting.
1. Bahá’u’lláh, “The Book of Certitude” 194
2. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in J. E. Esslemont’s “Bahá’u’lláh & the New Era” 84
3. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, “Selections From the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá” 169