This morning I visited my son’s year 6 class (10/11 years old) to practice a brand new story with them. I’ve been telling them stories of all kinds since they were in reception so they know me really well.
When I’d finished, I thoughtlessly blurted out that this might be among the last times I would come and see them as a class. Their stricken faces cut me to the heart- but what followed almost made me cry.
I said “I wonder if any of you can remember some of the other stories I’ve told you over the years?”
Hands shot up. “The one where they stroked her face”, “the one where she bit off HIS tongue and HER tongue went in his mouth”, “the green man sleeping under the earth”, “the boy who picked up buttons”. Each story was recognised, remembered, greeted as an old friend by the whole class. Many of them I’d only told once, some of them I’d forgotten, but the thing I found most interesting was the way that each story was named and distinguished by a key image or moment. You know what I mean. Like this:
(“The Nightmare” by Henry Fuseli)
Key images are central to good storytelling. What are they?
- a distinctive moment, encounter or thing which is part of the story.
- contains important information about the story.
- is remembered afterwards.
“key image” isn’t code for “a lot of description”. We don’t need to spend ages describing exactly the slimy-ness of the tongue etc. It can be thrown away in a handful of words, it will still be powerful.
If you think of your favourite stories, books or films the chances are, you will remember key images. In Silence of the Lambs (very much a modern folktale), it’s the moment when Lecter takes a bundle of papers from Clarice Starling and touches her hand.
The image of two sets of fingers alone isn’t powerful, it works within the context of the story because of the meanings which hang on it.
In this case, we know how deadly dangerous Lecter is, (he’s not allowed to physically touch anyone) how vitally important it is that Clarice gives him the papers… and this is also the moment that Lecter gets the paperclip which allows him to escape. It’s also the centre-moment of their emotional relationship which is at the heart of the film.
A key image is like a smudge of lipstick on an envelope. It might mean less than nothing- or it might mean everything- depending on the story behind it.
Storytellers who work with traditional material (myths, legends, folktales) are lucky because traditional stories are full of the most exciting and wonderful images- Kay being swept away by the Snow Queen, Orpheus entering the world of the dead, a mermaid stripping off her tail to reveal legs… but its up to us as storytellers to make sure that each image carries the maximum emotional investment before we deploy it.
(Illustration: Angela Barett)
A string of amazing and arresting images without an emotional meaning for the characters can become a memory exercise. So here’s an amazing image I found online:
I love it but it’s not a key storytelling image. As I discovered, the images which are recalled later are the ones which also hold important meanings for the story: transition, realisation, victory etc.
As a storyteller with a live audience, you will know when you are coming up to a key image because the audience will be very quiet and still, this is THE moment that the story comes to life and the audience loses themselves in it.