Friday 10 October 2014

A Dickensian Master Class in Storytelling

Strictly speaking I haven’t read Charles Dickens’s ‘The Seven Poor Travellers’ (1854). I listened to it on Librivox – an amazing website/app which allows you to listen to audio-books for free, thanks to the efforts of volunteer readers. Because Librivox records only works which are out of copyright, it’s one of my go-to sites for nineteenth-century literature and, if you’re a writer who wants to fit more time in for ‘reading’, it’s a wonderful tool to check out!

Listening to literature is a different experience – and one which throws into sharp relief a writer’s storytelling abilities. With other distractions, and wandering eyes, what keeps your brain engaged in a story? When Dickens wrote for his magazine Household Words he knew many of his fans would have the story read aloud to them, as part of a family’s evening entertainment, so, having already looked at Dickens’s expert handling of first person narration and repetition, I thought I’d take you through some aspects of this short story which could help you improve your own storytelling technique. 

Know your place: ‘The Seven Poor Travellers’ was Dickens’s story for his fifth Christmas edition of Household Words, meaning his fame would have been known to almost all his readers. But, for any writer, it can be very effective to establish your own relationship to your story – especially if you’ll be delivering your story orally. Dickens begins in the first person and roots his story firmly in the present and in reality – the reality of an actual charity institution in Rochester he says he visited. The story he goes on to tell is actually about the Napoleonic Wars but establishing believability from the outset helps draw the reader in, while inflecting a story with personality captures listeners’ attention, much like in a conversation.

Layer up: In ‘The Seven Poor Travellers’, Dickens’s trip to Rochester, and Christmas celebrations with the poor travellers there, proves to be a frame narrative, with the story proper starting only when the party begin to talk. For Victorian listeners this would mean they were, at points, listening to the family’s reader reading a story by Dickens about a conversation he had with a group of strangers, including a story about a Napoleonic soldier, who, in some sections, is telling the story of his life to his interlocutors. This layering of narrative isn’t just a question of a plausible opening – it creates depth. Drawn in, it’s like you’re falling down a rabbit hole, passing through layers from which it’s difficult to extract yourself, like a dream within a dream. Lost in the inner story, at times it can be a shock to remember that moments before we were hearing about a meagre Christmas celebration, and moments before that we were leading our everyday lives, separate from the story at all. There are plenty of other examples of this (ancient, modern, literary, musical and cinematic) – cf. Arabian Nights, folk ballads, Canterbury Tales, The Princess Bride. Try it – it works. 

Mood matters: Have you ever noticed how movie and film makers adapt their credits to genre? Whether it’s the Harry Potter music playing over the production company logo, or the Simpsons cavorting before the title appears? It helps establish mood – and quickly. Viewers need to know what they are getting – magic and mystery (darker as the films progress) or comedy and slapstick. Stories need to do that too. It’s okay if you’re writing a story which will be read aloud to use quick cues – even stereotypes – to help your listeners get their heads in the right space and start to supply further details mentally. Christmas works like this for Dickens, as does solitude. The two ideas – of Yuletide celebration and of isolation from fellow men (which the poor travellers suffer constantly, and Dickens on this occasion) need only the slightest of descriptions, as we already know the rest. It’s a kind of storytelling shorthand which helps people feel involved. When you’re delivering a story aloud you shouldn’t go in for paragraph after paragraph of description and explanation. Which are the telling details? Dickens tells us about the soldier’s fleeting memories from his fevered hospital bed, or how the widowed mother whose son has died spends just one of her many lonely evenings, because there’s no need to say more about the layout of the sick room, or a poor sad woman’s day to day routine.

Raise the stakes: Short stories usually have anything but a slight subject matter and a good storyteller can distil some of life’s most important issues into the briefest of tales. Dickens’s story is the story of a man’s life and spiritual transformation and he doesn’t need to write a novel to tell it well. You’ll need to play with time, refer to the past, and skip into the future, while choosing for the present the events which require and/or reward particular attention. Just don’t forget – people want stories with drama and emotional resonance. Think about those embarrassing stories in magazines, successful TV advertisements, that 6-word Hemingway short story. Why not set yourself a flash fiction challenge to explore a powerful important issue in under 200 words?

I hope you found this post useful if you write! Don’t forget to check out my other ‘Master Classes’, courtesy of Charles Dickens and Edward Bulwer-Lytton and let me know if there are any other topics where you think the Secret Victorianist could help, by commenting below or on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!


  1. Now I consider myself quite a big Dickens fan (although I haven't read or listened to The Seven Poor Travellers) and I'd never really considered the reading out aloud aspect of his writing before.

    1. I'd definitely recommend listening! I think it makes a lot of sense for serialised publications :)

  2. It's worth pointing out that only the 1st and 8th chapters are by Dickens. They run: Dickens, Sala, Adelaide Procter, Collins, Sala again, Mrs Lynn Linton, Procter again, and the master to sum up.

    1. Yes! Thanks, Russell - I should have clarified. I listened only to the Dickens sections, but, with the stories from other writers, the layering would get even more complex. Mrs Lirriper's Lodgings is structured similarly (see my post here:!