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June 1998


Don’t Forget
the Close-Ups

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History as Story–Telling

While speaking to a group of teachers, I was asked how I would go about teaching history in the public schools. My answer was short: "I’d tell stories."

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By Pierre Berton

At one level, historians are story tellers. At another they are analysts. That, I suppose, is the basic difference between so-called "popular" history, which I prefer to call "narrative history," and academic or scholarly history. Narrative history is written for the masses. Scholarly history is written, generally, for scholars. To put it simply, academic history tries to assess historical movements, to analyze what they mean, and what they can teach us. Narrative history tells in dramatic form what happened and, equally important, what it was like.

I don’t think that scholarly history belongs in the classroom, certainly not at the lower levels. Before you can submit an historical event or an historical figure to scholarly analysis, the audience must know what the story is about. High school teachers aren’t equipped to give university courses and Grade Niners aren’t equipped to profit from them.

The teacher’s task, surely, is to talk about the past in such a way that the students will become excited enough to want more.

If a story is told vividly, whether it’s the battle of Queenston Heights or the capture of Louisburg, the audience will enjoy it and remember it without the need to memorize dates. Yet we continue to hear that history as taught in the schools is dull. One reason may be the unholy emphasis on dates, which, certainly in my day, were drilled into us.

A general idea of when things happened is enough. If we know that the building of the transcontinental railway coincided roughly with the Saskatchewan Rebellion and was followed by the immigration boom, the Great War, and the Depression – that sensible arrangement will do for a start.


When I went to school I did not find history dull, perhaps because it was dramatized both by my teachers and by the books we were given to read. My imagination was captured by W. Stewart Wallace’s By Star and Compass – tales of the early explorers – because Wallace, basically an academic historian, knew how to tell a story.

Like most of my contemporaries, I have been greatly influenced by the motion picture. The movies teach you that in writing narrative history it isn’t always necessary or even desirable to start the story at the beginning. Beginnings can be boring – especially in autobiographies. Do we really want to know the details of a person’s babyhood, or the background of all his forbears, until we’ve learned something of his adult accomplishments? I often skip the opening chapters of a biography and return to them later when I’ve become interested enough to want to know something about his beginnings.

The movies have shown us the advantages of plunging into a subject by starting with a spectacular incident that may well belong in the middle of the tale. Good biographers use the same technique and so do good historians.

I re-learned this basic lesson while telling the story of the battle of Vimy Ridge. To understand the significance of that bloody contest, and to appreciate the triumph, it was necessary to know a good deal about the early days of the Great War leading up to the battle, and also to delineate the personalities involved.

But when I completed my second draft I was faced with a real problem. As I told the story, the battle didn’t begin until halfway through the book!

I solved the problem, eventually, by starting the book with the start of the battle – the incredible artillery barrage, the heaviest in history, that pulverized the German defenses. Those eight pages had the advantage of grabbing the reader by the throat and making him want to hear more about the series of events that led up to this brutally decisive moment. Having captured his attention I could then return to the narrative from the beginning, incorporating the story of the rest of the battle in the later narrative. That, of course, is the technique used in so many action movies and television series. Just check out any one of the James Bond films.


The movies vary their scenes from long shots to close-ups, changing both the pace and the point of view to move the story along. So do all accomplished story tellers, using "establishing shots" as screenwriters call them, to set the scene. I used this technique in The National Dream to describe the first meeting on the bald prairie between Donald Smith and James Hill, two of the founders of the Canadian Pacific Railway Syndicate.

"The scene deserves to be preserved on a broad canvas or re-enacted on a wide screen: the two diminutive figures, muffled in furs, blurred by the drifting snow and dwarfed by that chill desert which stretched off for one hundred and forty miles, unmarked by a single human habitation. There they stopped and shared a frozen meal together – Hill, the young dreamer, his lively mind already crammed with visions of a transportation empire of steel, and Smith, the old Labrador hand, who had clawed his way up the slippery ladder of the fur trade."

Good story tellers understand the need to sell their tale to their audience before plunging into the narrative. "The damnedest thing happened at work today," a husband will tell his wife. Only after having grabbed her interest will he go into detail. "Did you hear about the big fire on Yonge Street last night?" somebody will say to a group of friends. "Two firemen were killed and four buildings burned to the ground." Unconsciously he has slipped into what journalists call "the lead" of the story. Only after telling his tale does he go on to explain in detail what happened.

Every true narrative, whether it be a play, a movie, a TV show, a short story, or an historical account, depends for its power on a series of scenes. It is the order in which those scenes appear – dramatic, narrative, flashback – that determines the effectiveness of the tale. Just as important is the connecting tissue. How do we move from one scene to another in a seamless fashion? In essence this is the old "meanwhile back at the ranch" technique. It is up to the story teller to find ways – as the movies do with lap dissolves and fadeouts – to segue from one scene to another without bringing the audience up short. Stories should not go bump … bump … bump, like a truck on a rutted road, but flow effortlessly like a boat in a stream.

It’s important, when telling stories, to see the story visually and to ask yourself if you’ve left something out of the picture. Is the background fuzzy when it should be sharp? Has the colour been drained from the landscape? And how about the people? Are some of the faces in the foreground blank? You cannot allow that. The blank spaces must be filled in, and that applies especially to the characters.


History is often seen as a series of events – especially by certain schools of historians; but it is also a collection of people who influence those events or are influenced by them. We must know these people, understand them and be able to describe them as we would old friends – or old enemies.

What kind of man was Casimir Gzowski, the Polish immigrant who chaired the commission to select land for the new park at Niagara Falls? We know far more about his great-grandson, the broadcaster, than about this remarkable Polish émigré.

And so … "A commanding figure at 72 with a leonine shock of white hair and a vast moustache to match, Gzowski had made a fortune as a railway engineer, contractor, and promoter. He moved in the highest circles, was an honorary aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria, and resided in a handsome Italianate villa known as the Hill, surrounded by a six-acre deer park, on Toronto’s Bathurst Street."

You can learn a good deal about the techniques of story telling by listening to a bad story teller (many of whom may well be your friends), who interrupt their narrative with what are essentially footnotes, side issues, parentheses, or unnecessary repetitions. How many times do we hear, in the midst of a good story, that terrible phrase: "Oh, I forgot to tell you that" – and back he or she goes, stopping the thrust of the narrative.

I am not crazy about footnotes; they tend to get in the way. I’ve generally felt that if a footnote isn’t good enough to be in the body of the narrative it has no business being in the story at all. Here, I quarrel with Peter Newman, an otherwise brilliant story teller who is king of the footnoters and proud of it.

Last time I asked him about a book he was working on, he told me gleefully, "I’ve got some great footnotes." Newman can get away with it, but bad story tellers throw in too much extra and unnecessary information that slows the story down. In the midst of an anecdote they will start to throw in extensive background notes about the relatives of the main protagonists.

The word "incidentally" is the tip-off here "… incidentally, he was the son of …, whose wife, you may know, was once married to…." At this point the audience wants to shout, "For God’s sake, get on with it!" The point of any story must always be kept in mind and never lost sight of. Little side excursions only frustrate the audience and weaken the tale.


As I’ve suggested, the teaching of narrative history depends not just on telling what happened, but also on telling what it was like. Why did the soldiers of 1812 plead to have their wounded limbs amputated, even though there was no anaesthetic? (Because they were more terrified of gangrene.) Why was John A. Macdonald never photographed with a crease in his trousers? (Because heavy wool required for those chilly rooms didn’t respond to modern pressings.)

Those are simple enough examples. But the "you are there" technique requires something more. What was the weather like? How were the main characters dressed? What was the gossip of the day? What kind of architecture did people demand for their homes? It is this that gives a story texture.

I once began the story about an incident in Newark, Upper Canada – now Niagara-on-the-Lake – during the war of 1812, with a weather report. "Snow. Snow falling in a curtain of heavy flakes. Snow blowing in the teeth of a bitter east wind off the lake. Snow lying calf deep in the streets, whirling in eddies around log buildings, creeping under doors, piling in drifts at the base of snake fences. Snow clogging the brims of top hats, crusting mufflers, whitening horses’ manes, smothering the neat gardens of summer. No day, this, to be out in the storm; better to crouch by hearth or kitchen stove, making peep-holes in the frosted windows from which to view the white world from behind the security of solid walls. But not on this day, for there is no security in Newark. Before darkness falls there will be few walls standing in this doomed village."

Why this emphasis on weather? Because on that night, the residents of this small Niagara town were roused from their beds by invading Americans who burned their homes and destroyed their village, throwing the populace – small children, bed-ridden invalids – into the streets. It is not quite enough at this point to say simply that it snowed in Newark. It is important to emphasize the weather to comprehend the suffering.


What was it like to live in a ditch full of waters from whose crumbling sides rotting human fragments could often be discerned? What did it sound like, what did it feel like, what did it smell like, in the trenches of the Great War?

What was it like on the night of May 29, 1934, in the Dionne farmhouse at Corbeil, Ontario, for the one nurse who stayed awake to watch over five premature infants?

"As night fell and the family vanished upstairs, Marie Clouthier was alone with the kerosene lamp, the sleeping mother and nurse and the five babies, clinging to the slender thread of life. It gave her an odd feeling as the night closed in. Over the measured breathing of the sleeping women she became aware of the nocturnal rhythms of the northern spring – the unending chant of the frogs drifting across the swamps and above that an unaccustomed cry, plaintive and haunting: the call of the whippoorwill. She had never heard it before but would always remember it and when, on occasion, she caught it again on a spring night, her mind would go back to the lonely hours of June 1, 1934, when she sat in solitary vigil in the sleeping household and willed the tiny creatures in the incubator to hang on to life, at least until dawn."

What I’m referring to here is texture. A well-told tale must have texture. If you neglect the texture – remove it from historical accounts, you’re left with the bones of the story but no flesh. I suspect that’s been one of the problems with school texts; they lack texture. Because if you cannot convey the feel, the smell, and the rich cacophony of history, then that history is going to be labelled "dull."

Pierre Berton is the author of 44 books, including many bestselling popular histories for both adults and young readers. He is currently at work on two more – Pierre Berton’s Canada and Canada’s Century.