Storytelling is an art and some people are born with the gift. When I think of storytellers, I’m not thinking about writers. Instead, I am talking about those who can entertain listeners for hours with tales of their childhood or their outlandish adventures. Whether gathered around a campfire or sitting with family in the living room, we have all been blessed with some good storytellers in our lifetime.
In this article, I will share some of my experiences with great storytellers and offer some suggestions on how, as writers, we might learn from their examples.
I am not sure if the ability to spin a great yarn is embedded in our genes, but many of my family members were blessed with this gift. My father could entertain for hours with his stories of growing up as a poor country boy living in Tennessee. From walking barefoot ten miles uphill to school to coming across the headless horseman in the woods and seeing the devil dancing in flames in a neighbor’s home, he told some tall tales.
Some of my favorite stories from my father were about his mischievous antics as a young boy who loved to pull pranks on his family and friends. My mother’s stories, though less outlandish, were equally enrapturing. Learning of her experiences, troubles, and triumphs still serve as one of my best memories.
Many of my aunts and uncles shared the gift of riveting gab. One of my favorite pastimes when visiting my family in Tennessee was to sit on the porch swing with my Uncle Ernest and listen to him recount the stories of his life as a farmer. Sitting in the shade with a glass of sun-brewed tea in hand, I would laugh, cry, empathize and fascinate for hours as he shared one story after the other.
In stark contrast to the great storytellers of my time, I have met people who couldn’t get to their point if they were sitting on it! That fact made me wonder, what makes a great storyteller?
First of all, a great storyteller begins with the ending in mind. Every description they make and every word they use has purpose. I once had a friend who would consistently take the long route, illustrating the events along the way in great detail before ever getting to their completely unrelated point.
Secondly, a great storyteller speaks with imaginative and thought-provoking descriptiveness. I will use my father’s story about the dancing devil as an example:
“The woods were so dark, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Knowing the land like the backs of our hands, we were headed down to the banks of the river. Halfway there, I notice a strange light flickering in a small country house. As we got closer, we were sure the place was on fire. Through the living room windows, we could see the flames licking up at the ceiling inside. When we got close enough, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There, in the middle of the living room, was the devil himself lit up in flames and dancing around the room.”
Finally, a great storyteller always speaks with emotional intensity and evokes an emotional response in their listeners; shock, awe, and empathy are common responses.
What lessons as writers can we learn from the master storytellers we have met in our lives? I will offer a few thoughts:
1. Write with emotional intensity and aim to evoke an emotional response.
Without emotion, books are bland at best. Don’t just take your readers on a journey, make them feel the experience as if they were living it themselves. Stephen King has mastered this concept.
2. Remove all extraneous information!
If it doesn’t directly relate to the story you are unfolding, then take it out. Adding in irrelevant descriptions and details wastes both your time and the readers. Word count is far less important than content.
3. Make your descriptions meaningful and relatable.
Instead of saying that it was an excruciatingly hot day, consider saying that the hot air stung in his nostrils as sweat poured down his back. Dean Koontz, a word master, is great at this.
4. Imagine yourself telling the story rather than writing it.
When writing, we tend to get verbose and possibly even pedantic as we want to impress with big words and point out the smallest of details. When speaking, we take an entirely different approach, minimizing our words and making each one count.
5. Read your book aloud once complete.
If it sounds like a good story as you put a voice to the words, then it will probably read as a good story.
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