How to Tell a Damn Good Story

Pat Conroy said, “The most powerful words in English are ‘tell me a story.'”

Imagine our ancestors sitting around the glowing embers of a dying fire, the fire reflected in their eyes, their rapt attention inspiring the storyteller to go deeper and deeper still.

Storytelling surely has instinct and intensity in primal roots and gut feelings.

Storytelling is personal. It’s emotional. It’s a connection.

So how do you make it work for you, the writer, and for them, the listeners?

I told a story last weekend during Lit(erature) Lounge, a storytelling event at The Open Space for Arts & Community. I must admit that what I enjoy most is that moment when the room goes pin drop quiet and mouths fall open as ears tighten and focus on the content that’s flowing over the crowd. This moment is a rush for the storyteller because you know that you’ve caught the attention of your audience.

They’re not going anywhere. They’re not getting up to get a glass of wine. They’re not heading to the rest room. They’re not checking their iPhone. It all can wait.

Whether your story is five minutes or a continuum the likes of Scheherazade, it continues to ebb and flow. It travels between the lips of the storyteller and those who have gathered to listen.

For me, that pin drop quiet creates a zen experience when the audience and I become one.  It emboldens me to connect with changes in volume and pacing, vocal style and very subtle body language, small gestures.

But—here’s the thing—storytelling should never be about ego. It always needs to be about sharing.

When you have the attention of the audience, your story needs to move them, to give them hope, teach them a lesson. It has to subtlely be about them, not you.

As Brook Warner of She Writes Press and Linda Joy Meyers of the National Association of Memoir Writers have shared in their lessons on what they call “takeaway”:  “Takeaway is the arrow that pierces the reader’s heart.”

Powerful, right?

So how do you do it successfully?

By helping the audience become part of the story, even as they listen without responding verbally.

By having a story arc with strong imagery.

When you were a child, it began with “Once upon a time…”

The protagonist (the main character—Cinderella or Gulliver or Bilbo Baggins) appears in a situation. Then, like in real life, stuff happens, everything goes to hell, and we watch them wiggle their way through to a satisfying ending.

Your storytelling has no stage set, no images, no costumes. Your words must create the scene and enable the listeners to become part of the experience. They create images in their minds by combining your words with their own history.

If you’re successful, your storytelling will provide the audience with something satisfying to gain.

They’ll lean in.

You’ll make eye contact. First one, then another, then another. And another. Your eyes will convey that you want them to know that this is their story.

You’re telling it for them.

You want them to feel the magic.

Write your story. Read it aloud to yourself, underlining the words that jump out in your diction.

Then go back and edit the page with a way to remind yourself of the words that need emphasis and the places where pauses are effective—essentially the pacing of your storytelling.

I like to use italics or bold print as cues to my verbal emphasis. Then practice your story on a friend or your writing circle.

Tighten up the story so that there are no points where the audience glazes over.

Have you ever noticed that when you’re given parameters for a written piece that are smaller than your written piece, you manage to cut out the chaff and the shorter piece is stronger?

Example: you want to submit a story to a publication or contest but the limit is 3000 words. Your story is 4000 words.

I’ve found that the challenge of shortening a piece of existing work always makes it better. That might be just me… I tend to go on… but I do think it’s applicable to most every writer.

So polish your story, make it relevant to the audience with takeaway. Make sure that it paints imagery as vividly as an artist’s brush. And not just visual imagery. Let them hear, and smell, your story too.

Then, when you step away from the mike, the spell will break with a snap. Your audience will have something to carry home, to muse over in later days.

If not, your storytelling is nothing more than a dark shadow on the wall of a cave.



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