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Storytelling Basics

My husband’s grandfather, Bill, was a master storyteller. He owned a newspaper and told stories for a living, but also created a storytelling culture in their family — at the dinner table, campfire, and family events. A favorite time for storytelling was when they gathered during deer hunting season and shared tales of the hunt. One year, my husband’s brother, Harry, who was about 14 years old, had bagged the prize deer, so Grandpa Bill turned to him in the midst of their Thanksgiving feast to tell his story. Harry said, “I saw the deer and shot it.” After a brief and somewhat awkward pause, Grandpa Bill looked at him and affectionately said, “Harry, you may now retire to the bedroom and practice telling that story. You might want to think about where you were, movements of the deer, wind direction, how you took aim, length of the shot . . . We’ll be waiting for you to try again.”

Stripped of intrigue and details, Harry’s story lacked the essential elements of a good story and fell flat. Grandpa Bill’s coaching to Harry is great advice on how to tell better stories. Details that evoke images, smells, and sounds bring the listener into your story and make them feel like they were there. Depicting how characters and events collide in a tension or drama creates suspense that captivates audiences. Some tangents and bizarre details make the story memorable. But at the other end of the spectrum, too many details and tangents can bore and confuse your listeners. Striking the right balance is the art of storytelling.

Some basic aspects of successful storytelling are:

Narrative Arc

Whether you’re creating fiction or nonfiction, every story needs to have a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning sets the stage, the middle creates tension, and the ending brings about resolution of the tension or reveals a message or moral. The narrative arc or plot is frequently depicted as a pyramid or arch showing the introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. In storytelling for daily life, you don’t need to make it this complicated but consider how you structure your storyline to draw your listeners into the plot, create intrigue, and leave them with an insight or lasting impression. Harry’s story had a beginning and an end, but without a middle, there was no tension or drama to excite the family about his big accomplishment.

Chronology is a common framework for the story arc, but consider use of flashbacks or foreshadowing for dramatic effect. If you find that a chronological approach is too dense or boring, which can be the case with scientific content, you might try structuring the content thematically, building the plot around the relationships between the themes.

Message or Moral

My college English professor would challenge us to read our papers and ask ourselves the question: so what? If we hadn’t brought a clear take-away message into focus, we weren’t ready to turn in the paper. In literature and entertainment, the ending resolves the conflict. Storytelling for health may not always lead to a conflict resolution, but you still want to impart a moral or message that transforms, inspires, or leaves your audience pondering. This might take the form of a call to action or the delivery an important set of facts you want them to remember. My story, The Dietitian Who Sounded Like Charlie Brown’s Teacher, is intended to convey the point that story listening is as important as storytelling because facts will fall on deaf ears unless they fit your listener’s story. Did it do that for you?

Heart of the Story

Powerful stories have a heart. We remember stories that stir our emotions — whether good or bad. So aim to connect with your audience at a human level. Passion, fun, and humor energize people. Tell about your hopes, dreams, or fears, and you’ll have companions who share these experiences. Evoke hope, empathy, trust, concern, understanding, excitement, sorrow, joy, or other emotions to make your stories meaningful and etch your messages into the listener’s memory.

Lessons from Goldilocks

As Grandpa Bill so clearly guided Harry, sensory details along with plot and suspense make a good story. Use significant details to set the stage and bring your characters to life along the rise and fall of the story arc. Close your eyes and imagine yourself in the scene of your story — the sights, sounds, smells, and tactile experiences — and then sprinkle these details into your story to spice it up. Allow yourself pertinent digressions to create a backdrop for a character or upcoming tension. Beware that too many details and tangents will confuse and distract from your main point, so you’ll need to find the spot that is “just right.” If the details help to captivate, build suspense, evoke emotion, or deliver your message use them to enhance your story. If not, they are likely to bog you down and get in the way.

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