“Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can't remember who we are or why we're here.” –Sue Monk Kidd
We said it when we were children just as we now hear our children say, “tell me a story”. But what is a story? Why tell stories? And most importantly, especially to writers, is how do you tell a story—a great story?
On the surface, the “what” of it seems relatively simple to answer. A story is an account of real or imagined people and events. But, as writers, we know that a story is much more. Stories are journeys, adventures, time machines, history makers, memory preservers, and entertainment. Plainly put, stories are magic.
But what purpose do stories serve? Why have we always and continue to tell stories?
Stories used to be told because before there was written word, it was a means to convey news and information. And, like today, stories were also a way to entertain, celebrate, teach morals and lessons, recount history, perpetuate a belief system and create and preserve memories.
Also sharing a culture’s myths and treasured stories from one generation to the next establishes tradition and strengthens community. When people share stories, they communicate ideas and emotions creating a bond in their shared experience. Storytelling is the way we connect to one another.
However, understanding the “what” and “why” of stories doesn’t make one a good storyteller.
Many of us have listened to the rambling wedding toast or endured an awkward eulogy. Most of us have suffered, usually in the heat, the graduation speech that lasted too long. We have all been subject to, at one event or another, a story that made us uncomfortable, bored, confused, uneasy or simply unamused.
So how do you tell a story—a good story? This is a question that plagues most writers. Yes, as with any art, there is innate talent but also, as with any skill, tips and practice help.
The following tips are for both oral and written stories.
Know Your Audience
Make sure your material is appropriate to the crowd listening or reading. Don’t tell to or write for a group of Pentecostal ministers a story about sexual bondage.
Say/Write What you Feel
Emotions are powerful; we all have them. We may not all agree on certain topics but we all know what it is to feel sadness, joy, anger, disappointment, grief. Infusing your stories with emotions instantly bonds you to your listeners/readers.
Show, Don’t Tell
Never tell your audience or readers how to feel, what to think or what to believe. Don’t lead them to conclusions. Instead, show them. A storyteller says, “the moral of my story is…” A good storyteller doesn’t need to.
Create an Interesting Crowd
Tell or write stories about people who are interesting. And if they aren’t, make them so. Most of us are already caught in the monotony of life; we want our stories filled with heroes, adventurers, risk-takers, and rule-breakers. The best characters are those who are unique, exciting, and fascinating but still relatable.
Storytelling doesn’t need to be complicated. Convoluted storylines, confusing plot changes, archaic vocabulary words, irrelevant details and tedious description detracts from your story. There is eloquence in simplicity.
Use Your Voice
Use your strengths. If you’re funny, be funny. If you’re serious, be serious. But never be anyone but you. Your voice is unique and once you find it, use it because no one can tell a story like you.
Always put, even if just a hint, of yourself into every story you write or tell. It could be an experience, a thought, a belief or an emotion. Your audience or readers will, on some level, feel it. And there will be a connection and it is this connection that will not only set your story apart—it will make your story good.
And remember, truly mastering the art of storytelling is knowing that everyone has a story worth telling but understanding that not everyone can tell it.
Causes Sherry Parnell Supports
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Habitat for Humanity, Heifer International