The Greatest Story Ever Told
November 23, 2009 9:21 AM   Subscribe

I want to be a better storyteller. What qualities do good storytellers universally exhibit? How much does embellishment play a role? Lyndon Johnson was a great storyteller who was also known to pepper his stories with a lot of bullsh*t. Most importantly, where do storytellers get their stories? Have they led lives of extraordinary experience, or have they read a book full of awesome anecdotes? Help me spin some yarn at a party or at the water-cooler.
posted by jasondigitized to Grab Bag (15 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
It feels odd to actually describe this is a howto because it's just how I am and how I've always been. People call me a "weird magnet" because I tend to attract strange situations that, in the end, turn into weird, wonderful, funny and often creepy little stories.

I'm a bad storyteller who has TONS of stories, so I can only address how to get the stories:

Pay attention and notice the little things, the weird things, the things that people take for granted. When possible, take an active role in the things you notice to make the experience yours. But don't go out looking for stories, go out and experience whatever you can and incorporate this into your personality.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 9:58 AM on November 23, 2009

I would also add that embellishment tends to be overly obvious. Stick to the truth, as it tends to be more amazing than what you can pull out of your ass!
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 9:59 AM on November 23, 2009

A key thing is to be engaging in some way, not necessarily full of dramatic flourishes. If dry wit is your style, stick with that. Don't try to become someone else to be a better story teller. It can seem forced and awkward.

Another thing to keep in mind is that there needs to be a logical progression. I clarify this only because I have found myself re-telling a story because I left out key details that were only in my head.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:09 AM on November 23, 2009

This is an ancient question, the kind people devote entire academic careers on. What makes a good storyteller varies - extraordinary experience helps. But, oddly, it's not necessary.

If you are looking just for tips on how to tell a better anecdotal story? Or the big question of how does one become a great storyteller? Because if we get the answer on how people become great storytellers, that's like asking the meaning of life, and is similar to finding the holy grail for me. The other smaller question seems more answerable.

I think one of the best things you can do is gauge your audience, and figure out a way to instantly captivate them. Put them somewhere they've already been so they can be instantly engulfed by the setting of your story. "You've driven in morning rush hour traffic before, right? Bumper to bumper. You're lucky if you go faster than 10 miles per hour. Then, traffic opens up, you make it to like 35 miles per hour, you get your hopes up, and then bam, you come to a complete standstill, slower than before."

This is better storytelling than saying, "Man, I was driving to work the other morning in rush hour traffic, and it sucked!" I'm not talking about embellishment - "It was a cool morning. The fog was still rolling in off the foothills onto the busy freeway below. And there was I, another ant making its way to the anthill in standstill traffic." It's just bringing people home, so-to-speak.

But that's just the beginning of spinning a good yarn.
posted by jabberjaw at 10:10 AM on November 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you're up for some thick reading, take a look at On Stories, by Richard Kearney. It's philosophical, but might provide some insight into how storytelling works, both in terms of the act of storytelling and the role of stories in human relations.
posted by Alterscape at 10:11 AM on November 23, 2009

I like the personal anecdote stories, and most of the time they're because of something extraordinary or unusual - you'll want something that's outside of the regular daily experience, but still something people can connect to: I've faced off against a wild mother turkey, the "porno" flick I unknowingly chose as entertainment for my first date with my SO, a coworker and his daughter chased after a helium balloon in their car, etc. If it's memorable to you, there's probably a story worth telling.

It's not really storytelling, but I often web surf and find strange news items (and often from MeFi) and tell my coworkers.

As for conveying the story, maybe try talking to people as if you're letting them in on a secret. You can be loud if you're reading a book to a group of children, but probably won't work as well for a grown-up setting.
posted by Seboshin at 10:23 AM on November 23, 2009

What qualities do good storytellers universally exhibit?

Good pacing, building tension. Making the story universal, at least to the extent that listeners find something to identify with in the protagonist. Colorful or humorous (surprising, visually amusing) details that bring the story to life and reflect universal conflicts, drives, ironies, weaknesses, etc.

How much does embellishment play a role?

Some. Truth being stranger than fiction, some stories happen perfectly on their own and need no poetic license for garnish. But many stories can be improved (in the sense of making the story more entertaining) with a tweaked detail or two or some comic exaggeration.

where do storytellers get their stories?

Everywhere. Anywhere. Their experiences, their families, things they witness, things that happened to their friends. Their friends’ families. People watching. Eavesdropping on the train. Jury duty. Stories are all around us.

[Do good storytellers] read a book full of awesome anecdotes?

I wouldn't recommend parroting stories from an anecdote book. I'd be afraid of sounding like a Kiwanis club speaker.
posted by applemeat at 10:28 AM on November 23, 2009

where do storytellers get their stories?

I don't think stories have to be "about" much of anything big. Like all art, it's more about the "how" than the "what." Larry David has made a hugely successful career out of stories about "nothing," because of the way he reacts to and (mis)interprets everyday situations.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:31 AM on November 23, 2009

Learn the basics of drama. Adhere to them. In short, I think:

• Begin each story with an open dramatic question, with a strong motive or goal, with a tenable pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, e.g.: "I was on my Dallas, to meet my wife and a marriage therapist named Dorgan Roose" or "My brother Louis was absolutely fixated on the idea of contracting Chicken Pox," and sustain the story only as long as that premise will bear out, ending it with the success/failure of the stated goal/answering of the motivating question.

• Set your scene well. Elaborate, exaggerate, hyperbolize to achieve an effect (you are telling a story, not telling a biblical truth) with a strong sense of place/time/character. The "I" of the story does not have to be the "I" of the teller, and the, say, "Boston" of the story is not a "Boston" of the map. You can be hornier, crueler, richer, sleeker, in a town that is colder, friendlier, smaller than in point-of-verifiable-fact. Scene-setting is the place to expand/extend/embellish without hurting anybody's feelings or telling outright mistruths.

• Remember your thread. You are telling a story about X. Your audience is listening to find out the outcome of X, is invested in X, extends you the courtesy of getting to X. Don't abuse it. Every flashback, ancillary anecdote, parenthetical, interruption, digression, abuses their attention, and lessens the overall impact of Xs payoff. Hew to the bone.

• Sustain the tension. Tension is created when we are unsure of a specific outcome – whether we reach our pot of gold or not. If the story broadcasts the outcome early, (or if the outcome is apparent by some aspect of the storyteller's appearance/presence, e.g. a broken arm) we've probably already resolved the tension. And that's boring. Keep the answer to the dramatic question open, and you'll keep your listeners listening.

• Don't be too deliberate. Keep it loose! There's nothing worse than a boor sitting down to Tell a Tale of Woe/Heartbreak/Merriment/Injustice and demanding the attention of a room. Let your story flow naturally, let it seem offhand (even if it's not) and pay close attention to your listeners. If they're laughing, play up the absurdity, if they're concerned, ramp up the tension... adapt, adjust, constantly check for reaction. Know, most of all, that sometimes you might fail and must learn to laugh at yourself.
posted by mr. remy at 11:16 AM on November 23, 2009 [11 favorites]

I think that really bad story tellers are telling the story for their own sakes - they're entertaining themselves first and foremost. So they miss backstory, or include too many irrelevant asides, and end up with boring or confusing stories.

So on the other hand, good story tellers are telling the story for the sake of their audience. Making sure they have the information to understand what's going on, skipping bits they're finding boring and milking bits they like.
posted by lucidium at 11:17 AM on November 23, 2009

I would suggest keeping them short until you get good at it. I hate listening to a story which the teller evidently thinks is riveting go on and on forever.
posted by digsrus at 12:06 PM on November 23, 2009

A good telling-story (as opposed to journalism, or court testimony) is a caricature. You leave details out, you exaggerate other details, you prioritise description over realism. Describe how it felt, rather than focusing on how it was.

An allegedly Irish saying (and I don't remember where I first heard it, and I can't find it on google, which is kind of fitting) "The problem with some people is - they don't understand the difference between what actually happened and the Truth".
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 12:10 PM on November 23, 2009

Most importantly, where do storytellers get their stories?

While filming Juggernaut, a young Anthony Hopkins became friends with Richard Harris, which meant going out to the pub every night to listen to Harris reel out story after fabulous story. Hopkins, at Harris' encouragement, would occasionally trot out an anecdote of his own; one of these, an off-color little story about Hopkins' father back in Wales, was particularly successful and won Hopkins free drinks for the rest of the night. Harris made him repeat it twice.

Some time later, Hopkins went to a party and came upon Harris entertaining a crowd with an off-color little story about his dad back in Ireland.

"But that was really about my father!" Hopkins said to him later.

"It's a story, Tony," said Harris. "What the fuck does it matter whose father it was?"
posted by Iridic at 12:11 PM on November 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

As a storyteller (occasionally of tall, yet strangely believeable tales -- did you know croquet was brought back from China by Marco Polo?), I find it's important to know your audience. Think about your friends. You should know which of your friends goes for the long story, and which goes for the details only. You alter your approach for each one of those, right? Know who you're talking to, before you begin your story.

Another key is your face, and your eyes, if you are telling a story in person. You need to use your face as a prompter for how they're supposed to feel. Don't go overboard, you don't want to be cartoonish, but a subtle expression of, "hey, I know this is crazy, I wouldn't believe it either" works sometimes. Think about what your saying, and what your face is saying while you say it.

Eye contact. If you're telling a story to a group, you need to make eye contact, however fleeting, with each member of the group all throughout your story. If you're not looking at them, you're not talking to them.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:14 PM on November 23, 2009

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