March 10, 2010 12:33 PM   Subscribe

Teach me how to tell stories.

Some people have the ability to tell stories from everyday life in a way that captivates and entertains their audience. I want this ability.

When I tell my friends about the crazy thing that happened in the super market, I want to tell that story in a way where they can't wait to hear what happens next. I want them to laugh at the fun points and gasp in excitement at the exciting points.

Let's assume that whatever story I'm telling is actually a good story, and that it's the story telling that is not up to par.
posted by cheerleaders_to_your_funeral to Human Relations (20 answers total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
The biggest thing that comes to mind in regards to storytelling is necessary vs unnecessary detail. Embellish your story, but don't provide unnecessary setup.


If your story is about a funny situation in a supermarket , you don't need to explain to them the reason you were going to the supermarket, what you were wearing, when it occured unless its directly related to what makes the story funny.

Timing is essential to storytelling.
posted by lakerk at 12:38 PM on March 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

Not long ago I ran into an acquaintance who I hadn't seen in a while, and she got to telling us an amusing tale of a party-gone-wrong. I'm not much of a people person, and she wasn't even someone I usually hit it off with well, but I found myself in stitches. Her pacing and word choice were so spot-on that I asked if she'd been rehearsing - it was so polished, I thought maybe she'd been working on a book of essays or something.

Instead, she told me she'd taken an incredibly boring data entry job, and was spending her entire day listening to back-episodes of This American Life. Apparently it had rubbed off.
posted by deludingmyself at 12:41 PM on March 10, 2010 [4 favorites]

Previous threads that you might find useful: 1, 2, 3, 4
posted by Jelly at 12:44 PM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

The most important thing: it doesn't have to be short, but keep the distance between funny or interesting bits short. There is nothing more horrifying or repellent than hearing a story from someone and listening to an excruciating four or five minutes of setup. If people are breaking eye contact a lot or messing with an object on the table or not engaging you or reacting well, abort. It is better to just stop and say "I'M BORING" than to keep on with a shittily-told story.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 1:04 PM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Part of the "Framework for Understanding Poverty" literature which has been discussed here previously (which I like, and appreciate, and relate to because I grew up crazy poor, but which is not generally well received here at MeFi) includes a section about story telling that I hadn't ever thought about until I read it.

My dad used to be a professional story teller...and damn if he's not good at it.

Anyway, one of the things that it discussed was the power of language and timelines in story telling. Using the story of cinderella as an example:

Lots of folks will say "once upon a time, there was a girl, lived in a house with evil step sisters, blah blah blah"

A good story teller will throw linear progression right out the window "I ever tell you about that mean ol' wicked step mother, how she almost made Cinderella lose out on her prince charming?" And then tell the story in chunks from there, encouraging audience participation.

So, like, when I tell the story about how I went scuba diving and almost drowned trying to catch a spiny lobster, I start it off like "Yea, one time I got my ass kicked by a lobster. Bastard didn't even have claws." And then it goes from there.

We're big on stories 'round here, but I think what makes a lot of them awesome is colloquial humor, dialect usage, and absurdity of the situation. Even if it's not really absurd, you can make it absurd.
posted by TomMelee at 1:14 PM on March 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

Talk quickly but clearly, use simple, deft descriptions, bring the audience into the story with you, and don't let 30 seconds go by without getting a laugh, groan, or gasp from everyone listening.
posted by Damn That Television at 1:17 PM on March 10, 2010

Keep your audience in mind. A story about the cute kid I babysit for is absolutely riveting to...her parents! But not to my boyfriend. Don't indulge in contrived set-ups, like "Now what do you think the homeless guy said to us after we gave him change?" Just say it, and don't make us feel like trained pets. Minimize extraneous details, especially if the story is about someone we don't know. A multiparagraph exegesis about some stranger's life story is incredibly boring. Do not end the story with "It was soo funny" as it automatically makes said story 20% less funny.
posted by zoomorphic at 1:21 PM on March 10, 2010

Nthing leaving out everything that isn't crucial to the story. If people have questions about the stuff you left out, they will ask. My mom will sometimes have a funny story to tell, but she'll meander all over the place about stuff that has nothing to do with anything and go off on these tangents. In my head, whenever the story wraps up twenty minutes later, I can usually have told the same thing in three sentences or less. When people have to sit through a bunch of stuff they don't care about, their mind wanders, they just want the story to be over, and no punchline will be a big enough pay-off for the time invested.

Also, I think it helps to be animated.
posted by Nattie at 1:44 PM on March 10, 2010

I'm from a storytelling family. A few things I've picked up:

TomMelee's point is a good one about setup; it helps if you kick a question into the minds of your audience. "Did I ever tell you about the time I couldn't see blue for 4 days?" etc.

Timing is important.

Dialog is important too. Don't be afraid to embroider here, and make sure you have the key lines down. Nothing worse than a story including lines like "And then she said something really funny about her cats. So I said..."
posted by craven_morhead at 1:44 PM on March 10, 2010

Take a listen to some of the stories from The Moth.
posted by ColdChef at 1:56 PM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Problem/Solution pairs.

You want to keep people on the hook & you do that by promising some sort of payoff for listening.

- You can introduce a problem that needs to be solved
- You can introduce a character out of their comfort zone & set up the fact that something unexpected (but what??) will happen

Just ensure that the listener has the question "And then what happened?" in their head at all times. In order to do that, you can nest the problem/solution pairs, so that one problem leads to another problem, and by the time you've solved the 2nd problem, you still haven't solved the first problem.

Also keep in mind the writing axiom - start when the conflict is about to come to a boil. Most movie plots were actually set into motion years ago (Sauromon, Those terrorists who took over that building in Die Hard, that cursed treasure thing in Pirates of the Carribean), but you don't get the backstory until absolutely necessary to explain why the characters take the actions that they do.
posted by MesoFilter at 2:11 PM on March 10, 2010

Absolutely keep audience in mind. I still remember the tedious horror of listening to an old school friend talk for what seemed like hours about this party and how funny it was when this chick broke this other chick's nose and there's like blood everywhere and it was sooooooo funny.

Not a funny story, went way too long and really not suited to the audience. And the endless 'this chick' and 'that chick' and 'some other chick'. Constantly explaining who you're referring to is jarring and awkward.
posted by geek anachronism at 2:59 PM on March 10, 2010

I would go with a total overhaul of your storytelling methods. Begin by focusing on one sentence stories. There should be a beginning, middle, and end. Identify the things that have happened to you that can be told effectively in one sentence. Figure out a way to craft a sentence that is clear, concise, and meaningful. Tell multiple stories. Try different versions of the sentence for each of the stories. Experiment. See how people react and respond to your different strategies. You will soon find that many of the stories you have taken minutes to tell can, in fact, be told in seconds. When you have conquered the one sentence story, switch to three.

The three sentence story has the same structure: introduction, middle, and conclusion. Many of the stories that you told as one sentence stories will not work as three sentence stories. Many stories that did not work as one sentence stories will now be available to you as effective three sentence stories. It is up to you to discover the difference.

When you have mastered the three sentence structure, you are ready for the longer format. The longer format is simply a combination of the one sentence story and the three sentence story. That is, the longer tale will have multiple one sentence and three sentence stories within it. Only this tension will captivate your audience. There will be an adjustment in your rhythm, but you will have mastered the components. You will value efficiency. You will know the difference between a one sentence story, a three sentence story, and a tale. Unless you are a naturally gifted story teller with an unusual life (or a willingness and ability to embellish), you'll only have a few tales to tell in your life. The dream you had last night is not one of them.
posted by one_bean at 4:30 PM on March 10, 2010

Recommend watching the movie Capote.

P.S. Hoffman portrays a lisping fancy-clothed Southern stranger, who disarms a roomful of hostile Midwesterners through the sheer power of narrative, speaking quietly and slowly, and telling a story about one of his relatives.

note 1: The power of narrative works when the narrative has an interesting or worthwhile point to it.

note 2: Don't do what I did after watching this movie, and start lisping for no rational reason.
posted by ovvl at 5:33 PM on March 10, 2010

I think of they keys lies not in ridding unnecessary detail, but knowing what unnecessary details are worth leaving in. This could be a good story:

"We were on a bus tour through Africa and the woman next to me opened her mouth and a bug the size of a fist flew through the window into it."

There's nothing unnecessary there, and that's why it's so dull. If you add in some of the personality of this woman, how boring the bus trip was, how insufferable she was as she kept yapping about loving African wildlife, whatever, then it builds up the story so it actually has a climax.

If, however, you talk about how you'd almost taken a photo of a cheetah that day, or how your feet were tired, or how you couldn't work out the tipping, that can be the kind of unnecessary detail that kills the story.

Also, it helps if you find the story funny. The friend this happened to tells this story but always ends up doubled over laughing about half way through, so the rest of the story is long and drawn out as he struggles to get the words out, and is followed by several minutes of him trying to emulate her reaction as he's still laughing about it. By then, of course, everyone listening to him is laughing just as much - more for the sheer absurdity of the situation (they haven't even heard the end yet) than the story itself.
posted by twirlypen at 6:16 PM on March 10, 2010

The most important thing is to be good at it. Or, to put it more helpfully (!), feel free to ignore any of the rules and suggestions given here except the ones that work for you. Some people give the bare bones of a story and it's as if you've held your own skeleton in your hands; others try the laconic style and it just comes out dull. Some people can weave what seem like zillions of irrelevant details into a gorgeous backdrop from which the punchline will suddenly shoot out and leave you gasping (with laughter or shock or tears)--none of those details will seem unnecessary. But others might take the same story and the same details, and it's as if they're drowning a puppy in treacle.

Timing is everything, but what that means when you're the person speaking is for you to find out. One person can hold a pause for five, ten seconds or more and it will just increase the power of whatever words come next; for another, a pause of two seconds would just break the momentum. Or this could be the same person talking to two different audiences.

What you do when you're not speaking is as important as what you do when you are.

(Speaking as someone who used to get paid to tell scary stories, and has a brother who still gets paid to tell funny ones.)
posted by lapsangsouchong at 8:12 PM on March 10, 2010

I like this old piece from Esquire that has much the same recommendations. But in a story.
posted by thijsk at 6:37 AM on March 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

It should go without saying, but practice.

If you suck at this now, you're going to keep sucking; the achievable goal is to slowly suck less over time, have fun with it, and some day figure out that you've got this one down, in spades.
posted by talldean at 4:29 AM on March 12, 2010

Telling captivating stories is as simple as being able to identify the important details and exaggerate believably. Not overselling the story (Wow THE MOST AMAZING THING HAPPENED TO ME) is important too. The "important details" piece is maybe the most important. When someone is telling me a story and I'm completely disinterested, it is usually because they are telling me what color shoes they were wearing or some other meaningless piece of information.
posted by plungerjoke at 12:58 PM on March 12, 2010

Seemingly unimportant details can work sometimes too, but personally I think it is best to get down expressing the narrative in an engaging way before you start trying to flesh out the story with unimportant details that combine to create a sense of place/time/etc.
posted by plungerjoke at 1:00 PM on March 12, 2010

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