Once Upon a Time...
July 2, 2004 7:33 PM   Subscribe

How does one tell a good story?

Everybody knows those storytellers who have everybody hanging on to their every word, whose stories are always funny and never dull. How do I learn to be that guy? Or should I just go fuck myself?
posted by callmejay to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
is that something you can learn? i always thought it was just a gift...and a good story told badly or awkwardly is still a good story, no matter what.
posted by amberglow at 7:51 PM on July 2, 2004

There are two parts to telling a good story: crafting the story itself, and showmanship. You can learn both. The former is basically the same as writing fiction and there are plenty of ways to learn that. The latter is basically acting and there are plenty of ways to learn that, too.

But amberglow is right, it helps to have at least some talent, although talent affects mostly how much work it is to learn these skills and thus how good you can get at them in your lifetime, not necessarily whether you can learn them at all. Everyone can become the best they can be through practice.
posted by kindall at 8:16 PM on July 2, 2004

Well, there's a difference between telling a great story, and being a great storyteller, I think. Someone with the gift of telling stories can basically tell almost any story well, and that's pretty rare. On the other hand, I definitely ascribe to a more democratic belief that everyone's got a couple of great stories, and I'm all for their learning to tell them well.

The most important thing is probably to tell it a lot--both to the people you know (without hitting the same folks too many times), but also to yourself in your head. The idea is not to memorize it as a fixed performance, but to get a sense of what works, what doesn't, and make sure you don't leave out the important bits along the way.
posted by LairBob at 8:18 PM on July 2, 2004

Timing, economy, choice. Practise, practise, practise.

Get things in the right order. Space your words properly. Leave out everything you can, unless you are so funny that you can spin any old rope into gold. Pick your words carefully for sense, for assonance, for rhythm.

Study rhetoric. Listen to speakers you admire, comedians, broadcasters, whoever, and ask yourself how they do it Notice that the best don't use the voice alone, they use their faces and their hands and their whole bodies.

Be prepared to bore the shit out of your soon-to-be-ex friends as you practise.

Join an improv troupe, or Toastmasters, or any organisation where you can practise speaking.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:20 PM on July 2, 2004

Unless there's a punchline, consider starting at the end and explain how you got there. Or start in the middle. Going non-linear can make otherwise mundane events seem more interesting.
posted by whatnot at 9:33 PM on July 2, 2004

Setup is nine tenths of storytelling. Once you have a good setup, spool the story out carefully but don't overemphasize economy. Good storytelling can ramble quite a bit, so long as you keep the rambling interesting and -- if not actually relevant -- entertaining.

A good storyteller opens with a hook, builds tension by adding the right level of detail, and truly owns the story with the use of showmanship.
posted by majick at 10:14 PM on July 2, 2004

My sister is an amazing storyteller. She can hold an audience for thirty minutes at a time.

Part of it is that her stories always have some sort of punchline. The other part is practice.

I asked her once how she does it, and she told me that a lot of it was in watching the audience. If the audience looks bored, she truncates the story and gets to the punchline early. If they're receptive, she fills in details.

It sounds a lot like playing a song to me. Very different than writing. I wish I could do it.
posted by interrobang at 10:28 PM on July 2, 2004

Be prepared to bore the shit out of your soon-to-be-ex friends as you practise.
ARE You listening Giles Abbott! (joke - jeez)

I'm assuming that you mean story telling in the traditional sense. I don't know where you're based, but there may be some kind of storytelling group near to where you live. Its probably good to join such a group. Firstly you get to practice in front of people who not only know that you're doing it wrong, but also what it is you're doing wrong. Secondly, if you want to be a good story teller, you need to immerse yourself in other people telling stories.

Getting slightly more serious. If you want to do it professionally or semi-professionally, then you'll probably need to get a bit of voice coaching.
posted by seanyboy at 1:18 AM on July 3, 2004

I get told that I am a good story teller from time to time, and I have had friends that are certainly better than me, and my family members who are basically more interested in filling the air with words rather than actually telling a story. I still bore people sometimes, but I realized that when I will be with a group of people that I often find myself trying to remember the timing and flow of the events that made it memorable in the first place. Listen to other peoples poorly executed stories and presentations, and figure out what you think they are doing wrong.

Like most any other excersize in creativity or communication, its a matter of staying on track and knowing what details to give and what to leave out. If its truly funny or interesting, then it wont need embellishing. Dont sidetrack yourself and decide that a different, tangential story is better, you will just end up rambling until someone interrupts you (if your friends are anything like mine).

Most stories can be broken into many smaller parts. Dont try to give a weeks worth of background if all you want to tell is a quip. If you are describing some weird events on a vacation, say, dont start with packing your clothes and going to the airport, and the flight, and how crappy the airline food is if you are trying to tell about a chance encounter halfway through. Let the story unfold naturally and make sure you are getting to the point.

Finally, practice and pay attention to the audience. If you cant act naturally in front of a group of staring and expectant people, you will never pull off a good story, regardless of the content.

Of course, timing is everything.

(i wish I could make my writing more succint).
posted by lkc at 3:30 AM on July 3, 2004

Timing, economy, choice.

I would add, have something interesting or humorous to say. But choice is probably more important. I've heard more good stories ruined by someone either failing to say the "good parts" in the right way, or explaining too much stuff that isn't necessary.

For instance, a friend of mine...

See, that can be unnecessary. "A friend of mine" or "My cousin's sister's godson" separates the story from the storyteller. Unless the story is specific, like "A friend of mine once went to Tibet" you are allowed some liberties.

Leave out everything that's superfluous. If you're trying to tell a story about the time you were nearly killed by a mob of angry goats, you don't need to give a whole lot of backstory. "When I was in New Zealand a couple of years ago" is far better than "I was on this student exchange program where students from New Zealand came to America, and American students went to New Zealand, and I was chosen to go to New Zealand."

Drop the back story, drop the side stories, but don't scrimp on details that either add good flavor or somehow relate to the "punchline". Here's the most important thing, however:

Have a good story to tell. A good story isn't something that happens to everyone, and shouldn't take an hour to tell. Choose from only the creme-de-la-creme of life experiences. It should come as no surprise that many times stories are told with subtlety and finesse, yet are so mundane and commonplace that they are automatically boring (aka, "My Trip to New York" or "The Guy Who Cut Me Off in Traffic").

Finally, one good tip: collect a bunch of stories, then break them out only when a related subject in conversation comes along. Many times a good story just needs a good catch, a good intro to get people's attention.

And recognize when your time is up, and you need to finish.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:58 AM on July 3, 2004 [1 favorite]

Also, read these. They are all very, very good examples of good storytelling.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:03 AM on July 3, 2004

posted by the fire you left me at 5:06 AM on July 3, 2004

Illustrative hand and body gestures are key to good storytelling, I think.

Also, it helps a lot if, when you're telling a story about someone else, you say all their dialogue in an impersonation of their voice.
posted by Prospero at 7:43 AM on July 3, 2004

All great advice.

Also, consider exploring the gap between the expected outcome and the actual outcome of any event. The more things go as planned, the less entertaining a story is. (Pretty much every episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" follows this model).

Another trick, highlight the discrepancy between the way a person views themselves and the way other people actually see them.

Misdirects like these are building blocks to amusing stories.
posted by herc at 11:08 AM on July 3, 2004

More than the story itself, you've got to have a real desire to be the center of attention. If you don't have that, you'll never be a good storyteller.
posted by fuzz at 11:57 AM on July 3, 2004

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