How to Tell a Story Well

Tips on storytelling and how to become a good storyteller.
By Robin Moore
October/November 1991
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The cherries from the tree had small sets of antlers inside.
JIM DEIGAN
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I make my living by knowing how to tell a story well and am an author of books celebrating the oral tradition. The questions I'm most often asked are: "How did you get started in storytelling?" and "Who taught you how to tell a story?"

I have never been able to come up with satisfactory answers to these questions basically because I didn't "learn" to tell a story any more than I "learned" how to crawl or walk or run. But I did have a lot of examples of good storytelling techniques around me while I was growing up in rural Pennsylvania during the 1950s. My family, neighbors and friends were always telling stories. Of course they didn't call it that. To them it was just talk. From this "talk" I developed an active imagination and a love of language. I guess you could say they gave me the gift of gab.

I realize that not everyone was as fortunate as I was. I have been astonished to find that there are a lot of people who grew up without stories or storytelling. But whether you have storytelling in your background or not, I think just about anyone can be a good storyteller.

Here are a few simple tips on storytelling that will help you create and tell a story. I'll use "The Cherry Tree Buck" as an example. I first read this story in a book, but you can develop any story that interests you, regardless of its source. It's easier to start with stories from books or other people; then, once you have the hang of it, you can develop stories from your own imagination or personal memory.

Step one. The story lives in pictures, not words. You may have noticed that while you were reading the cherry story, you not only read the words but saw pictures in your imagination. It was almost as if you had a movie screen in your mind and you were watching the events unfold on the screen. This is storylistening.

To be a storyteller, you have to convert the story into images. To do this, I simply close my eyes and "daydream" my way through the story. As I do, my mind is making a movie of the story, which I can later draw on in telling my tale. When you have completed your "movie," place it in memory and open your eyes.

Step two. Now that you have the images of a story in your mind, you can tell it. When you tell a story, look two places at once: Look at your listeners, making eye contact with them as you do when you talk to someone. But also look onto the imaginary movie screen in your head and roll the film you've made. Now, simply describe to listeners what you're seeing!

Incidentally, when the listener hears the story, their "movie camera" clicks on, and they begin to see similar images in their minds. This is the magic of storytelling — using words, gestures, and facial expressions, you can transmit an image from your mind to the listener's. One of the great things about this technique is that you don't need to worry about rehearsal, memorization, or dramatics. You simply describe what you see as you are seeing it. That means you don't have to worry about forgetting the words. There are no words — only pictures.

Here are a few storytelling tips to help you in telling your stories compellingly:

Keep it simple. You don't need to describe everything in infinite detail. That would leave nothing for the listener to do. The art of storytelling is not so much about what you include as it is about what you leave out. Leave some things up to the listener's imagination; let him fill in the blanks. Better to tell a simple tale well than a complex tale poorly.

Don't rush through it. Slow down. Most stories improve by telling them at about half speed. Storytelling is a spoken art, so remember that both the ear and the mouth need time to savor the words. While there are some parts of stories that call for a quicker pace, use this fast-forward speech sparingly. If you start out at 90 miles an hour, where can you go from there?

Slowing down also lets silence come into your tale. Silence is to the storyteller as the darkness of the night sky is to a fireworks expert. If there were no darkness, the fireworks would not be nearly as spectacular.

Develop your own style. We all have a certain style of doing things. As in life, there are no rules about the style in which you tell a story. What works, works. Listen to other storytellers and emulate what you admire in their style in order to develop your own.

Editor 's note: If you'd like to learn more about the revival of the ancient art of storytelling, write the National Storytelling Network (P 0. Box 795, Jonesboro, TN 37659; tel: 800-525-4514).

THE CHERRY TREE BUCK

Now, I know you've all seen those old flintlock rifles. My grandfather had one that he had gotten from his father and, undoubtably, he had received it from his father. One day he took me deer hunting with that old-fashioned rifle.

We got all the way up in the woods when we realized that something pretty crucial had been forgotten. We had the rifle and the gunpowder, but the bullets had been left behind. So there we were, sitting pretty stupid.

Now, fortunately, my grandmother had packed us some cherries for lunch, and we were eating those cherries and sitting underneath the tree, trying to figure out what to do. I spit out a cherry pit and said to my grandfather, "Could we use these for bullets?"

He said, "I like that kind of thinking." And he took one of the pits and dropped it down the barrel of the gun, took a ramrod and shoved it down there. We sat real quiet and, sure enough, in a few minutes, a great big buck came walking out of the woods.

Now, I know you know that in those days a lot of people wouldn't have any meat on the table if it weren't for the white-tailed deer. And we waited and we watched and that deer came walking down the trail toward us.

And my grandfather raised that old fashioned rifle and he sighted it on that deer's chest. He held his breath, pulled the trigger...and the shot went off just fine.

When the smoke cleared, I looked and saw that the deer was still standing there as if it wasn't even hurt. He was just shaking his head back and forth.

I could see that the hair in between his antlers was roughed up a little bit and I realized what had happened. My grandfather probably shot a little high and that cherry pit must have flown through the air and lodged itself in the skin between the deer's antlers. Now that's pretty strange. After a moment, the deer came to his senses and ran off.

We kind of forgot about it, and then the next year we were out wandering around in that part of the woods. I know you've all seen cherry blossoms in the spring and can recognize those white blossoms a mile off. We looked up through the woods — the leaves were just coming on the trees — and we saw this cherry tree walking down the trail toward us!

And when we looked, sure enough, there he was. It was that deer with a little tiny cherry tree growing out of the top of his head. We followed the deer around for awhile in amazement and put the pieces together. The seed must have managed to find enough food to grow there on the deer's head, and later on in the season he got a beautiful crop of hair that had little red cherries in it.

We could actually collect those cherries by following the deer through the woods. 'Cause you know, every now and then, the branches would sweep those cherries off and we'd pick them up. Every year, we just loved to watch the cherry tree deer through all the seasons. And you know what? My grandfather decided we were going to protect that deer because, even in central Pennsylvania, we very rarely get a deer with a cherry tree growing out of the top of his head.

So we put signs all around the land. We didn't want the hunters to come near the cherry tree buck's stomping ground, and the hunters respected my grandfather enough to obey.

The years passed, and that deer grew up just fine. The cherry tree grew just as well and came to be about five feet tall. What's more, you could get about a bushel of cherries off the head of that deer every season, should you be inclined to follow him around for some time.

And then one year, late in the fall and during the hunting season, we were walking around in the cornfield and I heard a sound up in the woods. It sounded like a modern rifle. We ran up there and discovered that a hunter had trespassed on our land. I don't know where he came from, but he was standing on the edge of the cornfield, looking down at something at his feet. When we ran closer, we could see that it was the cherry tree buck that he had killed.

I never saw my grandfather lose his temper like he did that day. He grabbed that man by the scruff of his neck and the seat of his pants and dragged him off our land. When he came back, we examined the deer.

We could see he was dead. Now, normally in a case like that, we would have taken the deer's skin and made something out of it: moccasins or bags. We would have taken the meat and given it to my grandmother, and she would have cooked it for us. We would have used a lot of other parts of the deer, but we didn't do that this time.

Instead, my grandfather went and got two shovels and we dug a hole there in the cornfield and we buried the deer right there with his legs folded under, his nose facing east and his cherry tree sticking out of the ground.

And sure enough, that next spring the tree grew just fine right there, right over the deer's grave. We got a beautiful crop of cherries that year. I can remember walking out there when they were just coming into red. I walked out, reached up to select one of the cherries, put it in my mouth and — ow!!! There was something hard in my mouth! A little twig or something.

I picked another one and owww!! Another little twiggy thing. And then I looked and I could see every one of those little individual cherries had a little set of deer antlers in them.

And they were perfectly good cherries. The only problem was, by the time you had de-pitted and de-antlered all those cherries, it would take you a whole afternoon to get enough to make a pie. But as far as I know, that cherry tree is still growing there, and I hope it grows there a long, long time.


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