You Too Can Learn the Art of Storytelling

Learning the art of storytelling requires practice, but the payoff is worth the effort.
By David Holt
September/October 1981
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Holt spins his tale.
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The art of storytelling is an exciting act of creation, both for the teller who spins out a chronicle and for the listener who re-creates the tale in his or her mind. It involves a special kind of sharing and enjoyment, one that people have loved ever since our ancestors first huddled around a fire.

What's more, a national resurgence of interest in storytelling is underway today in homes, schools, colleges, community centers, and libraries. Spearheading this renaissance are an increasing number of accomplished tale-spinners who—by expanding, refining, and experimenting with different styles and techniques—are making more and more people aware of storytelling as an art form (and often earning a good living, as well). There's even a full-blown society—the National Storytelling Network—that sponsors the National Storytelling Festival every October.

And just why is there an upswing of enthusiasm for the age-old form of entertainment? Well, perhaps one reason is that storytelling is both fun and meaningful. Narratives can cover the full range of human experience including adventure, terror, romance, sorrow, joy, and humor. In addition, storytelling is no longer considered "just" a diversion for children, but is enjoyed by people of all ages. Relating a good narrative is also seen as real-person-to-person and mind-to-mind-entertainment. But the single most important factor in the current storytelling renaissance (and one of the most wonderful things about the art itself) may well be the fact that anyone can be a storyteller.

After all, you need only to be able to talk ...and in fact I can't even place that limitation upon you, because some of the best storytelling I've ever witnessed was done by a young deaf man who didn't speak at all! Actually, all you really need to become a storyteller is the desire to do it.

This article will—I hope—help you focus that interest by giving you some tips on choosing, learning, and relating stories.

Selecting a Tale

The first rule of choosing a story to share is to find one you really like. Only if a narrative is meaningful and entertaining to you will you be able to transmit its magic to others. And indeed, not everyone can tell the same kind of story successfully. I think most people have built-in affinities for the types of tales they tell best. I have a friend, for instance, who has to work to make a humorous story funny ...but can—seemingly without effort—spin a ghost tale that'll make your hair stand on end!

So your first task as a prospective oral chronicler is to find a story you can relate to. But where, you may want to know, can a person find such stories? Well, it's easy. They're everywhere. Great tales can be shaped from the reminiscences of old people, conversations with friends, or stories remembered from childhood. In fact, I'll often take a brief anecdote that I've heard and expand on it to make a full-fledged story. 

Your local library is also a fine source of folktale, history, and science fiction books that can provide you with an abundance of good story material. My own favorite technique for finding worthwhile tales in the library is to head straight for the folklore section (look for Dewey Decimal number 398) and then follow "Holt's Magnetic Method of Story Selection" ...that is, I stand before the shelves and wait to be magically drawn to a book. I glance a bit through every book that draws me and, if it still looks good after a brief perusal, I take it home. (Mind you, really great stories are few and far between. I feel lucky if I find one in an entire collection!)

When you're just beginning, it's best to pick a narrative that has an easy-to-follow sequence, and save the more complicated recitations for later. You'll find one such basic story—"The Tailor"— at the end of this article. You can, of course, start off with any account you like, but I'll use this one to demonstrate ways to learn and tell a story.

Read the Story Over (and Over)

To learn a tale yourself, read it over a few times until you can visualize all the events in your mind when you think it through. I like to peruse a new narrative two or three times and then put the book down and start telling the tale. After the trial run, if I don't feel clear about a certain section, I'll go back to the book.

I know some people who read a story as many as 60 times, to implant it, word for word, in their minds, but I don't enjoy memorization myself. Besides, I consider ad-libbing part of the fun, so I don't worry about repeating the story exactly. Literary language doesn't always translate well into speech anyway. (Of course, some pieces—such as poetry and prose poems—demand to be performed verbatim.)

Another technique that can be helpful when learning a tale is to make a tape of yourself reading it aloud. Then you can listen to it whenever you have a minute. Or—this old standby always seems to work for me—you can read the saga right before going to bed and then go over it again in the morning. (It's amazing how fast some folks can absorb a story by doing that!) Try them all, then settle on whatever method or methods best help you get the basic outline of the tale in mind. After that, concentrate on the parts that will need to be memorized: the beginning, ending, and any key lines.

The beginning. If you have the first few sentences of a story committed to memory, you can get up before a group with confidence, because you'll know exactly how you're going to start. A strong opening will also give the audience confidence in you and let them relax. From there, you can just relate the story as it comes. In time, after repeated tellings, any narrator's version of a story tends to crystallize into a certain form. But the first few times of sharing a new narrative are like walking through an enchanted forest ...you never know what to expect. So go ahead and say what occurs to you. Some of your best ideas will evolve that way.

The ending. The end of a story is like the punch line of a joke. You need to know it and know how to deliver it. A weak conclusion will hurt the whole tale, but a strong closing will leave people with the feeling that the story had power. (Sometimes you'll have to play with the written phrasing to make it work effectively when spoken.)

As an example, take a look at "The Tailor." I'd memorize this much of the beginning: "In a village once lived a poor tailor. He had made overcoats for many people, but he had never made one for himself, though an overcoat was the one thing he wanted." From there, I'd pretty much rely on my vision of the story to carry me through until I got to the end, when I would say exactly this: " ... there was just enough left of that button to make this story."

It's important, too, to concentrate on how to deliver that last line. If you race through the words, the whole conclusion will fall flat. But if you make a short pause (of three seconds or so) before you finally say, "to make this story," you will be almost guaranteed a good reaction from the audience.

Key lines. Many old stories contain passages or rhymes that are particularly powerful. Such lines add substance to the narrative and are often worth committing to memory. In "The Tailor," for instance, the catch phrase is "He wore it until it was all worn out. At least he thought it was all worn out, but ..." These lines-repeated, with only slight variation, several times throughout the story are, in large part, why the tale works so well when told out loud. Indeed, the audience will usually begin to chuckle when they hear the words for the third time.

Practice Your Delivery

Once you've memorized the necessary parts and feel comfortable with the flow of your narrative, it's time to practice actually telling it. My favorite time for working on a story is while I'm driving my car. I just roll up the windows and have at it. I've also found that small children make wonderfully forgiving practice audiences. I even have a friend who rehearses in front of her German Shepherd!

Telling the Tale

After you've practiced long enough to build your confidence, you'll be prepared for a more critical audience: an entire classroom full of children, a group of friends, or perhaps only a passenger in your car. It doesn't matter who it is, but until you've told the story to someone else, you won't really know it. Sharing makes a tale become part of you and makes it live for others. The actual relating and the joy that it brings are the heart and soul of storytelling.

Don't worry about being nervous. Just plunge in and start telling! Most of your anxiety will subside after you've presented the tale often enough to really know it. Besides, I find that a little nervousness is essential, because it gives a story a special effervescence.

Naturally, the more you're absorbed in the narrative—feeling it, seeing it, experiencing it—the more you'll be able to pull others into it. But you shouldn't have any trouble grabbing the audience's interest. Remember, the listeners want to be invited into the imaginary land that a good story creates and won't want to be pulled back to reality until the story is over. You know the feeling of being interrupted while reading a good book: It's almost painful to wrench your imagination out of that other world. A storyteller's listeners should be under the same spell.

Here are a few suggestions to help you put and keep them there.

Don't make excuses ...forge ahead. If you start off by apologizing about not really knowing the narrative or being very nervous, your remarks will put the listeners on edge. The audience will start concentrating on your lack of confidence rather than on the story itself.

If you do make a mistake, work around the error. (Fake it!) The audience will tolerate little slip-ups. If, on the other hand, you say, "Oh, I made a mistake," you'll have broken the chain of images that holds the story together. Most small errors won't make any real difference to the narrative anyway. And if you leave out something important, you can always insert it the way folklorist Richard Chase does. He'll simply say, "And you must remember ..." and then relate the critical information that he forgot.

Pause if you get lost. If you lose your place in a story, don't say anything ... just pause long enough to determine what should happen next in the tale. Stopping the narrative momentarily doesn't upset the flow of the story for the listeners. They can stand a period of silence better than they can deal with stammering around or excuses that may make them uncomfortable and break their concentration.

Gestures. Movements of the hands and body enliven some tales ...particularly those stories with a lot of excitement. It's a safe bet that if your actions grow out of your concentration on the narrative, they'll enhance your performance. I can't stop using my hands when I'm sharing a tale. It's part of my personality, so it's become part of my storytelling style as well.

The only gestures you'll want to avoid are those that call attention to you. Biting your fingernails or lips, pulling at your hair, or nervously kicking your leg will distract the listeners and tell them you're not really caught up in the tale. So have a friend watch and point out any unconscious anxious gestures. You may have such nervous habits when you start out, but don't worry ...they'll probably fade as you gain experience and are able to focus all your energy on the story.

Make your voice dynamic. Nothing will extinguish an audience's interest more quickly than will a monotonous delivery. Did you ever notice how disk jockeys and television announcers use their voices? If you try imitating sentences you hear on the air, you'll observe that their speech varies from extreme high to extreme low pitch in a single phrase. They do it to keep us listening, yet most times we're not consciously aware of this tonal movement. So take a tip from the professionals and put variety in your voice.

Speak slow enough. Like most people, you probably tend to talk fast when you get nervous. If this starts to happen, take a breath or two ...relax ...picture your story ... and then relate it. Remember, there's no need to spill forth a continuous flow of words. Pauses in a narrative can actually heighten its effect.

Speak loud enough. A good storyteller sends his or her voice out, into the audience, rather than letting it fall on the floor. Tell your story to the people at the back of the group. You'll still be able to relate the saga in a quiet manner, if desired, just be sure to deliberately project your voice.

Make eye contact. Direct eye contact helps you communicate well. There will always be some encouraging faces and smiles in the audience. (Those folks want you to do well, remember?) So direct your story to responsive individuals, and let them know you're talking to them. (Eye contact will also keep you involved in your story, help you project your voice, and let you stay in touch with the audience's reactions.)

Enjoy the Magic of Storytelling

When it's your turn to tell a story, take over the time and space with confidence, and then do it. Those last two words—do it—are the key phrase in this whole article. After all, the more you tell stories, the better you'll get, the more fun you'll have. and the more enjoyment you'll give.

For me, every aspect of storytelling is a pleasure ...including the entertainment I give and receive from telling, the people I meet, and the stories I discover. But on top of all that, there's something more: I can't imagine many activities more satisfying than holding an audience in my spell while I weave a tapestry of pictures in their imagination. Try it. You'll experience a feeling of breathing new life into the most ancient of art forms and, in turn, having it breathe new life into you.

EDITOR'S NOTE: David Holt has just released a recording—called The Hairyman and Other Wild Tales—that includes "The Hairyman," "The Amazing Hogaphone," "The Magic Fiddle," "The First Motorcycle in Black Mountain," and other stories. Many feature banjo, fiddle, guitar, or harmonica accompaniment. The collection is available as either a record album or a cassette tape from David Holt. 

The National Storytelling Festival will be held this year on October 3, 4, and 5 in Jonesboro, Tennessee.  


The Tailor

In a village once lived a poor tailor. He had made overcoats for many people, but he had never made one for himself, though an overcoat was the one thing he wanted. He never had enough money to buy material and set it aside for himself, without making something to sell. But he saved and saved, bit by bit, and at last he had saved enough.  

He bought the cloth and cut it carefully, so as not to waste any. He sewed up the coat, and it fit him perfectly. He was proud of that coat. He wore it when it was even the least bit cold. He wore it until it was all worn out.  

At least he thought it was all worn out, but then he looked closely and he could see that there was just enough good material left to make a jacket. So he cut up the coat and made a jacket. It fit just as well as the coat, and he could wear it even more often. He wore it until it was all worn out.  

At least it seemed to be all worn out, but he looked again, and he could see that there was still enough good material to make a vest. So he cut up the jacket and sewed up a vest. He tried it on, and he looked most distinguished. He wore that vest every single day. He wore it until it was all worn out.  

At least he thought it was all worn out, but when he looked it over carefully, he saw some places here and there that were not worn. So he cut them out, sewed them together, and made a cap. He tried it on, and it looked just right. He wore it outdoors and in, until it was all worn out.  

At least it seemed to be all worn out, but when he looked, he could see that there was just enough left to make a button. So he cut up the cap and made a button. It was a good button. He wore it every day, until it was all worn out.  

At least he thought it was all worn out, but when he looked closely, he could see that there was just enough left of that button ...to make this story.  

Used by permission from Nancy Schimmel's Just Enough to Make a Story, Sisters' Choice Press. 1978. 


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