The art of storytelling is an ancient craft, practiced by mystics, troubadours, and bards alike. A common question I get, and a challenging one at that, is Odds, how do you do that? In short, it requires building a world inside your imagination and reporting what you see as you proceed down the narrative’s road. If you would like to start to develop your storytelling skills, I’d like to help demystify the process by contributing some helpful tips.
Discover Your Imagination
Imagination is the key skill of the storyteller. Your imagination is your memory, just taken a step further into “dreaming while awake.” For instance, make a picture in your mind of your bedroom. Focus on the bed. Now, imagine there’s a blue ball of light hovering above it. You’ve just added a bit of imagination to a familiar memory image. If you like, you can make the blue ball hum in a friendly way. You can make it float up to the window. So if you think of your memories as a palette of bright paints, imagination is taking your memories and painting with them. You can invent landscapes, events, characters and actions. It takes practice, but once you’ve learned to train your imagination, it can produce anything—and become your storyteller’s most prized tool.
“But I don’t have a good imagination,” you might say. I’d respond, “No, you have an undiscovered imagination.” Ever had one of those long, complex dreams at night, filled with amazing detail? Most people have them all the time. Sometimes these dream narratives outdo cinema and video games in their vividness. If your unconscious mind can produce such amazing stories as you sleep, then you have that authorial power in you somewhere. It doesn’t need to remain locked away during sleep. A storyteller’s job is to dream while awake, and to use words to describe those visions. It’s not inspiration, it’s a skill.
Use your Five Imaginations
To truly immerse yourself in imagination, learn to use all five of your sensory imaginations:
Visual – the chief driver of your imagination. Learning how to imagine settings in three dimensional space in real time is your most important skill to hone.
Auditory – imagining how things sound is critical, especially if you’re making sound effects. Believe it or not, this too can be taught, but it starts with hearing the sound you’re trying to mimic in your mind.
Kinesthetic – movement is key in storytelling. This is perhaps what sets it apart most from storybook readings, and creates a much more dynamic telling as the world moves within your mind..
Olfactory – when telling stories, sharing how something smells is one of the best ways to evoke a memory in your audience’s minds, and thus a visceral response. Practicing smelling and describing scents is a great way to practice this skill.
Gustatory – similar to your olfactory imagination, taste is directly linked to memory. As a storyteller, utilize this in your stories by describing what a character tastes to tap into your audience’s imaginations on a deeper level. .
Let’s take the example of the blue ball hovering above your bed. If you make it hum, that’s adding auditory. If you make it smell like peppermint, that’s olfactory. If you walk up to it and touch it and it’s cool, that’s kinesthetic. If you lick it and it tastes like peppermint, that’s gustatory. If you can learn to combine all five of your imaginations while you tell stories, it’s lots of fun and gives you many more ways to remember your material. That, and it provides a richness that is almost like being there, even if it’s all just imaginary.
Internalize the Story
Painters keep a notebook full of sketches. For storytellers, it’s a notebook full of story sketches. Modern people have all kinds of devices to help them remember things nowadays. Voice memos, text messages, hard drives, cloud storage, all of these things hold data. However, when it comes to learning to tell new stories, nothing can replace the simple paper diary or journal for keeping them in one place where they can grow.
I tell over a hundred stories, some of them long-form, an hour or longer – Beowulf. The Odyssey. David and Goliath. Hercules in Hell – what I call feature-length tales. I’ve written down my own versions of them in my journals and still keep them to this day. Each of these long tales I’ve found in literary sources, but since I follow the ethic that these tales must emerge in my own words (no plagiarism or ChatGPT allowed) to escape any previous author’s words, I’ve taken each story through a process that allows me to make the story mine.
Firstly, I read a new story from start to finish and make mental images as I go. However, those are another author’s words and they may be elegant, but I don’t want them. Instead, I want the imagery—an inner movie of the story itself. Next, I read it again, but I take notes, brief phrases that describe key events, scenes and characters. I make a character list, too, so I’m familiar with the cast of players in the tale. I try to imagine what they look like and how they might sound. Again, I’m careful to jot these ideas down in my own words. After that, I put away the book (or books) I’ve used to find the story’s essence, and work from my notes from there on out. I call this “Escape from Word Land.” Now I’m free to craft my own version in my own words, not somebody else’s.
Build Your Wordless Outline
“Storytelling isn’t reading, it’s creative remembering”
Of course, since storytellers are not actors who memorize lines, just like in a stage play they still need to parse the stories into scenes that follow one another in order to make sense. If, say, in Hansel and Gretel, you put the witch’s gingerbread house in the story before the opening scenes where the kids’ father leads them out into the woods to abandon them, then the story collapses. So I write out my stories, scene after scene, in those same brief phrases. That’s my written outline.
Bear in mind, we’re talking about spoken word storytelling, and so a Wordless Outline made of pure imagination is what you need to build next. Other than finally telling your story before people for the first time, this is by far the most mentally taxing part of the creative process.
Here’s an example. Years ago a teacher sent out a letter to storytellers in New England asking if they could tell an episode from Homer’s The Odyssey. I didn’t know the story and hadn’t read Homer’s classic, but I wrote the teacher back and told him I could tell the entire tale. Just hire me and I’ll do it. Yes, it was a false claim but I had faith in my process. He hired me. I had three months to prepare a three-hour version. My reputation was on the line, so I read it, sketched it in my journal, and began the arduous imaging work of creating my Wordless Outline. In other words, I needed to create a movie of the story in my mind, one that would play in real time as I spoke.
In the end, I built a Wordless Outline with 42 episodes and practiced and practiced. Living with this entity growing in my thoughts for those three months, my journal notes were a constant companion. While rehearsing, if I forgot what came next (which I did often while learning the story), then I cracked open my journal and there the next episode was sketched. “Oh, yes, that’s the next scene.”
At last, the three-day residency arrived. Before each hour-long performance I was buried in my story sketch and Wordless Outline until the second before I went onstage. But storytelling isn’t reading, it’s creative remembering. Once out there, I began and the story started to flow. As I’ve told students in the past, “You really learn the story the first time you tell it.” So true. The school invited me back to tell The Odyssey for many years after that. Each time I told it, it became easier. Since those early days I’ve told this story a thousand times for a thousand audiences. I leave my journal at home now.
Learn to Trust Your Muse
Because storytellers are spoken word artists, unless they record their stories, their tales live only briefly in space and time. Audiences may carry them away in their hearts, but performances are ethereal things and only last as long as the teller is there. On one hand, that’s show business and is true of many performing arts. On the other hand, that transitoriness gives your Muse a chance to flourish and take chances with even tried and true tales.
What’s your Muse? Simply put, it’s inspiration in the moment. It’s a state of mind where some superior part of you seems to take over during a performance and things become lucid and unhurried. Athletes speak of being “in the zone.” In storytelling, it means you or your characters say things you’ve never said before, and they amaze even you. When eloquence—that ability to string words together beautifully and convincingly—shines through you and you forge ahead into wonder, that’s the Muse at work. “Am I even saying these things?” you ask yourself. “Is this me doing this?” That’s a very interesting question, because there are those who are convinced that, at certain times, it is not you who is doing them.
Consider this quotation from Carl Jung, the great psychologist:
There are literary works, prose as well as poetry, that spring wholly from the author’s intention to produce a particular result. He submits his material to a definite treatment with a definite aim in view; he adds to it and subtracts from it, laying on a touch of colour here, another there, all the time paying strict attention to the laws of form and style… Nor need I cite examples of the other class of works which flow more or less complete and perfect from the author’s pen. They come as it were fully arrayed into the world, as Pallas Athene sprang from the head of Zeus. These works positively force themselves upon the author; his hand is seized, his pen writes things that his mind contemplates with amazement. The work brings with it its own form…he is overwhelmed by a flood of thoughts and images which he never intended to create and which his own will could never have brought into being…as though he were a second person; or as though a person other than himself had fallen within the magic circle of an alien will.
Calliope (cal-lie-oh-pee), who among the Nine Muses in Ancient Greek mythology was the Muse of Eloquence, is the inspirational figure you want to consider. According to Homer and Virgil, she came to help them out quite regularly. Calliope remains an active force today in the imaginative lives of artists. Some people prefer to call this source of inspiration the Holy Spirit or the Presence of God. Those terms work just as well. Others prefer “the life force” or “the collective unconscious.” Whatever you want to name it, this inspirational force is quite useful in artistic endeavors, even if you don’t believe in it.
Choose a Story You Love
If you’re not writing a story yourself, but instead you’re choosing a story from “the canon” of public domain stories, be sure to read a lot and find a story that speaks to you. Make sure there’s something in the theme, or something about the characters, that you find fascinating. If you love the story, your audience will sense that. Remember, every story that you can tell in 12-15 minutes needs a beginning, a middle and an end. Stories give emotional rewards. They don’t need to be new; old stories work well. Even new stories are just old stories authors have changed around a little. Superhero movies are old myths in new technological clothing. You’ve still got the same “payoffs” as screenwriters call them. Love triumphs. Bullies get put down in the end. Kids grow up. Heroes protect the helpless. It takes courage and perseverance to live this life. Free will will always struggles with destiny. On and on.
Consider these categories for performance tales:
- Children’s Stories
- Fairy tales
- Traditional folktales from your region
- Old myths from various traditions
- Bible stories, or other sacred tales from your religion
- Supernatural or spooky stories
- A personal narrative from your life
Develop Your “Storytelling Voice”
Some people ask, “What about my voice? What if I don’t like my voice?”
People listen to all kinds of voices in the media nowadays, and are fairly open to just about any intonation. My voice has changed a lot over the years. At one point, I spoke with a pronounced Southern twang. And my voice was much higher pitched than it is now. The best advice I can give is to avoid using your informal voice, the one you use around the house or when goofing with friends. Instead, try to find your “elegant” voice. That means paying attention to your diction, above everything else. If you’re working in English, no matter your accent, make sure your sentences start and finish properly. And that your verbs and subjects agree. Consider this your “storyteller’s voice.” Try to avoid using “uh” and “like” and “you know” during a story. That’s just filler language. Sometimes it’s hard to learn not to do that, but it’s better simply to pause in silence while you think than to use filler language. And believe me, while telling a story, you’ll need to pause to think. People will appreciate that, and they’ll wait for you. It takes mindfulness and practice to do it, but the more often you remind yourself, the easier it gets.
Choose Age-Appropriate Stories for your Audience
Young children are very tender, and if you’re telling stories to them, always bear in mind that you can actually scar a child with the wrong story material. Educators and families have trusted me with their young audiences for decades because I tell stories that are safe for them. Even if, to your adult mind, a children’s story seems silly—anthropomorphic animals learning life lessons—know that children’s minds live in these realms and kindergarteners have no need to hear about violence, monsters, sex or death. Lessons about sharing, perseverance and friendship are all they really need. That, and simply to be told stories by trustworthy adults. Listening to stories stimulates their brains even more than picture books do, because as they listen they’re assembling “what-ifs” in their minds and developing neural networks and lifelong cognitive powers. Studies have shown that while being told a story or engaged in creative play, children’s prefrontal cortexes blaze with activity in a way unrivaled by the stimulation of books or television.
Basically, for 3-7 year–olds, animal stories and fables work best. For ages 8-9, children’s brains develop to where they can take in simple creation myths, Bible stories, complex folktales, benign legends and fairy tales. For ages 10-11, their mental sophistication admits to more complex plots and grown-up themes. Characters can face death, loss or injury, and tales that feature gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines facing dark challenges are appropriate. Evil characters teach them that the world is not all goodness and light, and that good tends to prevail over evil. Supernatural tales just thrill, but don’t frighten them deep down. Kids are able to follow long stories now, and understand humor much better. Once they reach the age of 12 and enter puberty and the teen years, most have seen enough TV and movie and videogame sex and violence that stories without these elements no longer interest them. Telling stories to teen audiences is highly challenging, but highly rewarding: they still need to hear adult, moral tales to reinforce their sense of right and wrong.
Practice Your Story
As I mentioned earlier, you won’t really learn a new story until you tell it for the first time. A wondrous alchemy between memory, your Muse and your listeners takes place. One word of advice: memorize your opening line. After that, you can work from your Wordless Outline, but always have that first line ready to get you started. Remember: telling a story means you need to gather listeners together who are willing to sit still and go on this journey with you. So that means friends and family, mostly, unless you are in an academic setting. Or else join a storytelling circle where novice storytellers test out their projects among others doing the same thing. Google a storyteller’s circle in your area and join. They exist in many communities around the world. Go to storytelling festivals and try the open mic. Once you start searching, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to get started.
Use Comic Relief
I’ve been a professional storyteller for a long time and some of the stories I perform are rugged indeed. As an example, one of my best tales is a version of Beowulf. Overall, it’s an intense and serious story with lots of death, monsters, heroism and sacrifice. Remaining fairly true to the original Old English poem—The Nowell Codex—my version begins with the predations of Grendel, a giant wolf-like demon, who terrifies the king of Denmark and his people every night. Grendel’s magical fur protects him and he can’t be killed, and so he devours hapless Danes for twelve long years. In the opening scene of the tale, the music is moody and scary. Grendel’s roar is terrifying. His actions are graphic and awful. The Danes descend into a darkness that just won’t stop and it looks like all hope is lost.
Still, we’re only a few minutes into the tale. My next job is to introduce Beowulf the hero, back in his land of the Geats, sitting at a feasting table with his thanes. The first words Beowulf speaks are: “When I was five, I killed my first bear.” The music has shifted to bouncy and light-hearted. The audience chuckles.
His cousin Wyglaf replies, “Oh, Beowulf, you know that’s not so.”
Good naturedly, Beowulf replies, tongue in cheek, “I hate when people know the truth.” This gets a laugh from the audience. Heaven knows, they’re ready for a comic line. Beowulf then follows up with, “No, no, you’re right, Wyglaf. You’re right. I was eleven.” Laughter. After this, the tale grows serious again, and has plenty of room to do so.
Using comic relief humanizes dark moments, bringing levity to your audience. I use it to comfort the audience, and will oftentimes ad lib a moment of comedy if I see the audience needs it. Use it as a touch point, however, never lean on it–unless you want to be a humorist. Plenty of storytellers are masterful humorists, and they thrive. Think of humor as a breath of air taken while swimming a long distance.
Character Voices, Music and Vocal Effects
All these items are optional. Some people have a talent for them, others do not. You do not need these embellishments to become an effective storyteller. Many professional storytellers make use of them, but those are aesthetic decisions. More important is to know your story well and tell it in a clear, straightforward manner. If you are confident that you know your story from start to finish and use a Worldless Outline of imagery to remember it without rote memorization, you will be successful.
But let’s say you have a talent for voices. Accents, perhaps. Or different pitches, like squeaky down to booming. Or gravelly. Or Donald Duck for that matter. The one thing I can say helps when using multiple voices in a story, especially when they’re talking to one another and you need to differentiate them adequately enough so that your listeners can recognize and track them (in other words, you don’t have to constantly say “said so and so”) is this: fly your imagination into the face of your character and look out its eyes. You’ll see the story imagery from the character’s unique perspective. Inhabiting characters like this builds your empathy for them, helps bring them to life and saves you, the storyteller, from becoming confused yourself. If you can’t train yourself to do this well, it’s probably best to avoid it.
Alternatively, let’s say you have a talent for sound mimicry, and you want to use it in your storytelling. In other words, you want to be a bit more cinematic and go beyond straightforward first or third-person narrative, or first person storytelling, like a comic. I myself create water droplets, galloping horses, howling wind, door creaks, whip lashes, cricket chirps, bird trills, animal sounds, snapping trees, bubbles while drowning, buzzing giant bees and quite a few other sound effects. I use them sparingly, but they are effective when done tastefully. They’re simply a way of offering imagery directly with a simple sound and audiences enjoy the surprise and creativity of it. And it can make your story more vivid.
Lastly, we have the question of musical accompaniments. I create scores for almost all of my tales, and play the music as I tell them. It’s like movie music. Fast. Slow. Minor. Major. Creepy. Relaxing. Joyous. Heartbroken. I mostly compose on 12-string guitars in modal tunings and on Celtic harp. For long-form tales, I develop full-blown leitmotifs for the story, themes that return again and again to help anchor my listeners’ emotions. And that’s what music adds: emotions. It’s like a second storyteller working with you, and over my career music has been my constant companion. The other thing I’d add is that for me at least, nothing is mapped as it is in an opera or a musical. Since I’m alone onstage, and I’m the writer, the cast and the composer, I’m free to extemporize and drop in musical ideas as I go. This relieves an immense burden of memorization and gives it up to fancy and the Muse. I’ve never told a story exactly the same way twice in all my years in the business. If the characters don’t say something new, then the music probably will.
1.On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry”. Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Volume 15, edited by R. F.C. Hull, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966, pp. 65-83. https://doi.org/10.1515/9781400850884.65