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Learning To Tell Stories

Every once in a while, someone will ask me where to go to learn the art of storytelling.  Is there a school for it?  Is there an online class available?  There is also the inevitable question, “How did you learn to do it?” 

Yes, there are certainly schools that include storytelling as part of their curriculum, and many of them are quite beneficial.  I must admit that I have yet to find an online storytelling course that I like.

If you want to know the typical storytelling steps, they are:

  • Exposition – Setting up the tale;
  • Rising Action – Building interest in the story (usually through identifying with the characters);
  • Crisis – The main problem that has to be resolved;
  • Conflict – Whatever is stopping a successful resolution;
  • Falling Action – The result after the conflict is met;
  • Resolution – Heading us toward the satisfaction of THE END.

These elements can be found under many different names…sometimes in greater numbers…sometimes with fewer.  However, they all tend to resemble a bell-curve when illustrated…a lop-sided bell-curve, but a bell-curve notwithstanding.

The most important element that defines if the storytelling training will be of any benefit is practice.  There is no substitute for it.  You may read all you like, and you may listen to as many lectures as you would enjoy.  You can even memorize the steps that I listed above.  However, you simply must practice.  You cannot improve without it.

How did I learn?  I was very fortunate in that my father was a natural storyteller.  He could spin a tale with an ease that amazed me.  He would enhance jokes, giving them a background and setting so that they were vividly pictured in the mind.  I don’t know that I ever heard him do a simple set-up and punch line.

We had a porch-swing mounted to an abandoned swing-set frame in our back yard.  From that perch, he would regale me from mid-afternoon into the early evening with the most wonderful stories.  After years of listening, I saw how he did it…and I mimicked his delivery.  (He was a master of the dramatic pause.)

My family also invited storytellers to the house for special occasions, so I had the chance to witness many different styles.  I still vividly recall one gentleman who had Thanksgiving dinner with us, and held us all spellbound as he related what it felt like to fly a two-seater prop-engine plane through a monsoon.  (He claimed that the wings would flap!)

Yet, all of this would have elicited little more than casual enjoyment if I hadn’t selected the techniques that worked and then practiced them.  It might be alone in my room, and I may cover the same story over and over again.  But, that was all right.  My goal was to be so good that I would hold an audience enthralled the way I had been held enthralled.

What can you do if you don’t have ready access to a master storyteller, and you don’t want to enroll in the local university for six to eight weeks?

  • Start by finding a short story that moves you in some.  If you aren’t able to “connect” with it, it will be difficult for you to interest others.  An audience can tell whether you are passionate about your subject.
  • Read it through multiple times. Put marks by passages that really stand out, or underline them if they are no longer than a sentence or two.
  • Make special note of pauses.  Are there places where you can stop to let the full impact of what you have just said be absorbed by your audience?  Are there moments of suspense when you know that they will be waiting for the revelation?
  • Now, read the story aloud.  Then, read it again.  Do not stop and correct yourself when it is not exactly what you want.  At this point, you are learning the rhythm of the story.  Keep going.
  • When the rhythm and the flow seem right, you can practice on the delivery of key techniques.

I’m suggesting a practice of many days before you read this to an audience.  In fact, you will quite likely memorize much of the story.  This isn’t necessary, but it will naturally happen as you hone your delivery.

The good news is that the next story you tackle will take less time…and the one after than will take even less.  I don’t know that it is wise to ever proceed without any practice!  However, if you are called to do an impromptu presentation, the skills you have developed will jump to your aid.

If you are at a complete loss where to find a story, I would respectfully draw your attention to the writings of Mark Twain.  “About Barbers” is one of my favorites.  Or you might try “The Story Of Grandfather’s Old Ram.”  The text for that one is here:


You can also see how Hal Holbrook told the story when he impersonated Mark Twain here:


I see that I’ve been a bit long-winded myself this time!  Thank you for reading!