Storytelling is something that has been present in human history since the beginning of time. It is the way we convey the lessons of life to each other and pass on experiences. Every good story needs a great storyteller and it seems that storytelling is considered an art nowadays with many organizations putting importance on storytelling as a skill.
Anyone Can Learn Storytelling
Speaking as someone who directed documentary films for a long time, narrated audiobooks has written reams, and teaches storytelling in an online course to more than 11,000 students worldwide I can categorically assure you that anyone can become a better storyteller.
Storytelling is an art form and a craft, that passion and practice to perfect the art of telling stories. But once you start to know and understand certain core principles, telling a better story becomes a natural extension of your natural thoughts and behaviors.
The trick is to learn the storytelling approaches that will work for your particular needs – whether as a writer, filmmaker, business person, public speaker, or teacher.
The other important thing to keep in mind is to plan your storytelling learning in a strategic way in order to get the best results for you personally. This is precisely where this article comes in.
What Kind of Learner Are You
In order to construct the best approach using the best resources for yourself, you must first determine your learning style. The four main types of learning styles are as follows:
- Visual learners: Individuals who learn best through seeing or seeing other people do something. These types of learners tend to benefit from seeing a film adaptation of a book, for example, rather than only trying to learn from a book. Diagrams and maps also help.
- Auditory learners: People who benefit from listening to someone teach, either in person or via audio. Music often helps, as does reading examples aloud.
- Kinesthetic learners: People who learn best through movement. Touch and textures can help greatly to reinforce memory and association.
- Linguistic learners: People who learn better with written words.
Not only will reflecting on your ideal learning style help you choose the examples and teachings that will most rapidly benefit you; it will also help you to think about the form in which you tell the stories you want to tell.
Places Where Storytelling Is Used
Storytelling is used in an almost endless range of human activities, among them:
- A technique in both literature and linguistics.
- In professional development programs.
- A form of entertainment.
- For therapy (mental health).
- As a preaching tool.
- In language learning.
- In advertising.
- As training material.
- In customer service.
- As a tool for education.
- In conflict resolution.
- As a tool for government diplomacy.
- In interpersonal communication.
- In organizational work.
- In social media.
- In social change and social impact work.
The point is to keep your mind open to storytelling encounters, as a learning resource as you develop your own storytelling skills.
The Main Storytelling Skills to Master
There are a series of important storytelling principles to learn, which are not quite the same thing as storytelling elements -although there is some crossover.
By developing these skills, you can overcome your own storytelling obstacles.
Here are some core storytelling tips:
Understand the Difference Between Narrative and Narration
The narrative is the whole caboodle, the whole story. It’s the way all the elements in a story are sequence and intertwined to make it work.
Narration is the way in which a story is told. The storytelling.
It’s a Conversation
If you think of what is going on in a story as a conversation between its characters, be that friendly or conflictual, and as a conversation between the narrator – which can be you, the author, or one of the characters – and the audience (readers, listeners, viewers…) you will immediately start to build the right dynamics for your prose and dialogue.
Good storytelling should never be a dry and clinical process (although story analysis, which you do at a later stage, can be).
Think about all the deep, meaningful, witty, lively, engaging conversations you have ever had and try to build that feeling and reflectiveness into your storytelling. By connecting first yourself to the emotions of the story, and then conveying that to others, you are already a long way down the storytelling art and craft.
Story Structure is Everything
The two sides to storytelling are narration – the ways in which the story is told – and story construction.
Story structure involves awareness and deliberate use of the elements of the story to get the story going and keep it going to a satisfying (for the audience) conclusion.
Plot. Hook. Cliffhangers. Nonlinear devices, such as flashbacks. Revelations. Character development. Story beats. Foreshadowing. All of these, and more, come into play.
The important thing is to learn to step back from the details of prose or dialogue and see the overall evolution of your story, and whether it is delivering the vision and idea that you conceived at the outset. Or indeed evolving into a better vision and idea – which is something to seize, and cherish.
The Story Idea
Behind, and inside, every compelling story is a strong central idea.
Usually, this is conceived early on by the author or storyteller. It is the reason why the story is written, or told, in the first place.
The idea might be expressed as a premise, a situation. Or it might be a hypothesis to be tested by plot or character development.
The idea does not have to be totally unique or original – many stories repeat the same idea in one form or another. But the precise expression of the idea, the brushstrokes on the canvas, will be.
Character development is critical in most if not all stories.
If giving a speech, for example, you might think that there is only one person at stake. You. But when you stop to ponder the way in which you give your speech, to engage an audience, ‘you’ need to become the character of the story.
Characters, be they main or minor, protagonists or antagonists, need to connect with us, the audience. This means however awful the villain is, there needs to be a very human flaw that allows us in.
We need to have some empathy. Which does not equate to an agreement.
The second really important quality for character development – certainly for main characters – is the process of change or even transformation. Without change, there is no narrative progression. No engaging story. That change can be either internal or external (physical), or ideally both. But it needs to be there.
It is through change that the characters solve the problems that the story involves.
And it is through the observation of the way a character reacts and changes that the character develops for the audience.
Tension, Suspense, and Conflict
Without conflict, a story doesn’t exist.
That sounds like a bold statement, but let me explain:
Every great story needs an element of drama. And that drama can only happen if the ‘villain’ is doing something to the hero and the hero is doing something back. The ‘villain’ can be any person, force, or phenomenon that stands in the way of what the hero needs and wants.
For, as humans, we are walking, talking bundles of Need and Want!
The Hero’s defeat – or success, as the case may be – depends on the outcome.
Conflict reveals things about the protagonist that they cannot fully control. It not only reveals their character but progresses the story because we – as the audience – need to have a resolution of the problem one way or another.
Until the problem, or problems, are resolved we are in s state of anticipation. Of suspense. That suspense involves a series of hormones, as well as intellectual engagement.
This is precisely why stories are so powerful, and the art of storytelling worth mastering. It grants a quality of connection that goes way beyond mere argument, or intellect.
When starting to construct a story, once you have a central character in mind, try to define as quickly as possible where and when your story is set.
This matters because it affects every other aspect of your story and storytelling, including the behavior and internal world of your characters.
Someone in medieval times will react very differently to a force of nature, compared to a sophisticated space engineer!
Settings can be highly creative but need to be consistent. Both in terms of the ‘rules’ of the world, you paint with your story, and in terms of the tropes (conventions) that audiences have come to expect.
In a medieval fantasy story, you’d better have castles, swords, open fireplaces, and stone at a minimum. Otherwise, your audience will be sorely disappointed! A space epic? Faster than light drives, phasers, and holographic tech will need to be there, otherwise, we’ll feel short-changed.
These tropes in setting and story matter equally in nonfiction, when you pause to consider audience expectations. The art is to deliver the tropes in unexpected and serendipitous ways, such that the audience is delighted.
Plot Points and Beats
In a plot, we track the main character’s pursuit of an objective. A plot point is when something happens that changes the character’s orientation to the objective, such that the story spins in a new direction.
Therefore, plot points are not the small bits of connective tissue that glue scenes together. Rather, they are the significant stuff that rocks the story, setting up motivations, setbacks, and desires.
Story beats are usually construed as smaller stuff – any moment in the story when the mood or relationship the scene relates changes. They are the myriad of actions and reactions – actions, dialogue, and feelings – that move the scenes and story overall forward.
The art is not to get caught up with too much storytelling theory, but to keep these terms in the back of your mind at the various stages of the story outlining, construction, creation, and editing. That way, you’ll keep the audience in mind at every step of the process.
Visual Storytelling and Visualization
Whether telling a story in written, oral or visual form – it is tremendously useful to bring some visualization techniques into play.
These allow you to set up your plot points, beats, theme, character arcs, and story elements on a mental map, as well as build empathy for the characters.
Very often with visual storytelling, the devil is in the detail: it is the small reaction or visual cue, at the right moment, that betrays the much bigger stuff going on under the surface.
As the storyteller, your job is to deploy these cues and reactions deftly, so that they impact. This requires setting up your characters, situations, and stories to the point that we – the audience – care when stuff happens that causes them.
Emotional Subtext and The Emotional Connection
In narration, connection to emotional subtext is critical to success.
So too, in storytelling.
People don’t walk around explicitly stating how they feel. Nor do they reveal their inner motivations, desires, and fears by wearing them on their faces!
What people say and do is an imperfect mirror of their real agendas. And, sometimes, the truth breaks through in a way that reveals all. Exposes all.
Part of the storytelling craft – indeed, a large part – is to identify the moments when the veil is lifted, mystery disperses, and the often harsh light of truth shines down. Emotion is revealed in raw form.
Until then, your job is to keep tilting at what is to come, in various ways, to keep the audience guessing, wanting, needing, hungering. That’s the way your story gathers and stokes up energy. The energy which needs to be released, and finds a resting place in the denouement of your story!
Perhaps it will help to remember that all stories, and all storytelling, are emotional and psychological journeys. If things go too smoothly, they are not what we want – road trips!
Find Your Genre
You will find it easier to develop as a storyteller if you take one genre at a time.
Often your first choice of genre and form will reflect what you personally enjoy.
So, if you are a Grimdark fan, perhaps consider writing that genre. If space ships and faraway worlds turn you on, then you’d be well advised to write that first.
The point is that not only will you have more affinity, and knowledge, of the tropes of the genre. You will also communicate more easily with fellow storytellers in that genre, who will be an important part of your success.
Choice of storytelling form is also important for your development and learning. Love big speeches? Guess which form will suit you! Yep – public speaking if for you. Always listening to audiobooks? Consider voice acting. Buried in the Kindle every evening? Writing will probably be your bag!
Find Your Audience
Share your work, as part of your storytelling learning journey.
Be humble. Be public. Your storytelling becomes part of your personal story.
Much like the tree falling in the forest, a story only exists if it is received.
Your audience will sometimes have rough bits of critique. Sometimes pearls of wisdom. And sometimes, will provide you with a solution that enables years of progress to come and the origination of powerful stories.
When learning storytelling, remember Bunyan. Don’t be an island!