The Art of Storytelling, Part 1

Some people know how to tell a story. They just do. I had this one friend who worked as a nurse, and she could make changing a bedpan into the funniest story I’d heard. My former pastor could give an illustration in the form of a story that had the whole congregation holding our breaths.

Certainly the key component to these great oral storytellers is holding the attention of the listener, whether that comes from humor or suspense or whatever other technique. Ah, there’s the key word. There are techniques that make some stories more interesting than others.

Can these techniques be learned? Certainly authors who attend writers’ conferences think so. Or do they? More and more it seems as if conferences are filled with marketing and promotion seminars to complement their beginning and intermediate writing instruction.

So, are intermediate writing skills enough?

Before I became a writer, I worked as a teacher and coach. One year I had this seventh grader on what amounted to our basketball team’s practice squad who was a sharp, sharp girl, but not very athletic. She had good endurance but wasn’t very fast or strong or aggressive—qualities a basketball player really needs.

Still, she worked hard, listened to instruction, and went about implementing everything she learned. Consequently, she had a cross-over dribble, could do a lay-up with her left hand, knew how to set a screen—all of it. Except she had those athletic deficiencies.

The following year she made the varsity and continued to improve, though she didn’t play much. At the end of middle school, her family moved, but she wrote me to let me know that in her large public high school she made the JV team as a freshman. A couple years later she decided to leave basketball and use her time for other endeavors.

I wasn’t surprised. She had the basics for the sport and was an exceptional learner, but there were those athletic things, the ones we so often say can’t be taught.

Except some of it can be. Trainers can work on an athlete’s running style and strength to make them faster, enable them to jump higher. And certainly weight training has proved to be a help for any number of sports’ programs.

What does that have to do with storytelling? I’m convinced some people are naturals in the sense that they know how to deliver a good story even though they’ve never been taught, just like some athletes are born strong and fast and aggressive. Can those people improve on their God-given skills? Absolutely, if they will take the time to learn the playbook and work on the basics.

There are some writers, however, who have a desire to write though they don’t have those natural skills. Can they become great storytellers? Perhaps. Unlike basketball, no one seems quite sure what makes fiction work, so it seems tougher to learn, but not impossible. Above all else, reading good stories seems like a requisite, but taking apart good stories and studying the components ought to help a writer, too.

A third group seems capable of learning intermediate writing skills—the junior varsity level. They can write really, really good junior varsity stories, and they are content, not considering what it would take to move up to varsity or work for a spot on a college team.

Is it possible some will never reach that level, no matter how hard they try? Unfortunately, it seems inevitably true that not all will reach the next level. But a sure-fire way not to make it is not to try.

First posted at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, January 2009.

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