Storytelling Tips


PD_0073There is storytelling, and then there is telling a story that makes sense (even years into the future–long after it’s written). Sometimes as Family Historians, we find that our tales get twisted up into mazes of confusion and backtracking.

It’s frustrating. I’ve been there, and I understand completely.

At times, even while we’re writing a piece we just know that it will “never do.” Unfortunately, this is how so many of us give up before we ever really start. So here’s my 10-step remedy for such situations. Follow along, and you’ll be writing up a storm of concise, pithy, and entertaining stories in no time!

  1. Start writing. Don’t worry about nerves, editing or accuracy. Just think about a person or branch of the family or an event you would like to tell a story about and jump in.
  2. Keep writing. Write everything you know via family lore, genealogical and historical research. Throw in the dates and stats and census info with both hands.
  3. Gather together all the media (photos, ephemera, source books etc) and check to see if you’ve left anything out. If you find something, add it to this beautiful and unruly monster of a  piece.
  4. Write a bit more about how you came to discover/know/guess some or all of the details surrounding this subject: “Old Daniel always wore striped overalls, he saved the solid denim set for Sunday Church”–per photos and stories told to me by Aunts Aida and Lily Poindexter and Uncle Les James.
  5. When you simply cannot write any more about this seemingly narrow subject, get out your red pen.
  6. Begin circling small or large blocks of text that could be made bigger. Who are the other people (neighbors, the mail carrier, a teacher, the Poindexter Aunts and Uncle Les James) mentioned in the story? Do they matter? Is the setting of the tale interesting in itself? Did these events take place at a newly built home or on a farm passed through generations, on a steamship or clipper crossing the Atlantic in August? Did someone die of “Consumption?” What the heck is Consumption? Is there back-story here that needs to be built into the telling so that years from now (when “everyone” doesn’t possess what we currently think of as common knowledge) people will “get it?” Would a future reader need to do research to understand or find explanations in order for this tale to hold their attention? Perhaps the small town your relatives “traded in” no longer exists. What does “traded in” mean? Can you map the town–if no, why not? Was it wiped out in the TVA project? What was the TVA? Was the town on the main road, and suddenly the railroad came through about a mile to the east…killing all the businesses and leaving the area abandoned? Was their small town situated in a place now swallowed up by a larger city and only referred to on maps as a neighborhood? Was your family’s first home on American soil razed to build Slugger Stadium in Louisville (mine was)?
  7. Don’t be intimidated. This really is the fun part. This is when you discover that you have a much larger story to tell when you may have thought otherwise. The “trick” is to dissect it in this way so that it doesn’t all get convoluted and too laborious to read.
  8. Now take your time. Choose a circle of red ink. Relax. Simply tell the story of that singular snippet. Make the story fragment into a stand alone piece. Give it all the care and attention that you would give a larger essay. Try out steps 1-7 on this new work. Slowly tease out any extraneous info. Squirrel away the discards for potential use in another paragraph or chapter. Don’t allow yourself to worry about weaving together the bigger story at this point in the writing process.
  9. As a luxurious bonus, if you have a kind friend who knows little-to-nothing about your subject matter, ask if you may read a completed story to them. Have your listener stop you anytime they have a question or have no point of reference for what or whom you are storytelling about. This info is gold…it’s just like having a reader from the future sit with you over coffee and ask you questions about the story you are telling.
  10. This method will work equally well with pieces already written. Look over an older story and put it to the test using this exercise. See if anything about it cries out for the red pen treatment! You may find yourself with an additional batch of stories that will add to the richness of your work.

Above all, enjoy your writing and storytelling. Go ahead and tell as many stories as you’d like. But make the events clear, interesting and well thought-out so your readers will stay engaged and keep turning pages and wanting more.