10 Tips to Becoming a Better Storyteller Besides Taking a Drink
All of us tell stories. However, some of us become phenomenal storytellers after a couple of drinks. Why is that? Maybe we are overly anxious to get to the point, or we want to take advantage of the partiers surrounding us at a gathering where we happened upon those drinks. As fiction authors, we can learn much from barroom storytelling.
When we are “loosened up” at a party, we are prompted to perform. We sense we have a limited time to tell the story because, after all, others are primed to tell stories of their own, so we have THIS moment to make a splash. And we realize that the more animated we tell the story, the more intensely our friends lean in and listen.
Here are ten pointers to improve our storytelling without cracking open a bottle:
1) Open with a hook.
Such a simple word of advice that few people master. In a room full of storytellers, who gets to tell the story first? The person with the best hook; the hook that makes everyone hush, turn and tune in. Your fiction must grab from the start. Sliding into a story is like taking kids on a vacation and telling them for 300 miles that “we’re almost there.” They quit believing in you.
2) Cut the backstory.
Attention span of readers, and inebriated listeners, is limited. If we don’t make a strong point, they drift away. If they don’t need to know where the characters came from, who they are related to, what the weather is, or where they work then leave it out. Besides, you can slip this information in the story here and there along the way.
3) Use impressive verbs.
After you write your story, or the opening chapter, go back and highlight WAS, WERE, BEEN, BE and HAD. Replace ninety percent of them with action verbs, creative verbs, and verbs that make your senses sit up and take notice.
4) Use all your senses.
We love to use LOOK in our storytelling. Not only are there three dozen other words for LOOK, but there are four other senses as well that can define a character’s moment, the setting, or action. In a bar we’re surrounded by those senses. Use them while hunched over your keyboard, too.
5) Get into your character’s head.
Lack of Internal Monologue is a common sign of a novice. When he is surprised, let us in on what he’s thinking. When he’s sad, give us insight to his pain. Let readers into his head to make the story more three-dimensional. A barroom storyteller will at least say, “and then he thought…”
6) Show don’t tell.
An exciting storyteller will feed listeners colorful language instead of “he did this, then he did that, and then he found this and he found that.” Attention span is short with listeners, even shorter with readers seeking a story to read from amongst the millions available. Showing puts the reader into the story as fast as any hook.
7) Make dialogue believable.
Listeners taking in a story know which character is speaking because the storyteller is speaking differently with each one, changing his voice, throwing in dialect, and choosing styles unique to each player. You don’t even have to hear, “he said” and then “she said” because you hear the difference. When you can read dialogue without tags and still follow the story, the author has performed well.
8) Don’t stereotype emotion.
The character didn’t feel angry. He threw his glass against the wall. She didn’t feel sad. She laid her head on the quilt and soaked it with tears. He didn’t regret his actions. He stared at his feet, shoulders drooped. She wasn’t overwhelmed. She backed into the corner, palms flat on the walls. Think movie action.
9) Use metaphors but avoid cliché.
The best metaphors come from barroom stories and original thought. “Her story was thin as cheap toilet paper.” “His voice bounced off buildings three counties away.” “His words stunned me, like learning your church-going mother liked bourbon neat.”
10) Make the ending smack hard and stick with the reader.
When we listen to a tall tale, the build-up has its limitations. Ever heard someone tell a story, building a never-ending crescendo to the punch line? Ever get there and realize the over-dramatized build-up killed the ending? Make a dramatic, remarkable, never-saw-it-coming final point loaded with WOWs and AHAs, where the reader suddenly realizes all those clues you sprinkled along the way made perfect sense.
You don’t need to over-indulge to write your stories, but putting yourself in the mind of a lit-up storyteller might remind you how stories need more than the mundane to capture a reader.
C. Hope Clark is editor of the award-winning FundsforWriters.com and author of the likewise award-winning Carolina Slade Mystery Series, set in rural South Carolina. Lowcountry Bribe, February 2012, takes place on beautiful, secluded Edisto Island when a farmer offers a bribe and Slade learns that following the book can lead to losing her job, life and family. Tidewater Murder comes out in April 2013, and takes Slade to Beaufort amidst slaves, voodoo, drugs and a tomato industry that isn’t what it seems. Available at all bookstores. www.chopeclark.com / www.fundsforwriters.com