Storytelling

Everyone loves a good story! (It’s most likely one of the oldest human forms of entertainment.) We’re not just talking about acknowledged entertainment contexts, though — we exchange important information in professional contexts by way of stories, we use stories to teach, we exchange stories in relationships as a solidarity device to learn more about not just “what happened to us,” but so that each can better understand what the other finds interesting, strange, amusing, etc. Basically, stories are everywhere; you can hardly find a conversation of any type or any significant length without one.


Telling a story often entitles a speaker to hold the floor longer than a “normal” turn at talk. After all, there are multiple parts to a story, and it wouldn’t be a good story (it would frustrate your listeners) if you left parts out. There are parts of your story that wouldn’t be understandable without certain pieces of background information, so if you suspect your audience doesn’t know these things, you have to fill in the gaps. But if you get to dominate, you also have the responsibility to make it worth your listeners’ while!

Before Starting: Getting Permission

Because it would be rude to simply assume that one has the right to go on at length, people often ask for permission to tell a story before they begin. People in superior positions of power do not need to ask permission of subordinates, but if you are speaking “up” (to someone with power over you) or as equals, it is a good idea to either wait for somebody to invite you to tell a story, or to say something like “That reminds me of a story. Have you got a minute?” or “I’ve got to tell you what happened today, if you’ve got a minute or two.” or “Have you got a few minutes? I’ve got a great story….” Note that nobody expects the story to literally take one minute, or two, or a few – the amount specified is arbitrary but small: this is a conventional way of indicating that you are being respectful of their time, that you won’t just go on and on and on.

Often people will offer a teaser, to elicit an invitation to tell a story. For instance, I might say, “I went to my office Hallowe’en party. So embarrassing!” Then, if my friend says “Oooh, tell me about it!” I know they’re really interested in hearing the story. If they say “Oh? Why?” in a less animated, off-hand way, I know I have permission to tell the story, but I’d better keep it short. If they ignore my response altogether or say something to try to change the topic (e.g. “I hate Hallowe’en. And Valentine’s Day. And all the silly Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, invented holidays….”), I know they don’t want to hear my story. (Actually, that would be quite rude of them, since I clearly want to tell my story! I might wonder, in this case, whether I’ve been such a poor storyteller in the past that they try to avoid my stories now.)

Deciding How Much Is Enough

The amount of information you give should (as always) depend on the feedback you’re getting from your listeners; you need to be on the lookout for signs of boredom or discomfort. Or, to put it more optimistically, you need to look for continued interest.) It’s better to cut your story short (and perhaps have people ask you follow-up questions) than to go on too long, but you do want to include all the necessary parts of narrative structure (for more about on these, see below). Good storytellers can hold the floor for several minutes at a time without listeners getting bored; if you’ve never been complimented for telling great stories, however, you probably should keep your stories down to (literally) a minute. You might be surprised how much you can say in that time: see the example below!)

The Six Parts of the Story


Introduction

The introduction (which linguists call the “abstract”) indicates an intention to tell a story, and may also include the topic or point of the story, such as “Oh, the weirdest thing happened to me today,” or “You’ll never believe what I just saw,” or “Did I tell you about my family reunion?” This is typically very quick, and allows the person introducing the story to seek confirmation that it’s okay to continue, by checking the response of the listeners. If they look bored, or fail to respond to the question, or fail to question the exclamation, the would-be storyteller should probably not continue at that time. Note that introductions are often rather hyperbolic, to get the listeners interested. Whatever happened probably wasn’t really “the weirdest,” just kinda weird; obviously, the speaker does expect the listener to “believe,” etc.

Orientation

The orientation consists of who, where, and when details. One way of keeping stories short is to only include the background information your listeners really need to understand the story. If you’re telling a story about a fist fight that occurred at a family reunion, you don’t need to go through your whole family tree, naming and describing each member. (If you tried to do this, your listeners would never let you get to the actual story part of the story!) They don’t need to know how they were dressed or what movies they had recently watched or what you had for dinner (unless that’s what the fight was about). They don’t even need to know the names of the cousins! Again, you need to monitor your listeners to be sure they don’t look confused (because you gave too little information) or bored (because you’re giving too much) or annoyed (because you’re telling them things they already know). Many storytellers will give their orientations in the form of questions so that they can get confirmation about whether they’ve said enough, e.g., “You remember my cousins, the twins?” or “Did I ever tell you about my cousins, the twins?”

Complicating Action

The complicating action is basically the plot: what happened then. This is usually the longest part of the story, building up suspense for what’s going to happen in the end – but again, you can give every detail or condense it, depending on how much your audience is enjoying your story. You could give a blow-by-blow of the fight (e.g. Joey tried to kick Jamie, but fell over, so Jamie sat on him, and then Joey started hitting him in the ribs, but….) or you could gloss over the details to save time (e.g. they kept fighting). Keep details only if they’re important (for understanding) or particularly interesting or amusing. In this case, people can fill in the blanks (they know what sorts of things happen in a fight).

Again, you need to monitor your listeners for their level of interest, to make sure you’re not overdoing the level of detail. Remember, though, that “monitoring” does not mean extended eye contact. You can listen for verbal and vocal cues (such as minimal responses and laughter), you can use peripheral vision to see if they’re nodding, etc. A good story teller will glance occasionally at each listener, but will only make eye contact to punctuate particularly important points. (See more about gaze vs. eye contact in turn-taking.) An excellent story-teller might even use gaze more strategically to convey relatedness to particular listeners — e.g., if I know Bob was in a fight recently, when I get to the detail about how my cousins are always fighting, I might glance at Bob with a smile. If I know Rita is squeamish and can’t stand the sight of blood, I might glance at her with an apologetic smile when I get to the detail of blood dripping down their faces. This not only connects the listeners to the story, it conveys a sense of intimacy between speaker and listener: I know these details about you, and I’m thinking about you even as I tell this story about someone else, etc.

Resolution

 The resolution is what finally happened in the end, the “punchline,” the kicker. “So they both ended up in jail,” e.g. Short and sweet!

Evaluation

The evaluation is the “So What?” This makes the whole point of the story clear, even if it recapitulates the ‘hook’ of the introduction, and is also short and sweet. E.g. “My family is just insane.” Sometimes our listeners actually perform this part of the story for us, e.g. by interjecting, “Man, your family is nuts!” to show they got the point. It’s one way that they can show that they were active listeners and that they enjoyed the story. Note that while all the other parts of the story typically occur in the order given here, the evaluation can actually occur anywhere and everywhere, as it is often embedded in multiple parts of the narrative.

Coda

The coda shows that the story is over, that we’re returning to our otherwise “normal” conversation. Often this is fairly content-free, consisting of nothing more than “So, anyway….” or “Yeah, well,” simply signaling a transition. If you don’t provide this, your listeners will generally provide one for you, to show that your extended turn of talk is now over.

Putting Together the Extended Example

“Gah! my family reunion was nuts!                                                                             Introduction
Can I tell you this story?                                                                                                  (Permission)
You remember my twin cousins                                                                                   Orientation
and how they’re always fighting?                                                                                 Orientation
Well, this time it got crazy.                                                                                             Complicating Action
They were really whaling on each other,                                                                 Complicating Action
kicking, and punching,                                                                                                     Complicating Action
blood dripping down their faces                                                                                  Complicating Action
and someone called the cops,                                                                                       Complicating Action
and they wouldn’t stop fighting even then,                                                             Complicating Action
and one of them punched a cop by accident,                                                         Complicating Action
so they both ended up in jail.                                                                                         Resolution
It was insane. I hate my family.                                                                                    Evaluation
But anyway….”                                                                                                                     Coda

Even if you’re a relatively slow talker, you could probably perform that story in less than a minute.   You will find that if you tell a good short story, people will still ask you all sorts of questions — this doesn’t mean that you made poor choices about what information to include, it just allows them to show interest in and enjoyment of the story, and for the story to be told in a more give-and-take fashion, with your audience collaborating rather than absorbing it passively. This will make them more eager to hear your stories in the future.

Audience Reactions to a Successful Story

If you tell a good story, you are likely to see many, if not all of these reactions. Note that all of these except the last can occur while you’re telling the story, with no intent to interrupt — in fact, the intent is to show interest and enjoyment, and as a result, to give you permission to take more time and give more detail.

  • appropriate facial expressions and other displays of emotion: genuine smiles and laughs mixed in with “fake” (social) smiles and laughs for happy or funny stories; mirroring displays of sadness for sad stories, fear for scary stories, disgust for gross stories, etc.
  • other signs of active listening while you tell the story: minimal responses, nodding, gaze fixed on you (allowing you to make brief eye contact when you glance at them), etc.
  • questions asked about orientation, complicating action, and resolution with signs of genuine interest (intensity, smiles and laughter when appropriate for the tone of the story, gaze fixed on you), to prolong the experience.
  • explicit positive (non-sarcastic) evaluations from your audience, such as “That’s so funny!” or “Wow — great story.” or “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it!”
  • explicit evaluations that echo your own evaluation: “That is weird,” e.g., or “Yeah, I would’ve been scared, too.”
  • The next speaker follows down whatever direction the story went in, e.g. reciprocating with a similar story, perhaps trying to “top” yours, or talking about some person, place, thing, or idea featured in your story.

Audience Reactions to an Unsuccessful Story

 Unlike the signs for a successful story, these responses are highly face-threatening, not just to your sense of solidarity, but to your audience’s as well; therefore, it is likely that you will see fewer of these. Your listeners generally do not want to be jerks or make you feel bad! They will feel embarrassed both for you and for themselves. The more of these signs you see, the more likely that they have tried to be subtle with you in the past, and you’ve misunderstood, so now they’re trying to be much more direct. If you have asked for permission to tell the story, as recommended above, you are less likely to see these signs unless you then go on too long.

  • displays of boredom, discomfort, embarrassment or annoyance (See expression of emotion.). No genuine laughter or genuine smiles for happy, funny stories; no appropriate mirroring displays for other emotions you’re describing or implying in your story.
  • challenging your introduction or your attempt to gain permission to tell the story.
  • asking questions that take you out of the story, instead of helping you fill in the details of the story, or even blatant interruptions of the story.
  • explicit negative evaluations of the story (“Well, that wasn’t much of a story,” or “That didn’t go anywhere,” e.g.) or sarcastic positive comments (“So glad you took the time to tell us that one!” or “Yeah. Great story. Thanks.”)
  • ignoring your evaluation of the story (rather than echoing it), or even challenging it: “I don’t think that’s funny at all,” or “What’s so interesting about that?” or (more gently) “I’m not sure I see the point, here — why did you think that was weird? It seems like normal behavior to me….”
  • an awkward pause after the story, where nobody is sure how to respond. (Since they can’t think of anything nice to say, they may say nothing at all, just as our parents said we should.)
  • The next speaker appears to be responding to what the speaker before you said (or what you yourself said before you started the story), rather than following down paths opened up by your story.

Scholarly Sources

  • De Fina, Anna & Alexandra Georgokopoulou. (2011). Analyzing Narrative. Cambridge University Press.
  • Labov, William & Joshua Waletzky. (2003 [1967]). Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience. In Paulson, Christina Bratt & G. Richard Tucker (Eds.) Sociolinguistics: The Essential Readings. Wiley-Blackwell: 74-104.
  • Mandelbaum, Jenny. (1989). Interpersonal dimensions of conversational storytelling. Western Journal of Speech Communication 53: 114-126.
  • Norrick, Neal R. (1998). Retelling stories in spontaneous conversation. Discourse processes 25 (1): 75-97.
  • Thornborrow, Joanna & Jennifer Coates (Eds.) (2005). The Sociolinguistics of Narrative. John Benjamins.

Recommended Reading/Viewing

  • “How to tell stories well.” WikiHow. http://www.wikihow.com/Tell-Stories-Well
  • Watch great stories online courtesy of The Moth, “a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling.” http://themoth.org

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