Stories around the campfire

Last week I went camping with my family, which is part of the reason I didn’t get a post up for the week (sorry about that). My family and I spent three nights in the “wild”, and had to find out own entertainment away from electronics, friends, and the Internet. It was actually much easier than we might have expected, but one thing rather surprised me.

My kids asked me to tell them stories.

Now, I read to my kids fairly frequently–or used to before they got older and found it’s sometimes just quicker to read it themselves. But I haven’t been asked to tell them stories in years. So I dusted off my repertoire of campfire stories and went to it.

I don’t know about the kids, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. There’s something about sitting around in the dark with just a fire for illumination, listening to a tale well told. I love listening to a good storyteller, from Storyteller Kendall Haven who used to appear regularly at the Boise River Fest to John Hurt as The Storyteller on The Jim Henson Hour years ago, to my college storytelling professor (yes, there was an actual class at my college on storytelling, and boy did I jump on that one when it was announced).

It’s becoming a lost art form, sadly. A good storyteller is part actor, part stand-up comedian, part improvisational speaker, and part researcher. I’ve heard good storytellers multiple years at scout camps, and though they tell the same story every year, they always make it new again by emphasizing different elements of the story.

The more I think about that experience the more I’ve considered the difference between a verbal storyteller and a writer.  Besides the obvious issue of medium, the other major difference is the spontaneity. A Storyteller can tell the same story as many different ways as he has audiences. Every retelling, unless the story is well-memorized and rehearsed, will vary from the previous ones. As writers, we get only once chance to tell our tale, and the only variations, then, is in the readers themselves.

But for the most part the tools of a writer are much the same as those of a storyteller. Pacing, voice, characterization, description, word choice–all are elements that can make or break a story regardless of its medium. With that in mind I would recommend a little research into the art of storytelling. Here’s two starting points. The first is a recording of Kendall Haven’s story “The Killer Brusselsprouts”. The second is a lecture on storytelling Haven gave at Stanford. It applies elements of story to public relations and marketing, but there is some useful concepts there that should be applicable to all types of storytelling.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom is a Utah transplant, works for a regional bank, and spends his lunch hours working on his latest novel. His wife, three kids, and four pets find him amusing and somewhat useful, so they keep him around.