The Secret of Storytelling: Take a bite


Let’s pretend I’m Eve and you are Adam. Don’t worry about what we are or aren’t wearing. So in my hand is this apple, and with it the secret to finding good stories. All yours, free of charge.  But, before you take a bite I have to warn you; there is a big downside. This apple is from the tree of knowledge (yep, that one) and each bite can be as difficult as it is joyful. Tiny bites are okay, but tiny bites mean tiny difficulties and tiny joys.

As a general rule, I harbor deep suspicions against anyone who says they have “the answer” to anything. Storytelling took off around the same time my book The Story Factor was published. Probably a coincidence. I wasn’t the only exploding with ideas at the Jonesborough storytelling festival in 1994. In 1998 and 1999 I wasn’t the only one running experiments and writing about stories. But there wasn’t a big crowd, either.  I felt complete freedom to explore storytelling without restraint and I had more than enough arrogance to assume I understood what I thought I understood. I mainly sought advice from traditional storytellers although my questions came from psychology, group dynamics, and teaching self-awareness workshops.

It was a lot of work…but I felt pure joy writing about storytelling (except for the editing part, editing sucks). Back then stories were allowed to go anywhere and come from anywhere. It felt like exploring a natural wilderness of surprises. There was no internet to harsh my buzz with numbered lists and so I mapped what felt natural to map, connecting my own dots, for my own reasons: I had a shiny messiah complex and I was out to save the world – share storytelling for good, not evil, and all that.

Anyway, it’s 20 years later and you can’t swing a dead cat in a coffee shop without hitting a storyteller. The neighborhood looks a lot different than it did. I see the equivalent of fancy cars and big malls, secret clubs and Disney story wonderlands with hefty entry fees. My friends call it the “storytelling industrial complex.” Do any of them have “the answer?”

Honestly? Some do. I still like my six stories and I’ve felt “this is it! several times since then. But after twenty years, the “this is it!” moments run together. So…I needed one big thing, something pivotal, basic, primitive, and organic to help organize my thoughts and zero in on really good stories.

It’s not surprising I found my new “unifying theory of story” listening to Joseph Campbell. I was two blocks from my house walking Lucy, when through my earbuds I heard Joseph Campbell tell Bill Moyers that he had revised his opinion that the purpose of myth was to create meaning. His tone got lively as he explained that maybe creation stories prompted it, but in his revised opinion the purpose of myth is to chart what it is to “feel truly alive.”

Who cares about a love story if it doesnt make you feel more alive? Horror stories aren’t interesting unless they remind us how precious life is or validate that you are not alone in your fear, a good mystery offers shared wonder that produces a visceral and physiological change in heart rate, etc.  I now think this is the common denominator in all good stories.  They remind us we are alive.

The secret to great storytelling is: does this story make me/us feel more alive? It is as simple and as difficult as that. This aliveness seems to happen when opposites touch: life/death, good/evil, rich/poor, dangerous/safe, dark grey/light grey, love/emptiness, beauty/ugliness and the rest. So contrast is key to creating a narrative frame, but there is a big difference between a story that should work and one that does.

Joseph Campbell spoke of the knights on their quest for the Holy Grail “If a path exists in the forest, don’t follow it, for though it took someone else to the Grail, it will not take you there, because it is not your path.”

My advice? I recommend you go take a big juicy bite out of a real apple. Let the juice run down your chin, look at the red, green, brown and white of it and think about what else makes you feel truly alive. Then look for stories that make you feel like that: more alive. When you find it, that’s a good story.



9 thoughts on “The Secret of Storytelling: Take a bite”

  1. “…….you can’t swing a dead cat in a coffee shop without hitting a storyteller.” What kind of a saying is this?

  2. Thanks Annette, I really enjoyed this post. It does seem that storytelling is the new buzz word, and like all buzz words it become stretched to meaninglessness, but swinging cats in coffee shops is much better!

    I have wondered about this thing as well and we may be saying the same thing, but is to feel truly alive, simply to feel? and that is what we find in stories, we can vicariously feel things, through the story? The human experience of feeling has the binary of feeling and not feeling, and we need both but as always we can get out of balance with either, think drama divas, or periods in our lives when life is pretty uneventful.
    But I also think story is too big, too useful to be pinned by one purpose. Even one as big as Campbell’s
    The other idea I see with stories is practice – practice being scared, practice laughing at otherwise infuriating unexpected events, practice feeling love.
    And then the other big one of not feeling so alone, knowing someone else has felt what we feel.
    Anyway, thanks again for a great post.

    1. Thanks for your comment! Yes! practice is a huge aspect of storytelling – the opportunity to run a thought experiment without having to risk in real life. The happiness researcher Dan Gilbert calls it synthesizing – at it’s simplest he said, “we don’t have to actually make a liver flavored ice cream to know it won’t taste good. We imagine it and we just know.” Stoires can operative as a cognitive rehearsal – one of the reasons stories are so helpful teaching autistic kids how to act in social situations. And yes, story is too big to be labeled. I agree. When I write “to feel truly alive” I’m actually referencing the neurological mechanism of “I am” or “I exist” that necessarily precedes i am scared, I love, I laugh. I wanted to find a mechanism that gives me a reference for some kind of true north for my stories no matter what structure, taxonomy, purpose or framework …So for me true north is never telling a story that doesn’t deliver to me AND my listener the feeling “I am.” In shorthand you might just say it’s about “showing up.” But for some reason it really helps me to think about it this way.

  3. I really like what you are saying, but i don’t know what it means in the context of story…yet. I will ponder some more to see if it makes sense to me, because I want it too!
    So good to be talking about this stuff. Thanks

    1. I’ll be writing more about it. But it probably starts with the story finding part (may start and end there, I dunno). The sparkle of aliveness is visceral, situational, usually relational, and even if it as non-story-seeming in your memory as “ice cream made in grandmothers hand crank machine.” If you felt 100% alive in the moment? then there’s a story there. It’s the “tell” when you are on the hunt for a story. Does that help?

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