Storytelling Through the Written Word

08 Jan


We all think we have a story to tell. If not, why would we want to become writers? As writers, telling stories is what we do, isn’t it? Let’s find out.

The website,, defines storytelling as: “An art form of conveying a series of events in words, images, and sounds, which are often supported by creative thinking or an exaggeration.” The National Storytelling Network (Untied States and Canada) website defines it as: “The interactive art of using words and actions to reveal the elements and images of a story while encouraging the listener’s imagination.” Keeping in mind that these organizations refer to the oral tradition of storytelling and we are discussing written storytelling, I’m going to take a liberty and use readers where they use listeners.

Storytelling is, in fact, an oral tradition that goes back as far time itself. Some have postulated that the first stories were told to explain a failure. Hmm… “..supported by creative thinking or an exaggeration.” maybe that’s were fishing tall tales got their start. Sounds like fiction to me. We will come back to this later.

I remember as a boy sitting around the campfire listening to my elders tell stories about hunting, fishing, working on the railroad, or humorous war stories. I sat enthralled for hours. To this day I love to hear a good story told well. One of my favorite movies, “Out of Africa”, has a character that is a great storyteller. She is given the names of a couple of characters by her audience and she then creates a story off the top of her head that may go on for hours.

For the purpose of this post, I will define storytelling as: “Using written words that encourage the reader to use their active imagination, to create a sensory-laden story where the reader is fully engaged.” Now let’s see if can explain myself over the next few paragraphs.

The easy part is the first part. As writers, we use written words. On occasion, we can use cover art or illustrations to help convey story. However, words are our world. There are a lot of words at our disposal. Some are better than others. This is where the writer’s craft comes into play. The writer needs to select the best combination of words to help the reader create a real world. Choosing the right words is the art of writing. There are libraries full of how-to books on writing. Nearly all of them have good advice. But, ultimately, it is up to the writer to choose what works best for the story in question.

We have little control over the quality of the reader’s imagination. Each person is different. Some people can take a few words from a writer and create a whole fantastic world. Those reader need very little setting detail get into the story. Others can’t imagine anything that is not actually resting in their hands. All of the flowery descriptive prose in the world is needed to help them “see” what the writer sees. A writer must know their audience so as to chose the best words to fire what imagination the reader has.

If we want to reader to hear sounds, smell odors, feel textures, taste flavors, we must use words to help the reader build those things. Storytellers using the written word must choose their words carefully to help the reader create the real story in their head. Writers, just like in the oral tradition, must incorporate each of the reader’s five senses. The writer must see, hear, feel, taste, and smell the world they are trying to put to paper. The more vividly we write, the easier it is for our audience to be completely absorbed into the story. One of the keys to good writing, in my humble opinion, is to add the sensory details to the story without spending a page and a half explaining what a sunrise looks like. A few words scattered here and there within the action of the scene seems smoother and more interesting to read than an info dump.

Isn’t what what we’re after, as storytellers, is for the reader to be completely absorbed in the story? Have you ever read a book and become so engrossed in it that you find yourself laughing out loud? Or, you feel the character’s frustration and cry out in anguish? Or, feel the pain of the character’s loss and begin to cry? When that happens, the writing storyteller has accomplished the task at hand.

That brings us to the question of “…use of creative thinking or exaggeration.” On the surface this would push the storyteller toward the realm of fiction. However, non-fiction writers, do not despair! Even textbooks can be written in such a way as to draw the reader into the subject matter and still be truthful. The use of real-life experiences, anecdotes, and examples can help to make even the driest material palatable  Exaggerations can also be used to help prove a point. I have not seen a lot of this technique used in pure non-fiction. However, I’m sure it has.

Good writers are indeed storytellers, regardless of their genre of choice. Becoming a good writer is what we all strive for. The good news is, we ALL have a story to tell.


Posted by on January 8, 2013 in Thoughts on Writing


Tags: , , , , ,

7 responses to “Storytelling Through the Written Word

  1. robincoyle

    January 8, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    When I read writing that evokes an external expression of emotion like a tear, a laugh, or a sigh, I think, “I want to write like that.”

  2. 4amWriter

    January 8, 2013 at 9:45 pm

    I’m terrible at verbally telling a story. I mean, I can entertain my kids by telling them a story off the top of my head, but there isn’t a lot of pressure there, you know? One of my greatest fears is going to a cocktail party and being asked to tell a story. I wouldn’t be able to do it. I’m amazed at anyone who can just speak a story. Sometimes I think those are the really gifted storytellers, because they don’t have the benefit of editing and revising. They have to get it right and make it compelling and hold interest the very first time.

    • Dennis Langley

      January 9, 2013 at 8:39 am

      I was amazed that there are nationwide organizations devoted to this oral tradition. A quick internet search revealed a listing of professional storytellers one could hire for events here in the Twin Cities. Doing it for money would take the fun out of it for me as the audiences expectation level would be very high. I used to volunteer for the Boy Scouts years ago and enjoyed telling the boys stories around the campfire. Some were traditional stories, some were my experiences, and some I made up as I went. It was totally fun as there was no pressure to be amazing and I had a captive audience. 😉

  3. Matthew Wright

    January 14, 2013 at 5:27 am

    Absolutely true! I’d go so far as to say that even non-fiction writers are ‘storytellers’ of a sort; for them, the story is already ‘told’ (as in ‘the facts’) but it still has to be presented and framed in a way that grabs the reader. Finding that frame demands as much lateral creative skill as creative writing – I’d draw comparison between photographers (non-fiction writers) and painters (fiction writers). Both are artists in their own way.


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