Finding the Heart of Your Story

By Mary Grace Ketner

If you have listened to two different storytellers tell the same story, you are aware of how different the narration of the same sequence of events can “feel” to the listener. A storyteller may make his humorous tale whimsical, rollicking, or just plain silly. A saint’s tale or religious legend can fall on listening ears as an inspiration or a blessing. An historical tale may sound authoritative or folksy. A trickster tale may be told as simple fun, or it may carry a message about values, and that message may be either subtle or profound.

The tale itself doesn’t require a certain way to be told. Consciously or unconsciously, it is the storyteller who brings out the elements of the story that seem important to him. If it is humorous, she wants to make its humor even stronger. If it showed a quirk of human nature that is the storyteller’s pet peeve, he may tell it in a way that emphasizes that, even “rubs it in.” If the story affirms a value dear to her, the teller wants to make sure that value isn’t lost on her listeners; in fact, she wants their whole listening experience to lead up to that affirmation—rarely by pounding the point, of course, but rather by structuring the telling so effectively that the point cannot be missed.

When I am attracted to a story, I try to figure out what it is about that story that makes me like it so. What in the story resonates with me? What did I find that makes me glad I read it? What does it say to me that I want others to hear and appreciate? Where is the “heart” of the story?

Sometimes the story shows people behaving as (I think) they really do, and I feel satisfied when the good guy gets his just reward. Sometimes the story seems remarkably true to its own culture and heritage; it enriches the joy I take in cultural diversity, so I want to spread the good news. Sometimes the story brings home an important and timely truth, and I feel driven to spread it. Sometimes there is a moment of enchantment that made me quiver or a moment of terror that made me tremble. Sometimes the story is just too dang clever to be left untold!

The moment I realize why I am drawn to the story is the moment I can begin to make it my own. That why will affect my crafting of the tale, because I want my listener to have the same experience I had in taking it in. (Or I want their moment to be even better!) It will affect my approach to the tale, my opening lines, for I will need to set the stage in the best way I can. That why will affect how I develop the characters, how I describe (or choose not to describe) the setting and scenes. That why helps me choose how certain important lines will be said, and, perhaps most importantly, it guides me in crafting a proper closure.

Sometimes I don’t really discover the “why” until I’m in the middle of crafting it or even after I’ve actually told it several times—or many times! As I worked on the story, the story was working on me. New meanings and possibilities emerged from the story itself, from telling and retelling it over and over, and also from audience response and comments. I have little moments of “Aha!” all through the life of the tale, that is, the years of my telling it.

I wonder if you have thought about the heart of the stories you tell and of those you love but haven’t told yet? Give it a try, and see if it doesn’t give your story-crafting and story-telling a boost in the right direction!

Illustration caption: “Hold tight to my shaggy coat,” he said, “and there’s nothing to fear.” Kay Nielsen’s illustration from “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.”

Illustration caption:

“Hold tight to my shaggy coat,” he said, “and there’s nothing to fear.”

Kay Nielsen’s illustration from “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.”