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What Makes A Good Story?

Updated on May 27, 2014

Storytelling: Making Sense of Our Lives

People have told stories since the beginning of time. Stories lie at the heart of life experience, the most compelling form of communication, as ancient as language itself. They help us make sense of our lives and the world in which we live.

All cultures and communities tell stories. They are the narratives of life, spanning the centuries and connecting the generations. They are the vessels in which we carry our history, our traditions, our hopes and our dreams. There is no greater pleasure than listening to a darn good yarn.

What makes a good story? This question has occupied my mind for the last 20 years as a professional storyteller, and for the last four of these as an organiser of a major UK storytelling festival.

Of course, the way a story is told is a key element in communication with an audience - and you will see and hear how some of the storytellers featured here do that. But first the storyteller has to choose a story.

So what makes a good story? I asked five professional storytellers this question.

Shonaleigh Cumbers

Shonaleigh’s grandmother was a Yiddish oral storyteller, a drut'syla, and Shonaleigh is probably one of the last drut'sylas to have been trained in the traditional family style.

"A good story for me doesn't moralise, doesn't thump its point home. It's a subtle thing that entertains on one level, but if people have the ears to hear it, goes so much deeper - but even if they can't see it at that deeper level, still the story loses none of its entertainment value.

My favourite story is about King Solomon and Ashmedai, the demon - for two reasons. Firstly, it poses the question: what is the difference between truth and illusion? and answers it quite beautifully.

Secondly, it's timeless. While sitting with my son one day watching an epsiode of (I'm ashamed to admit) Star Trek, he turned to me and said, "Isn't that that Solomon and Ashmedai story?" And, do you know, it was.

If you would like to learn more about the King Soloman and Ashmedai legends, click on the link below.

Mara Menzies

Mara Menzies is a storyteller with both a Kenyan and Scottish heritage.

"I have told the complex Greek story of Persephone to pre-school children and they loved it! I have told fabulous fairytales to grown ups and they too were thrilled! As long as you adapt your story to suit your audience, then you will have them in the palm of your hand. We all love strong characters - brave and daring, beautiful and haughty, angry and rebellious."

“We love the mystery of where a story is going and some wonderful stories leave the audience hanging, free to create their own end. As long as the narrative is clear and we understand what is happening then we all identify in part with the characters and the goings on."

Listen and watch Mara tell the story: ' How it came to be that women eat meat' - click on the link below.

Chris Bostock

Chris has a background is in Teaching, Theatre and Theatre in Education. He tells traditional tales from many different cultures.

"Isn’t it amazing what a range of stories there are? The stories that delight me most are the ones where you can see the whole story in your mind as soon as it’s told. They are the time stoppers, the stories that make you forget the time and space around you, that hold you in their arms and make you feel better about the world. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to be challenged or surprised, and to laugh, or to even nurse a tear - good stories take you on a journey of delightful discovery - and I’m ready to go!"

"Stories from different cultures literally take us to another place and there we can learn to feel empathy with other people’s lives and priorities. Wherever we travel we take stories with us and carry others back - and it’s always interesting to meet a story you know in a completely different setting. I tell stories from other places as a reminder that we all share the same world and same feelings - it’s these thoughts and images that bind us together as humans."

Dominic Kelly

Dominic is a contemporary performance storyteller who has performed at venues across the world. He often creates new work to commission - including site-specific pieces - and also tells stories from his repertoire for both adult and family audiences.

"I’m attracted to stories for different reasons - some have startling or vivid imagery; others some fantastic ‘reveal’ or a beautiful plot twist; and others have a compelling emotional thread. Many have all of these! But there’s also some underlying ‘muscularity’ to a story’s structure that I need to feel before a story really feels like a story. If it’s insubstantial under the surface, despite some wonderful imagery for instance, I don’t feel properly ‘fed’ by it."

"I find this muscularity more often in traditional stories than in modern fiction, for instance, because the ‘what happens’ of the story has been distilled through the life experiences of countless generations of people who’ve passed it on. I also want to discover some multi-layeredness - a metaphorical richness to a story usually (not that I can’t hugely enjoy some 5 minute belter of a narrative joke!) Perhaps most of all, I have to CARE. If I really care about what happens to just one character in the story then I’m in and it’s working!"

See and hear Dominic in performance - click on the link below.


Sophie Snell

Sophie is a professional storyteller and author of 'The Pirate's Sister' and 'Dragon's Tales', writing for both children and adults, and is currently completing her first novel, a fantasy for young adults, 'The Raven Stones'.

“I look for a traditional tale that leaps from the page – a story with a good heart to it. I don’t mean a moral or a message, but an emotional core that lends itself to twists and turns you can carry people along with. I scan the page or a book or the screen, looking for the bigger picture, the sense of the thing – stripping out any colouring from the writer or teller as much as I can. What is left – how does it turn, what did I enjoy about the story and why? How would it translate into spoken word? Once a story catches my ear, I research it, find the original, any variations, relevant background material. That might sound a lot of effort, but it always yields results, and hopefully a version of my own that has integrity, and a fresh take.”

“I look for a good story line, an interesting setting or character, or something quirky or intriguing – that you can get your teeth into and play with. But also something I can tell with commitment, because I know it works for me, and gets a good response from the audience.”

Then I look for a hook in the tale and things can build up from there. You might play with the structure, perspective and setting; reinvent the story by turning it on its head – what if, why, how would the audience react if … trying out different ideas until that one works. Speaking out loud the story is the acid test – what seems good in theory in your head can be naff or painful when spoken! So the process of developing a story has to start with the telling, retelling and repeated telling – preferably in front of an audience – their response is so informative – it is not about indulging myself!”

Hear Sophie reading a sample from one of her 'Dragon Stories' - click on the link below.

Settle Storytelling Festival

Want to hear good stories - aimed at all ages? Then you are invited to our three day storytelling festival at Settle, North Yorkshire: 10 – 12 October, 2014: 40+ events, and with professional storytellers and musicians to entertain and engage with you.

More information via the link below.

I'd love to hear from you. What stories do you like?

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    • Settle Stories profile imageAUTHOR

      Sita Brand 

      4 years ago from Settle, North Yorkshire

      Yes, I agree, myths contain timeless and universal truths, and form the basis of many contemporary short stories and novels. Thanks for your comments, Darrell.

    • Darrell Roberts profile image

      Darrell Roberts 

      4 years ago from North Carolina

      The audience has to connect to the setting, theme and the characters. The have to be able to see themselves as one of the characters. A good story arouses the emotions of others, making them want to laugh, cry, sing, love, or even get upset, etc.

      Myths from around the world are great examples, of exceptional story telling. They get handed down from generation to generation and the characters become immortal.

      Best wishes,

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