Tuesday, May 15, 2012


These two look like they could tell some stories!

Over the weekend, we went to the Appalachian Festival in Cincinnati, Ohio. I've been before and have always enjoyed it, in part because of my Appalachian heritage, but also because I studied Appalachian literature in college.

One of the festival events was Storytelling. Different storytellers came each hour and sat on the stage and told stories. It seems like a simple concept, right? In some ways, it is, which is why storytelling is such a predominant form of entertainment in rural Appalachian areas. But as a writer, I listened to the storyteller with a different ear, trying to discern what worked and what didn't as our storyteller took the stage.

As it turned out, our storyteller was not that good. We were bored after his second story, and some audience members left before he finished. I still took this as a learning opportunity and thought about what went wrong with his tales. His speaking style was nice, and he used plenty of inflection in his tales. It was the stories themselves that lost our attention.

The first story was okay. He told a tale of make-believe creatures that were rumored to be hidden underground in Ohio and Kentucky. That was a good selling point: he made it relevant to his audience. He also used a lot of sound effects, which gave us some imagery to imagine. And he used plenty of repetition, which is a crucial element to folk tales and tales for children. So the story was okay, but didn't actually make much sense. We were disappointed by the end because we couldn't decide what the moral of the story, or the meaning of these make-believe creatures were.

The second story was a "Jack" story and followed the structure of folk tales such as The Little Red Hen. Plenty of repetition. It wasn't that interesting, but it worked.

It was the third story that lost the audience. Unfortunately, the story didn't make any sense at all. The storyteller included lots of detail, which you might think would make it more interesting, but actually made it more distracting. Don't include specific details like a James Taylor concert, and describe the smell of the bathroom if those details don't lend anything to the story. We kept waiting for them to be relevant and they never were. They had no place in the story at all.

Instead, the story took on elements of a dream; and like the re-telling of many dreams, it didn't make sense. This tale was clearly lacking in structure. Any writer of short stories knows that every word in the story needs to be crucial to the story. This particular storyteller didn't keep that in mind. We went off on tangents that had nothing to do with anything, and he lost his audience.

The last story he told (and I think he made it his last because he'd lost most of his audience) was a typical legendary myth-- the kind of ghost story that children like to tell around campfires. These usually involve the number three. Three rounds of things happen before the climax. The structure of this kind of tale is almost a formula, and the storyteller stuck to the formula. His big mistake on this tale was setting it up as being scary. It wasn't, even though he promised that as a storyteller, he knew how to scare us if he wanted to scare us. He set up a premise and then fell flat. I find it akin to saying, "This is going to be the greatest story you've ever heard."  No matter what you say after that, it won't be.

So, I wasn't all that entertained as I listened to the Appalachian storyteller (who also told us right off the bat that he wasn't Appalachian), but I did find his stories useful. It was a lesson in what not to do, and sometimes that's just as important as getting things right.


  1. What an interesting study. And how did the storyteller react to the people leaving? Was HE trying to gauge interest, make any adjustments?

  2. Kristan, I wondered the same thing and watched his reaction as people got up and left. He didn't seem to adjust his storytelling at first. In fact, he said, "Let's see. We've got time for a couple more stories." I actually felt a twinge of alarm when he said that. But a colleague of his in the audience suggested he only had time for one more, and he took the time to study the rmaining audience a little bit. There was a family with two grade school-aged kids and I think that's when he decided to tell a "ghost" story. So he did gauge interest in the end.