Lessons in Storytelling

I had the pleasure of hearing Ivan Coyote speak at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference in October. She’s fabulous.

Before and since then, I’ve watched several of her performances on YouTube. They never fail to make me smile or laugh or cry or nod with agreement or all of the above, depending on the video. As a writer, I also wonder how she does it. What is it about the way she speaks that connects with me, with my friends, with everyone else in the audience? It’s a package deal, of course, of storytelling talent and presence and self assurance and all sorts of other factors.

Watching this particular video,

I realized one part of what it is, and it’s one I can work on in my own writing. It’s the same thing that makes the best comedians so funny, the saddest tales so sad: the details.

In this video, there are a few details that make the story for me, and they’ve stayed with me for weeks after watching it the first time. What works for me here – all of it works for me, let’s be honest – is partly the juxtaposition of the ridiculous-but-true details, like the re-naming of the hill, with lyrical details like the description of the clay cliffs. I’d quote it for you, but I think you should go watch the video instead. It’s masterful storytelling.

We sometimes get carried away writing, wanting every sentence to be beautiful, to be lyrical and lovely. But what really grabs me as a reader, as a listener, is the gorgeous, touching, lush essential detail in the middle of a simply told tale. Or the tiny, seemingly inconsequential one that speaks to a larger sense of family or community or love. And the funny, touching, unexpected-but-true little bits that connect audience to story, putting them right there in the middle of it. And isn’t that where we all want to be when we read or listen to a good tale?