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Using storytelling in writing: Two examples

Are you a storyteller? I come from a long line of storytellers. They’re not necessarily writers (in fact, I believe I’m the first “writer” in the family tree), but they are serious tellers of stories.

I wrote about my family’s storytelling in my memoir. In one scene, I’ve just come home from 4-H camp with a sprained ankle and my father has met me in the parking lot of our grocery store with bad news about my cousin and best friend, Susan.

         “While you were gone this weekend something terrible happened. Well—I just hate to tell you this because I know how much you loved your cousin, Susan.” He stopped and cleared his throat, watching me intently.

What was wrong with Susan? Why was he using the past tense?

“You know—you two were always so close and well, this is going to be hard to hear, but while you were gone at camp—while you were gone—”

I wanted to scream at him to spit it out.

“Susan fell into a coma.” He stopped, fighting back tears. “The doctors tried everything but she just wouldn’t wake up.” A single tear overflowed from his left eye, snaking a line down his cheek. “She was in a coma for two days before—”

Suddenly, my own tears spilled over. Susan had died. My cousin and best friend was gone. The store’s parking lot became a blurry mass of asphalt. My shoulders started to shake and from there my whole body heaved with an emotion I couldn’t hold on to. All the pain I’d felt before, all those nights in front of the chopping block, were nothing compared to what I felt now.

Dad reached out to pat my arm, which made me cry harder because then I knew she was dead. He never touched Mom or me with the intent to comfort. What made it worse was that Susan had died while I was off running around in some stupid woods.

“There. There,” he said. “It’s okay, honey. I know how you feel. It was horrible. She was in that coma for two days and nobody, not even the doctors, thought she’d make it. But you know—your cousin’s a strong little girl. After two days and two nights, she finally woke up.”

My mind jumbled around his words, trying to put them together. What had he just said? “She’s not dead?”

“No, of course not.” He looked aghast, as if I was crazy to suggest such a thing. “She’s fine. At home now—takin’ it easy. But, boy, that was a close one.” He smiled then, his big toothy grin. He had a glow about him, an expansiveness I couldn’t quite place. Then it dawned on me. He was proud of himself. He’d been practicing his storytelling technique—drawing out the narrative, throwing me red herrings, seeing if he could get a response, how far he could take it without outright lying. He was as much a trickster as our Dead Man’s Curve….”

In my current novel-in-progress, one of the characters—a respected elder in the community—speaks mostly through story. The idea for this character trait came from an older chiropractor I once knew who gave his patients lifestyle and spiritual advice through the stories he told them. Speaking from personal experience, the stories he told stayed with his clients longer and resonated at a deeper level than any regular, straight-up advice he could have given.

Has the subject of storytelling ever come up in any of your stories or poems? If so, how?

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