Storytelling Techniques in Memoir by Kate Farrell

Kate Farrell, author of Story Power, has written a new blog post on the technique of storytelling and how it can be utilized while writing a memoir.

There are many ways to approach writing a memoir: one of them is that of the storyteller. The oral tradition offers time-honored techniques in the construction of story, whether a folktale or a personal narrative, so that it is universal and engaging. The three most effective techniques in the enduring, oral art of storytelling for memoir are:

Role of the narrator
Structure of story as a narrative arc
Importance of voice

Narrator in the Oral Tradition

The role of the storyteller is omniscient, knows it all, interprets the characters, emotions, meaning, and frames the story. The traditional teller is like the black robed musician in the symphony orchestra, invisible, the instrument that allows the music to fill the concert hall with its drama, emotion, power. So, the storyteller becomes invisible and allows the story to take over, so that listeners can become lost in the story, engage, and find their own meaning.

Marie Louisa Shedlock in her classic work, The Art of the Story-Teller (1915), defined the essence of art with stunning clarity. Shedlock described storytelling performance as an “inside out” process that is both powerful and simple.

Many of the storytelling guides today, either published or online, tend to construct stories from basic elements, such as: story structure, narrative arc, emotional charge, or timing. By crafting stories from the “outside in” one can develop good story lines, but they won’t reflect the essence of the art or engage the listeners in the same way. This is also true for memoir writing.

This is how Marie Shedlock describes the role of the teller:

“It would be a truism to suggest that dramatic instinct and dramatic power of expression are naturally the first essentials for success in the art of story-telling, and that, without these, no story-teller would go very far; but I maintain that, even with these gifts, no high standard of performance will be reached without certain other qualities, among the first of which I place apparent simplicity, which is really the art of concealing the art … The fault in the artist which amounts most completely to a failure of dignity is the absence of saturation with his idea. When saturation fails, no other real presence avails, as when, on the other hand, it operates, no failure of method fatally interferes.”

The role of the storytelling narrator is neutral—even though the story might be full of emotion, catharsis, passion, the teller must remain at enough of an emotional distance to be “saturated” in the entirety of the story, taking all the parts, knowing the inside out of all its characters, holding the story within an all-embracing awareness.

Gaining this emotional distance and detachment can be useful because the writer is shaping raw experience into a story to share with others, who will then identify and make of it what they will.

Simple Structure: Narrative Arc

In the folktales and fairy tales that have survived millennia, one immediately imagines a framework, the conventional beginning, middle, and end, ‘Happily ever after.” Implicit in that structure, is the role of the storyteller, the mastermind of the piece, ever present, but not visible, the impresario.

Stories in the oral tradition that have survived have a simple structure, often with a repetition of the main action, such as the three bears, or the three wishes. We enjoy the predictability that also allows for rising tension that comes with each repeated act.

If you can select one action scene from your memoir or personal narrative and adapt it for storytelling, doing so can provide a number of benefits: role of narrator, structural shaping, repetition, clear resolution, and emotional distancing.

Creating effective scenes, using an outline to track its narrative arc, or a storyboard. If your action scenes have a clear structure, they will engage readers, and allow for the neutrality of the narrator, who can step aside, and let the story take hold.

Voice

The oral tradition relies on the spoken word to convey all meaning. The same can be true of memoir. Here are a few practical ways to develop your awareness of voice and to use the spoken word to deepen your understanding of your story.

Recording the story: Practice telling the story until it comes naturally. There are any number of ways to practice telling a story. You could play the recorded story and join in with your live voice until there is no hesitation in the flow of words. Recruit your family, friends, or pets for a live audience—often the best way. Tell it to a mirror without notes and watch your facial expressions and hand gestures. Videotape your telling and play it back on Zoom or Facebook Live or another app.

Listening to the story: Deepen your connection to the story by isolating the truth in the story and relating it to your own truths. Spend time doing some research to verify the accuracy of your personal story. Consult with friends or family members who were there or had similar experiences. Even though you might not add the details you research or learn from eye witnesses to the tale, they verify what you have remembered. You might then listen to your recording of the story and close your eyes, at a time when you are most relaxed. Think about what the symbolism of the story means to you. Your understanding of the layers of meaning in a story greatly adds to the telling of it. This is the subtext: It tells what cannot be said.

Conclusion

All three of these storytelling techniques taken together, create neutrality by encouraging empathy within the teller and the writer of memoir: Acceptance  of all events, each character, and the final outcome.


Story Power by Kate Farrell

Story power

Secrets to Creating, Crafting, and Telling Memorable Stories

Stories are everywhere. The art of storytelling has been around as long as humans have. And in today’s noisy, techy, automated world, storytelling is not only prevalent—it’s vital. Whether you’re interested in enlivening conversation, building your business brand, sharing family wisdom, or performing on stage, Story Power will show you how to make use of a good story.