Making Senses of Your Story


                                                                                Marilyn Kinsella



To be the best storyteller you can be takes three components. You need performance skills, you need ambition…you need dumb luck. However, there is one thing missing from this equation. Its value is often overlooked even though it’s the very building blocks of the stories we tell, and that is the Words We Choose. We are so wrapped up sometimes in our performance skills, our business, our being-in-the-right-place-at-the right-time…that we neglect to realize the power that our language holds. Many of storytellers learned to tell stories “…picture by picture or incident by incident… The result is that they often tell the story with all the words in the correct order but without either the litheness of expressive language or blood of the story flowing.” (Carol Birch – The Whole Story Handbook) With just a little tweaking here and there, you can take an ordinary story and make it extraordinary. These tweaks will not change the story, it will not extend the story, and it will not fracture the story. What it will do is make the story one that your listeners will see, touch, taste, hear, and smell. The words, the sentences, the overall crafting will feed your audience a sweet elixir instead of pap. Our ears are constantly bombarded with the dumbing-down of our language – TV, Internet, pop-literature are just some of the ways our language reflects who we are, not what we could be. By looking and hearing the words of storytellers who finely craft their stories and by doing some group work, this workshop will bring your telling into the realm of true enchantment.


There are three parts to this workshop. The first is getting to your inspiration and then using writing ploys to make the whole story interesting, enlightening and enjoyable. The next part will take a closer look at the sentence structures within the stories you tell. Finally, there are many ways to tweak words and phrases to heighten the level of the language into something I call Power Language


Before we embark on this venture, let me make something very clear. It is the action of the story that keeps it moving right along. If you stray too far from the action with your verbose language – you will lose your listeners. There are some places in the story where the teller needs to it down by adding power language: when a setting is important, when a new major character enters, when there is a strong emotion, when the defining moment happens, etc. What I am suggesting is to find ways to use some of the following tidbits without weighing down the story.


 WRITING PLOYS - are used by storywriters as well as by storytellers. Even though they might not know they are consciously doing so.


Free Association: letting your mind wander over words that are important in the telling of a folktale or the creation of a personal story. You can make a compost heap (a term I first heard from Jay O’Callahan). This is a mental thing where words, images, bits of dialog, facts and fantasy are stored away. One day this compost heap of ideas heats up. You better have a pen and paper handy because the story will come spilling out. Another example of this is the story I told you earlier – “Sunday Visits.”  I had Sunday visits, backyard garden, music boxes, tiny white Bible, Apple cheeks, whiskered cheek, hard-of-hearing, holy cards, secret hiding place - all stored away in my brain. When they heated up, I wrote the story. One way to instigate a compost heap is to write the words down during a “webbing” exercise or sometimes called a “netline” or “mindmap.” “In the center of a paper write down the central premise, image, point, or the character of your piece. Then, around the hub, write down other images, ideas, points, or events that relate to it.  Finally, draw line to connect related elements. If an item naturally connects to two or more others, as will often be the case, draw a line to each one. The resulting netline will be a highly visual diagram of exactly what your piece will embody and involve.”  (Edelstein) Sometimes you can see a pattern starting to develop. Your story actually can be drawn out from this. This happened when I wrote a story called “Dance, Harlequin, Dance.” You can use this same idea to tweak your sentences that is discussed later in this workshop.


Activity: (individual) Show pre-made web on chart. Hand out cards with a suggested word or phrase to web. Put cards on paper.


Dialog vs Narrative - Narrative is important because this is storytelling afterall. It lets your audience know you and your voice. But, dialog is ever so much more compelling to listen to. It not only allows you to have more emotion in your voice, because you are the other person at this point, but it also allows the audience to feel privy to some “inside” information.  It’s almost like the audience is eavesdropping. There needs to be a nice balance between the two. If it contains too much dialog, your audience may as well go to a play. But with too much narrative, the audience may stray away from the story.


Activity: (whole group)Have a paragraph from a well-known story on the chalkboard. Have the attendees give suggestions for some dialog.


Use of Repetition is a welcoming, familiar addition to any story. Each time you come to the repetition the audience is made to feel comfortable by knowing what is coming. Storytellers use it in the telling of folktales. Those stories are often separated into three parts. In between the three scenes storytellers add some participation so their young audience can spontaneously join in repeating. If you haven’t - take a workshop on telling participation stories.  The use of repetition can, however, for adults become stale if used too often and if the words are repeated exactly the same. Jay O’Callahan uses repetition superbly in “The Herring Shed.”  There is a little shanty-type verse he sings over and over - sometimes it’s silly, sometimes it’s so heart wrenching you want to cry. Each time he sings he evokes a different emotion and it lets you know that something has changed in the story. Even within a sentence repetition is used – sometimes a word or as a phrase. It can be used to give emphasis or order of importance. There are even terms to go with the many varied ways repetition can be used to “power up” your story. There is an activity later in this workshop as we discuss this further.


Seeding the Story and Bringing it Back Home was something I did before I even knew I did it. It’s mentioning something small and seemingly insignificant during the story, then bringing it back at the end of the story with a twist that lets your listeners make some leaps. It truly gives a satisfying ending. Robert Fulgham (All I Ever Needed To Know I Learned in Kindergarten) uses this technique masterfully in his collection of stories. In Lucy Dove, Janice Del Negro casually mentions, when she first introduces the listener to Lucy… “Reading the proclamation, Lucy saw her way clear to a comfortable old age, in a cottage of her own, on her own piece of shore.”  Then, at the very end she cleverly uses repetition and ties it together with “Five claw marks in hard stone - made as easily as the lines Lucy Dove made in the sand, in front of her own cottage, on her own piece of shore.”


 Once I wrote a personal story about my dad called “Class Pictures.” I came to the end of the story, but somehow it didn’t seem “finished.”  I played around with it, then one morning I saw an image that I mentioned earlier in the story about my dad being a master bridge player - and me being the dummy hand. I saw those cards in my hand transformed into the class pictures my dad had collected over the years. Suddenly I knew the ending…”Although I never was much good at playing bridge, I have to say that in the game of life, I was dealt a damn fine hand.”


Activity: (small group) Hand out simple stories and have the attendees find a way to seed the story and bring it around at the end.



                                                     SENTENCE STRUCTURES AND PHRASES.


Yep, I was born and bred right here in the Midwest. Speak plain and talk big. Get to the point - plain and simple. For years education stressed “active voice” sentences and avoidance of the dreaded run-on. Heaven forbid, if you should have an incomplete sentence! . “…Sometimes incomplete sentences will have more power and feel exactly right. This one, for example.” (  Scott Edelstein - 100 Things Every Writer Needs to Know)  Talking in passive voice, and interesting long sentences, and even incomplete sentences are in. It makes the story more interesting. So go head and mix it up a bit. However, here is bit of good advice written by the sci/fi author, Macedon…

Put simply, the longer the sentence, the better the writer had better be or it becomes confusing and unreadable.   Ideally, sentence length and grammar should vary.   If all your sentences are short and all begin with a subject--"He walked to the store and saw a blue car"--it's boring.   Try,  "Walking to the store, he saw a blue car."   Or maybe,  "On the way to the local Giant supermarket, he spotted a screaming-blue corvette careening along at speeds that would earn the driver a traffic ticket in triple digits."

Variety is the spice of life (and of good prose).  And of good storytelling!


My Storytell friend, Greg Leifel’s storytelling illustrates inserting clever phrases when he wrote this to me:


“Through telling and rewriting, I continue to work on stories I've told many times already. One of the things that I've noticed, and something I find myself resisting, is the desire for story writers to simplify too much in an effort to be understood clearly, or to force an understanding with simple words. For like reading a great book, there are those certain ways things get said, that you find yourself treasuring because they are different from the way one might normally phrase them.  It's the old adage, Trust the reader. And people, I believe, want wonderful phrases to remember along with the story.
An example from one of my stories might be a strange phrase I use to describe a woman's strange nightly habit.  The story involves me watching a woman jump on a trampoline in my neighbor’s back yard around 11:30 at night. Now I could say "I snuck upstairs to my darkened bedroom window to spy on this woman," and it would be clearly understood what I was doing. Instead, the phrase I use is "I snuck upstairs to my darkened bedroom window to spy on this nightly creature of odd habit."
It's subtle, but much more descriptive and looms of another life form, which for this unusual act is appropriate, I think.”
In Lucy Dove Janice Del Negro could have said… Lucy Dove was still a good seamstress but she was getting old and didn’t have any money. But instead she says, “Oh, she still had a clever needle, but her sewing hand slowed with age, and not even a soothsayer could foresee sacks of gold in her future.”
In Dove Isabeau Jane Yolen could have said that the woman was deceptive, yet she chose to say, “She disguised her coldness behind soft slow smiles.”

And here is the voice of moderation once again:


Don't go for overkill; remember that a point or feeling can be conveyed more powerfully by understatement than by banging the reader over the head with it.   Simplicity is classy.   (Give me a woman in simple black velvet over sparkles and spangles any day.)   Or as I heard one author put is once:  "'Jesus wept' carries a hell of a lot more punch than 'Jesus threw himself on the ground, kicking and screaming.'" (Macedon)


Activity:  (small group) Hand out cards with sentences on them and let them rewrite them more interestingly. Share.


                                                                      TWEAKING THE STORY

The final way you can add some literary tidbits to your story is to look for places where you can slip in some of the following:


IMAGERY – Some people confuse this with adding adjectives and adverbs to a sentence. Not quite. Imagery is showing what you mean by finding meaningful short descriptions and words to add to your story. Instead of the “mean ole man,” you might say, “the man’s snow white beard was as short as his temper.” Or “shuffling across the floor, his beard bristling, he kicked the cat and barked at the dog.”


“Any clear sensory detail, or group of sensory details, is called an image. Images stick in our minds, and ears, and they are often what give life and power to a literary work.”  (100 Things Every Writer Needs to Know by Scott Edelstein). “…just as full sensory awareness enriches daily life, sensory awareness makes characters and setting vivid.  …Awareness resides kaleidoscopically within us. We remain largely unconscious of shifting shapes, sounds, and scents within, even though the impressions they make inform how we think, what we say, and how we act. Sense impressions jointly form and reveal attitudes. The ability to illuminate sense impressions of people and places found in stories is essential to the art of storytelling. “(Carol Birch ).



Instead of using adjectives and adverbs to describe my grandfather’s house like “it was dark and gloomy and smelled bad,” I showed you this, when I said “The rooms were dark – pierced with dusty beams of light.  The minute you opened the door your nose was assaulted with Palmolive Soap, Ben Gay and stale Murial Cigars.”  When I wanted you to hear the sweet sounds of the music box, I said, “my secret space was filled with sound of those tiny bells.” When I wanted you to hear the rhythmatic sounds of the front porch swing I added some onomatopoeia – “We creaked and cracked, back and forth to sound of the passing train.” Just one note about performance – whenever you add these sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and feelings, your whole body reacts to these words. And, if you see-it, hear-it, smell-it, taste-it, and feel- it, you can be assured that your audience will feel it as well. There are exercises and more thoughts on how to use your imagination to bring imagery into your story in Carol Birch’s book The Whole Language Handbook.  Again, I must insert – “less is more.”  Or as Scott Edeslsten says, “…you don’t create a vicarious experience for your (listeners) merely by loading down your (story) with lots of sensory details. More isn’t always better. In fact good (telling) is a matter of selecting the most appropriate and revealing details.”


Activity: (whole group) Have a sentence written on the chalkboard. Ask for suggestions to add some imagery.

Figures of Speech: The following are literary techniques used by fellow storytellers, children’s authors, and myself to elevate the story to heighten the telling experience.  The following tropes and other literary devices along with their definitions are on an Internet site by Professor Grant Williams for Studies in Early Modern Literature. ( ) I have added the quotes from stories and literature that I believe illustrate each one. Please don’t let the unfamiliar words put you off in using them. Some of these are ones I’ve used and never realized that there was word for them.

Activity: There are many, many ideas listed here for your viewing pleasure at a later date. For now I will hand out a card to each of the small groups with one of the following figures of speech and explanation on it. I will read a story passage similar to the one listed in the definition and see who recognizes the figure of speech they were given. As an added hint, I’ll only choose from those below with an asterisk * by them.

              Tropes – Figures of speech that change the typical meaning of a word or words.

*Metaphor – the substitution of a word for a word whose meaning is close to the original word. “…loving her for her spirit and for the fire that lay beneath the skin.” Dove Isabeau – Jane Yolen.  “In the sky, gray forms blew apart and branched out into veins of marble.” A Dream Sequence by Hermann Hesse. “She speaks in slivers that cut through lies.” Silent Bianca by Jane Yolen

Irony – expressing a meaning directly contrary to that suggested by the words. “I’m taking you home…for dinner.”  The Whistling Tsonquas collected from Northwest coast and retold by January Kiefer.

Hyberbole – exaggerated or extravagant statement used to make a strong impression, but not intended to be taken literally. “The armadillos were very friendly and no creature on earth considered them an enemy.” Why Armadillos Are Funny – Barbara McBride Smith. “She always did what her mama said.” The Gunniwolf  retold by Marilyn Kinsella

Paradox – a seemingly self-contradictory statement, which yet is shown to be true. “Actually, I was hoping you elephants could help me out on a little project of mine. I’m building a house, you see, for a dear, dear friend of mine, and it’s the sort of thing that would take you a matter of minutes,” said General McTiger. “And just who is this ‘dear friend’ that deserves such a rich present?” asked the elephant. “The friend, you say? Well, actually, it is Python,” answered the tiger. At that the elephants trumpeted water out of their noses for they knew Python had no friends, least of all Tiger.  Adapted from The Tiger Who Lost His Stripes by Anthony Paul.   “Olivia loved making other people happy – even though it made her sad.” The Girl Who Cried Flowers by Jane Yolen.

Anthimera – The substitution of one part of speech for another - for instance, an adverb for a noun or a known for an adverb: “And how are you?” said Winnie the Pooh. “”Not very how,” (Eyeore) said, “I don’t seem to have felt at all how for a long time.” Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne

 Play on Words – a clever twist of the words to give a double meaning – often called “puns.”  “Lightning couldn’t keep a straight face. ‘Ha, he got a charge out of that!’”  Why Armidillos Are Funny – Barbara Smith. “If Bobtail had no tail to speak of, her story-tale more than made up for it.”  Little Bobtail retold by Naomi Baltuck. “The moral of the story is…let sleeping princesses lie or lying princesses sleep…” Sleeping Ugly  - Jane Yolen.


Alliteration – Use of two or more words with the same initial letters: “She disguised her coldness behind a soft, slow smile…” Dove Isabeau by Jane Yolen.


Antithesis – Placing together of sharply contrasting ideas: “...with a hand that dripped fragile tears of flame..:”  The Maiden of Fire by Jane Yolen. “No one was left to watch the beast weep as it gnawed upon the bones.” Dove Isabeau by Jane Yolen


Aphorism: Terse, witty, pointed statement on a general principle: “Why, I’d rather eat fried chicken than lie to ya!’”  Chuck Larkin.


Bathos – Sudden descent into the ridiculous, often for comic effect: “Of course Cinderella will go to the ball – just look at her dress.” Cinderella retold by Marilyn Kinsella


*Climax – Series of statements in rising order of intensity: “Br’er Possum walked over to that hole in the ground, looked down inside…and jumped five feet into the air when he saw Br’er Snake.” Br’er Possum’s Dilemma retold by Marilyn Kinsella


Innuendo: Indirect or subtle implication, usually unpleasant: “They looked at all that food and thought what a good appetizer…for the main course.” Whistling Tsonoquas NW Legend retold by January Kiefer

Litotes – An ironical understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of it’s opposite:  “Mr. Fox was no gentleman.” Mr. Fox, English Folktale

Oxymoron – Figure of speech in which opposites are combined for effect: “But Wicked John was awfully nice to strangers.” Wicked John, Appalachian Folktale

Simile – Figure of speech in which one thing is compared to another, usually with the word “like” or “as”: “They were strange sounds as delicate as glass.” Silent Bianca by Jane Yolen.  “Monkey’s eyes were as big as coconuts.” Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock,  African folktale retold by Marilyn Kinsella.

Zeugma – Using the same word, in different senses to govern two or more other words: “You have no sense, including no sense of direction,” said Skunny Wundy. Skunny Wundy and the Stone Giant collected by Joe Bruchac retold by Marilyn Kinsella

              Metaplasmic Figures – Figures that move the letters or syllables from their typical places:

Aphaersis – Omission of letters from the beginning of a word: “..the ‘satiable Elephant’s Child” The Elephant’s Child by Kipling

*Epenthesis – Addition of letters to the middle of a word: “’Hairy Man, I am skepitickcal,’ said Wiley.” The Hairy Man retold by Dr. Jack Stokes.

Synope - Omission of letters from the middle of the word: Br’er Possum and Br’er Snake

Paragoge – Additon of letters to the end of a word: “I guess you say that Br’er Rabbit meeting up with Sandy was right serendipitious.”   Sandy and the Toad Frawgs retold by Marilyn Kinsella

             Figures of Omission – Figures that omit something – a word, words, phrases, or clauses – from a sentence:

*Zeugma – An ellipsis of a verb, in which one verb is used to govern several clauses: “How I was tricked by Br’er Rabbit… you Br’er Wolf, and you Br’er Bear.”

Aposiopesis – Stopping a sentence in midcourse so that the statement is unfinished: “And when monkey got back to his treeho…oh, how sad, someone had been there.” Anansi and the Moss-covered Rock, African folktale retold by Marilyn Kinsella.

Occupatio – When the teller feigns as though he would say nothing in some matter, when he is saying it all along: “Wild horses couldn’t make me tell you his name was Stackalee.” Stackalee,  St. Louis legend retold by Marilyn Kinsella

           Figures of Repetition (words) within a sentence will emphasize the most important part. There are several ways to do this:

*Epizeuxis – Emphatic repetition of a word with no other word in between: “It’s all lies, lies, lies, you wretched girl.”  The Woodcutter’s Daughter retold by Naomie Baltuck.

Polyptoton – Repetition of the same word or root in different grammatical functions or forms: “…because the Precession had precede according to precedent.” Kipling

Antanaclasis – Repetiton of a word by in two different meanings: “Leave off your soldiering. No armsno arms but ours.”  Silent Bianca by Jane Yolen

Epistophe – Repetition of a word at the end of a clause, line, or sentience” But Anansi was so small, so small, so small…” Tiki Piki Boom-Boom, Jamaican tale  “…in a grassy clearing for good company, a good meal, and some good food.”  Little Bobtail retold by Naomi Baltuck.

Anaphora – Repetition of a word at the beginning of a clause, line, or sentence: “Though castles are sacked in war, though chieftons and heroes are scattered and slain, though the heart of the storyteller beats no more, his stories will live forever.” The Head of Don Bo retold by Naomi Baltuck

Congeries – A heaping together of many words that have a similar meaning: “…a single woman crying, calling, sobbing.” Silent Bianca by Jane Yolen

Anadiplosis – Repetition of a line or clause at the next beginning: “…hers grew from a wish to a desire, from a desire to an obsession.” Weaver or Tomorrow by Jane Yolen

            Figures of Repetition (clauses and ideas):

Auxesis – Arrangement of clauses or sentences in ascending order of importance: “You can, you will, you must go to tell the king.” Chicken Little retold by Marilyn Kinsella

*Isocolon –Repetition of phrases or claused of equal length and corresponding grammatical structure: “But, however they tried to slay it, by spear or by stake, by sword or by bow…” Dove Isabeau by Jane Yolen.

Tautology – Needless repetition of the same idea in different words: “That buzzing-noise means something. You don’t get a buzzing-noise like that, just buzzing and buzzing, without it meaning something. If there’s a buzzing-noise, somebody is making a buzzing- noise, and the only reason for a buzzing-noise that I know is because you’re a bee.” Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne

Chiasmus – Reversal of grammatical structures or ideas in successive phrases or clauses, which do not necessarily involve a repetition of words: “But in this twisted, scaly form you will command no kisses – only curses…” Dove Isabeau by Jane Yolen

            Figures of Unusual Word Order – figures which alter the ordinary order of words or sentences:

Hyberbation – Departure from the ordinary word order: “The larger birds he hunted with a bow, and it is said that he never shot but that a bird fell and sometimes two. The Hundredth Dove by Jane Yolen

*Parenthesis – A word, or phrase, or sentence inserted as an aside in a sentence complete by itself: “She ran off in a huff ( A “huff” I will remind you is not a carriage, but a temper tandrum…”) Sleeping Ugly by Jane Yolen


           Figures of Thought – a miscellaneous group of figures which deal with emotional appeals and technique of argument:


Adynaton – The impossibility of expressing oneself adequately to the topic: “Why, when that farmer saw all the work Jack put out…why, his eyes popped out of his head.” Lazy Jack retold by Marilyn Kinsella


Aporia – True or feigned doubt or deliberation about an issue: “Whether the princess ever knew that the child she held was once the blue faience hippopotamus, I cannot tell.” The Blue Faience Hippopotamus by Joan Grant


Correctio – A correction or revision of previous words: “She always did what her mother said…except one time…” The Gunniwolf retold by Marilyn Kinsella


Prosopopoeia – Representing an imaginary or absent person as speaking or acting: “There’s a wind that whispers around that mountain and, if you listen real hard, you can hear…”Tailypo…I got my tailypo.” Tailypo retold by Marilyn Kinsella

Apostrophe – A diversion from the topic at hand to address some person or thing: “…so Anansi refused to eat. (Let me explain something here to you…no one expects you starve yourself to death just because someone has died. It’s just that Anansi…) Anansi and the hat Shaking Dance African folktale retold by Marilyn Kinsella


Activity: In small groups take a paragraph and transform it with power language. Remember the writing ploys, differing sentence structure and tweaking with imagery and figures of speech. Share.


And ,there are many more (idioms, gradatio, antimerabole…the list goes on). But I think you get the idea from these many examples of places where you can add power language to your storytelling. However, some of you may be thinking, “This is all well and good, but I don’t speak like this. It will sound unnatural if I try this.” I have to agree. You want your storytelling to sound natural otherwise it will sound stilted or worse yet…false. So what can you do? The following are a few suggestions:


                                                                      How to make this all flow on stage




The Elephant’s Child by Rudyard Kipling

Dove Isabeau by Jane Yolen

The Girl Who Cried Flowers and other Tales by Jane Yolen

Winnie the Pooh by A.A.Milne

Apples from Heaven by Naomi Baltuck

The Hundredth Dove and other Tales by Jane Yolen

The Blue Faience Hippopotamus by Joan Grant

Bringing the Light by January Kiefer

Sleeping Ugly by Jane Yolen

The Hairy Man by Dr. Jack Stokes

The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse by Hermann Hesse

The Tiger Who Lost His Stripes by Anthony Paul

Lucy Dove by Janice Del Negro

More Ready-to-Tell Stories from around the World, ed. By David Holt and Bill Mooney

Everyday Creative Writing Panning for Gold in the Kitchen Sink by Michael C. Smith

Writing From the Heart by Leslea Newman

100 Things Every Writer Needs to Know by Scott Edelstein

The Whole Story Handbook by Carol Birch

Writing as a Second Language by Donald Davis

Thanks to Greg Leifel, Barb Driesner, Sara Skelly, and Carol Birch for their help and support in giving breath to this workshop.