3 Storytellers tell us what makes a good story

Dominic KellyWe asked three professional storytellers this question: Dominic Kelly, Sophie Snell and Mara Menzies.

Dominic Kelly: "I’m attracted to stories for different reasons - some have startling or vivid imagery; others some fantastic ‘reveal’ or a beautiful plot twist; and others have a compelling emotional thread. Many have all of these. But there’s also some underlying ‘muscularity’ to a story’s structure that I need to feel before a story really feels like a story. If it’s insubstantial under the surface, despite some wonderful imagery for instance, I don’t feel properly ‘fed’ by it." "I find this muscularity more often in traditional stories than in modern fiction, for instance, because the ‘what happens’ of the story has been distilled through the life experiences of countless generations of people who’ve passed it on. I also want to discover some multi-layeredness - a metaphorical richness to a story usually (not that I can’t hugely enjoy some 5 minute belter of a narrative joke!) Perhaps most of all, I have to CARE. If I really care about what happens to just one character in the story then I’m in and it’s working."

Sophie Snell: “I look for a traditional tale that leaps from the page – a story with a good heart to it. I don’t mean a moral or a message, but an emotional core that lends itself to twists and turns you can carry people along with. I scan the page or a book or the screen, looking for the bigger picture, the sense of the thing – stripping out any colouring from the writer or teller as much as I can. What is left – how does it turn, what did I enjoy about the story and why? How would it translate into spoken word? Once a story catches my ear, I research it, find the original, any variations, relevant background material. That might sound a lot of effort, but it always yields results, and hopefully a version of my own that has integrity, and a fresh take.” “I look for a good story line, an interesting setting or character, or something quirky or intriguing – that you can get your teeth into and play with. But also something I can tell with commitment, because I know it works for me, and gets a good response from the audience.” “Then I look for a hook in the tale and things can build up from there. You might play with the structure, perspective and setting; reinvent the story by turning it on its head – what if, why, how would the audience react if … by trying out different ideas until that one works. Speaking out loud the story is the acid test – what seems good in theory in your head can be naff or painful when spoken! So the process of developing a story has to start with the telling, retelling and repeated telling – preferably in front of an audience – their response is so informative – it is not about indulging myself.”

Mara Menzies: “If you can get that right, then any story can be brilliant. I have told the complex Greek story of Persephone to pre-school children and they loved it! I have told fabulous fairytales to grown ups and they too were thrilled. As long as you adapt your story to suit then you will have them in the palm of your hand. We all love strong characters - brave and daring, beautiful and haughty, angry and rebellious." “We love the mystery of where a story is going and some wonderful stories leave the audience hanging, free to create their own end. As long as the narrative is clear and we understand what is happening then we all identify in part with the characters and the goings on." You can read an extended version of this article, with YouTube links to the storytellers in performance here.