When I was a young lad I was blessed with parents who read me fairy tales and mythology from all over the world. My parents met doing their PHDs in anthropology, studying folk song, which is where I believe their original interest in storytelling, which they passed on to me, must have come from. As I grew up, my keen interest in storytelling stayed with me and is still something I hold very dear to me today, whether it be reading a book or hearing an interesting anecdote from a friend.
These days, as an English teacher, I have come to notice how important the art of storytelling is to help people feel comfortable and find a more natural conversational flow when using English as a second language. And let me stress, for anyone learning English or even for native speakers, just how much we use storytelling in everyday life: telling a colleague about something you saw on the news, telling a friend what you did in the weekend, sharing an anecdote (a short story that happened to you or someone you know) at a dinner party or telling a joke over coffee – the list goes on and on.
The start of your story will indicate to your listeners that you are going to be sharing something with them and will help bring their attention to you and give you the stage, as it were. I’m sure we are all familiar with the classic ‘Once upon a time’ start that we have all encountered from reading fairy tales, but there are many more relaxed and contemporary phrases that mean much the same thing and have much the same effect. Here are some examples:
- That reminds me of this time when …….
- Hey, did I ever tell you about ……….
- That’s funny. Something similar happened to a guy I know ……..
- One time, when I was a kid ……….
- Did you hear about ………
How to keep your story natural and interesting?
The good news is that to tell a good story it’s best to keep the sentences short and the grammar simple.
A really good tip to help a story flow naturally is to use sequencing and linking words and phrases.
What I am choosing to call sequencing words and phrases here are things that help show the order of events in your story:
- First of all I called to check that my flight was on time
- Secondly I checked I had my ticket and passport
- Then I had a shower and packed my suitcase
- After that I got dressed and called a taxi to the airport
- On the way I realised I had left my phone at the hotel and would have to go back for it
- In the end I actually made it to the check-in desk on time, only to realise I was at the wrong airport! I should have been at Tegel not Schönefeld
You probably already know what I’m calling ‘links’ here as joiners or conjunctions. But when telling a story you can be a lot more creative with these tools and enjoy them a lot more than when using them in a grammar exercise, for example. You can use linking words and phrases to provide extra information, the reasons for or the results of your actions, and to summarise your story.
- I had double checked my flight time and double checked I had my passport.
- I was flying to London because my best friend was celebrating his 30th birthday.
- Although I had checked my departure time, I hadn’t checked from which airport I was departing.
- As a result I missed his birthday party.
There are several ways we use different tenses for different effects when telling a story. Jokes, for example, are usually told in the present tense.
A horse walks into a bar. ‘Why the long face?’ asks the bar keeper.
The present tense can also be used to relate a story when you are trying to make your listeners imagine the setting of the story.
Imagine. The year is 1985. I am a young boy. My first day back in New Zealand. Someone hands me a rugby ball to play with. I have never seen such a strange-shaped ball before, and can’t imagine how to play with it.
Usually, however, we use the past tense to narrate a story. Use the Past Simple if you are telling your story in chronological order.
I came home. Drank some water. Brushed my teeth and washed my face, then went straight to bed.
Use the Past Continuous to describe actions in progress at the time of your story.
We had been waiting for her outside the restaurant for about twenty minutes. It was freezing cold and the rain was coming down hard and furious. We were desperately wanting to go inside into the warmth but the restaurant wasn’t opening for another half hour, she had no phone and it was her first time in the city.
If you are not telling your story chronologically and want to add information to events from a previous time, you can use the Past Perfect.
I couldn’t wait to see them. It had been five years since we were all in the same city.
I wanted to go see the new Batman film but she had already seen it.
It was great to take James to see the opera. He had never been before last night.
Probably the best thing about storytelling is that you are really allowed to play with the language you have learnt. This isn’t a test or presentation you have give to your boss, so you can really let go and try to use all the vocabulary you know that you don’t normally get a chance to use. Remember that stories should be entertaining. So now good and bad can become terrific and terrible, and nice and scary can become beautiful and terrifying!
I hope you find some of these tips useful and that they will help you in social situations. Remember that when you are telling stories you are the one in charge and the one who makes the decisions about how to use the language. So really go out there and challenge yourself, but have a lot of fun whilst doing so!