Storytelling 101

once upon a time

Seems easy, doesn’t it? We do it all day long: Tell the one about the dog who stole the steak, about what grandma told the robber, or the time we ventured into a haunted house all alone. Listening and telling – this is how we know ourselves, our families, what makes us who we are.

The act goes back to the time we lived in caves. By now, it’s probably hard-wired into our DNA: Ever sat and stared at a fire on a wintry night? If so, you surely felt the flames enticing you to hear or tell a tale. Add a little wine and/or a good listener, and voila! We’re off and running.

Given how natural storytelling is, it shouldn’t be that hard to do before a roomful of people – especially when they are eager to hear what you have to say. That’s the premise of a group called Carapace. They meet at 7:30 PM in Manuel’s Tavern (midtown Atlanta) on the fourth Tuesday of each month.

A favorite meeting place for journalists and other writers, Manuel’s is an old Atlanta watering hole where people come to eat, drink and converse. By contrast, Carapace is relatively new. The group began in 2010 as a subsidiary of The Moth (New York City). Now independent of that affiliation, Carapace has a delightful motto: “Everyone has a story. Come out of your shell.”

The rules of an evening are simple: Participants concoct a 5 minute story around a chosen theme. The story should be true (i.e., emotionally coherent and mostly factual), but you can bend the definition of the topic. For instance, one recent evening’s subject was “Boundaries.” Some people spoke of crossing between countries; others talked about the human heart. This made for a powerful blend of funny, moving and dramatic tales.

But here’s the tricky part: no notes allowed. You have to tell the story by heart. And those who exceed the 5 minute limit are politely but firmly asked to stop. Still sound easy?

Actually, it is. The trick is to memorize your first and last sentences and have a mental map of the territory in-between. Storytelling-circle wooden dollsThis doesn’t just apply to Carapace but to all storytelling. You want to make (or simulate) eye contact with the audience. You don’t want anything to throw you off. One evening at Carapace, a waiter dropped a tray of plates. Since the speaker had her story memorized, the sudden burst of noise did not derail the telling.

Another piece of good advice: start your story in the middle. For instance, “The gasoline had been poured, and all he had to do was strike a match” is much more enticing than, “Let me tell you how I got this scar.” Once you have your listeners’ attention, you can always go back to the beginning.

How to format the middle? Co-founder Randy Osborne advises: “Explain what you wanted most, what stood in your way, and how you dealt with it.” That’s the basic recipe for story. Whether complicated by subplot or straight-ahead simple, this formula describes our dreams, myths, movies, novels – even country songs.

As for endings, most stories have at least one character who undergoes a change. To finish your tale, try describing an action your character takes which s/he would never have done at the start. For instance, “Even though he was 10 years old – the age when boys and girls are mortal enemies – Nate threw his arms around my neck and hugged me hard.”

It takes a little practice, but storytelling at Carapace is a highly rewarding experience – the perfect way to make friends, influence people and pass a long winter’s night. If you’re not up for telling however, try listening. The food is inexpensive and the entertainment’s free.

For rules and advice about evenings at Carapace, go to

For pictures of tellers in the act (at Manuel’s Tavern), go to

For information about other storytelling events in Georgia, go to our home page and click on the words “Georgia Events” in the upper right hand corner.

What’s your favorite personal story? Have you got it memorized?

4 thoughts on “Storytelling 101

    • Barbara: Thanks for taking an interest in this blog. Themes are announced about a month ahead of gatherings. This helps a lot – gives tellers time to write, revise and memorize. Wish you lived closer, too! – Eve

  1. Well done, Eve! So much more to it than one expects. You make public speaking enticing, but I think I’ll stick to the written page; much less terrifying. 🙂

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