Set the Scene: Settings in Storytelling

How do you get your audience into a story?

Good question.

There has to be some kind of setting for the audience to relate to – visually, emotionally, personally – to draw them in. Let’s talk about the most powerful thing about

Let’s talk about the most powerful thing about story.

The Listener’s Imagination

A storyteller’s greatest power isn’t his words or her imagery.  The storyteller who allows the listener to create their own images based on the text and clues in context has a far better, far more complex image than the storyteller could ever create.

The sun did not shine, it was too wet to play, so we sat in the house all that cold, cold wet day. I sat there with Sally.

Does the storyteller need to go into more detail?  Does it matter what type of clouds was overhead?  Does the listener care about the dripping trees?  Not unless there’s a purpose to telling the audience.  In fact, you should consider the advice commonly attributed to Russian playwright Anton Chekov.

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.  — Anton Chekhov, cited in The Literature 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Novelists, Playwrights, and Poets of All Time.

Visual Cues

“We were at…” How many stories start right there?  A lot of them.  The storyteller knows that the physical setting of the story helps the listener connect.  Sometimes a story might not start with an obvious setting.

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

Let’s pick that apart.

  • We have the main character:  Bilbo Baggins.
  • We have a location – Bag End.  We don’t know where or what Bag End is, but we have a name and therefore a reference point.
  • We have an event.  A birthday party – and seemingly an extraordinary one, as talk and excitement are rising in what we can assume is the local community name:  Hobbiton.  (The -ton at the end of the name helps.)

This is the common start of many stories.  A character, a place, and an event tied together.  We even have the suspenseful question (see the last lesson) of “What’s an eleventy-first birthday party?”

Do we have many images in the text?  Not really.  Mostly we have ideas that we attach to the things we know – a birthday party, a person, and place names.

There are some words that are hard to replace. “Woods” might become “forest” but unless you have a very big vocabulary, using “copse” or “timberland” isn’t likely to be a word that you would normally use.

The Key Is Balance Your Style and Your Story

Instead of changing the noun, consider adding a few adjectives.

Woods are normally green or brown, depending on the season.  So an adjective that relates to the sense of sight isn’t going to inspire your audience’s imagination.  So think about your other senses:

  • Sound      What do people hear in the woods?
  • Taste        What would you taste on this adventure?
  • Feel          What might people feel emotionally as well as with their hands or feet?
  • Smell        Which smells would be the strongest?

By giving a few extra details that engage the senses, the storyteller can get on to telling the story because the imagery the listener creates inside their head is enough.