Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Telling Stories

What makes a story so compelling you can't shake it from your mind? To find out we called up veteran public radio broadcaster and award-winning storyteller Tony Kahn, a special correspondent on the news magazine The World, and the creator of Morning Stories, a weekly feature on WGBH Boston radio and web where people tell true tales in their own voice -- tales that stick.

Tony has honed his storytelling skills by writing, producing, narrating and hosting over 50 radio and TV programs and series for PBS, NPR, Nickelodeon and others. In an interview we read on the online Transom Review, he says:

"For me, a memorable story offers a real person in action, or the kind of sensory details I can remember or imagine from my own experience. There are a zillion ways to do this right, of course, and a zillion ways to do it wrong, but, in general, abstract ideas about life, generalizations of any kind, lose my attention on the radio, and anything that shows me something in action tends to keep my focus. Give my imagination a steady diet of verbs, rather than nouns, actions and events rather than concepts, and it'll snap to attention."

We wanted to hear more of Tony's thoughts on the art of storytelling. Here's our conversation:

VT: What do you look for in a story?

Tony: I'm interested in the kind of story that human beings are hard-wired to tell as a way of making sense of something significant that has happened to them. What I look for are the moments when a story comes together for somebody -- almost like a human biological activity -- to encapsulate an important personal experience I think stories like that are like a viral infection, -- once you get them, you want to pass them on; they incorporate parts of your own experience, no matter how different you are from the person telling the story.

A good story is something you hear and just can't forget. You can listen to the news, think that you've understood it all but you can't remember a single story. Then there are the stories you hear and as soon as you hear them you want to tell somebody else. That second kind of story is what I'm trying to keep alive in public radio.

VT: Why are these kinds of stories important?

Tony: What I'm continuing to discover is that telling a story seems to be what we do to make sense of our lives. People tell a story to connect to something that happened to them. They put it into a narrative order and something gets finished. When I talk about a story, it's about this kind of story that everybody's capable of telling and needs to tell, in fact.

VT: How do you get people to tell you their stories?

Tony: It's knowing how to listen -- and knowing how to listen to yourself. If someone says something that hits you, or provides a minor detail that pops out at you, that makes your imagination start to work or brings up your own memories or emotions, those are the moments when a transmission is happening between you and them. It's learning how to recognize those moments and then guiding the person back to those details to find what lies behind them..

For instance, a guy will be telling me about growing up with his grandparents, saying he remembers his "grandmother used to do this, that and the other thing," -- all of them bland details, "and, oh yeah, she'd sit on this big, red couch" -- I might say, wait a second. Tell me a little bit more about that red couch. The red couch just showed up, but it had some energy attached to it. It held some real but unexplored interest for him that communicated itself to me, suddenly made me feel that I was there myself.. So, what about that couch? "Well, after she got sick she used to sit on it..." Moments of significance to him start to form around it.

It's knowing that stories work when images are clear and you can visualize what people are saying in terms of your own experiences. A lot of that awareness comes from working in radio and knowing that people fill in a "picture" of someone else's experience with memories and similar experiences of their own. In that way, you make the picture your own.

VT: How does that work?

Tony: You need details on which to attach your own memories, a common set of things, relationships and emotions. Those images and emotions together are the building blocks of a story.

It's also important to learn to listen to the whole thing and remember those moments -- not necessarily sequentially -- that really did stick out for you, the ones that have red couches in them. You have to go back and put them close to each other and see what they have to say to each other -- because maybe the story is hidden and you have to cut away everything that isn't the story.

(Listen to Tony listening in an edition of Morning Stories called "My Little Purple Stapler." (Note the sigh...))

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