Advice from Great Storytellers for family Historians

What can family historians glean from advice from great storytellers? I picked a few of my favorites tips that can help those of us writing family stories. (See also Who Do You Think You Are? What Writers Can Learn from the Show.)

“How would you feel?”

Emma Coates, a former Story Artist from Pixar, tweeted twenty-two rules of storytelling in 2012. The Masters Review blog compiled them into a beautiful infographic. Although some apply more to fiction stories than nonfiction ones, many are great for family storytellers.

My personal favorite is #15: “If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations. “

It also builds emotional connections between the readers and your ancestors. Better yet, when you combine this “rule” with the “show, don’t tell” rule, you end up with a riveting tale.

“Show, Don’t Tell”

Actually, that’s not exactly what Anton Chekhov said.”  Instead, he’s credited with saying, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”[1]

Admittedly, that’s not always easy for genealogists. We like to deal with facts. When we write about our ancestors, we can only theorize about the broken glass and how the moon would glint on it. But it’s definitely worth trying. For instance, we can put frost on the trees instead of saying it was cold.

In addition, when we delve into our own memories, we can fill in those details that show rather than simply summarizing events.

“Have fun.”

The Moth has “shows” in 29 cities across the USA. Each show starts with a theme and volunteer storytellers come to explore that theme for a live audience. The Moth explains, “Since each story is true and every voice authentic, the shows dance between documentary and theater, creating a unique, intimate, and often enlightening experience for the audience.”

They advise, “Know your story well enough to have fun.” Though meant as a way to avoid panic on stage, enjoying the process matters for family story writers as well. We want our stories to flow. What better way to do that than to explore the story orally before we do a final edit?

The Moth’s other storytelling advice ranges from some great do’s, such as “have some stakes” and “have a great first line,” and quite a few useful don’ts.


Advice from great storytellers often centers on the importance of honing your story and editing. Very few say it as eloquently as Mark Twain. He once said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

In other words, most of us ramble and meander in our first draft. With editing, we can usually find tangents and wordiness to delete.

That takes time, but tighter writing usually makes for better storytelling. (In fact, I deleted the fact that my “We’re related” app says I’m related to Samuel Clemens. I hope he’s proud.)

Your Turn:

Advice from Great Storytellers Pinnable imageWhat’s your favorite storytelling or writing advice?  Please share it in the comment section below.


[1] “Show, don’t tell,”, accessed April 15, 2019,,_don%27t_tell.

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