Free English Lessons

How to Tell a Story in English – Video

by Oli Redman on 6 March, 2018 , Comments Off on How to Tell a Story in English – Video

In this lesson, you can learn how to tell a story in English.

Stories are powerful. When you meet someone new, go to a job interview or take a speaking exam like IELTS, you need to tell stories, whether you realise that’s what you’re doing or not.

Becoming a better storyteller will make you a more convincing speaker. People are attracted to good stories—it’s a fundamental part of being human. Learning how to tell better stories can help you become a more effective English speaker, and a better communicator generally.

1. It was summer, and I went with some friends to a beach in Crimea which you could only get to by boat. People had been going there for years, and there were benches and tables, places to camp, fire places and so on. It was kind of a hippy place, with everyone walking around naked and doing whatever they felt like. On the last day, we had to catch a train in the evening, so the boat was supposed to pick us up in the morning, but the boat never came. It was hard to get a phone signal, but finally we heard the news: there was an old World War 2 mine in the harbour, and no boats could leave! What could we do? We loaded our stuff onto a kayak and swam almost a kilometre around the cliffs. A naked hippy paddled the kayak, which was piled high with our things and looked like it could sink at any minute. We made it to land, and after several hours of hitchhiking and walking, we caught our train. It was stressful at the time, but looking back now it makes a good story!

2. I was travelling in Kyrgyzstan, and I decided to go hiking in the mountains. I planned a route which I hoped I could do in five days. I took a tent, food and a stove, but I mostly ended up staying with local people in their yurts. On the third day, I had to cross a mountain pass, almost 4,000m high. It was so hard, because the air is thin up there and I was carrying a very heavy pack. It seemed to take forever, but finally I got close to the top… and then a storm boiled over the ridge and landed right on my head. There was lightning all around me, even below me! The noise was unbelievable. I forgot how tired I was and ran down the slopes to get to safety. I stayed the night lower down and tried again the next day. I made it over the pass, but it was a very frightening experience.

3. At university, I shared a flat with three other guys. We were all good friends, but like lots of guys in that situation, we played a lot of pranks on each other. One weekend, I was going home to visit my parents. I said bye to my flatmates, and told them not to do anything to my room. “Don’t worry, we won’t. Have a good weekend,” they said. I knew they were going to do something, but I couldn’t believe what they actually did: they made my room into a jungle! I’m not kidding: there were flowers, plants, three whole trees, jungle animals made from paper, and a ‘sounds of the forest’ mix playing on my stereo. It took me three hours to clean up, and also I have hay fever—an allergy to pollen—so I was sneezing and blowing my nose the whole time. For my flatmates, that just made it funnier…

In this class, you’ll learn how to build a story, step by step. You’ll see three different stories, and you’ll see how you can use the same simple ideas in almost any story.

We want you to take part in this lesson. Think of a story you want to tell. As you go through the lesson, you’ll hear our stories, but you should also be building your own story. So, think of something funny, scary, interesting or weird that happened to you.

Do you have an idea for a story? Then let’s begin!

1. Setting the Scene: How to Start Your Story

How to Tell a Story in English - starting a story image

A clear story needs to start with some background.

Think about basic wh- questions: who, when, where, what?

Start your story with one sentence which gives some of this information. For example:

  • It was summer, and I went with some friends to a beach in Crimea which you could only get to by boat.
  • I was travelling in Kyrgyzstan, and I decided to go hiking in the mountains.
  • At university, I shared a flat with three other guys.

Keep it simple at the beginning: who, when, where, what?

Next, add one or two more sentences to give more background details.

You need a balance here: you want to give enough background details to make your story feel real, but you also need to get to the heart of your story quickly. People will lose interest if you don’t get to the point.

Let’s see how you can do this. Look at our first example:

  • It was summer, and I went with some friends to a beach in Crimea which you could only get to by boat.

Think: if you heard this, what questions could you ask to get more details?

You might ask things like:

  • Who were your friends?
  • Why did you go to this beach?
  • What was the place like?
  • Were there any other people there?

Answering these questions gives you details you can add after your opening sentence. For example:

  • People had been going there for years, and there were benches and tables, places to camp, fire places and so on. It was kind of a hippy place, with everyone walking around naked and doing whatever they felt like.

Here, we’re focusing on one thing—the place—because it’s the most interesting and unusual detail.

For a different story, you might focus on different details:

  • At university, I shared a flat with three other guys. We were all good friends, but like lots of guys in that situation, we played a lot of pranks on each other.

In this story, the people are more important, so you would give more details about them.

Okay: your turn! You need to start your story.

Make an opening sentence. Remember: who, when, where, what?

Then, add 1-2 sentences giving more background details. Focus on the most important elements in your story.

Pause the video and do it now! Write it down if you want.

What’s next?

2. Set a Goal In Your Story

Big question: what makes a story a story?

If I tell you that I went to the shop to buy some bread, and then I came home and ate the bread, is that a story?

Not really. If it is, it’s not a good one.

So, think about it: what makes a story a story?

A story needs two things.

One: there needs to be a goal. The person or people in the story should want something.

Two: there needs to be tension. That means the goal can’t be too easy to reach.

In this section, let’s look at putting a goal in your story.

Here’s the question: what do the people in your story want?

They must want something. This is the heart of your story. If the people in your story don’t want anything, then you don’t have a story.

Let’s do an example together:

  • It was summer, and I went with some friends to a beach in Crimea which you could only get to by boat. People had been going there for years, and there were benches and tables, places to camp, fire places and so on. It was kind of a hippy place, with everyone walking around naked and doing whatever they felt like. On the last day, we had to catch a train in the evening.

Here we have a simple goal: we needed to catch our train.

How to Tell a Story in English - catching a train image

Let’s do one more:

  • I was travelling in Kyrgyzstan, and I decided to go hiking in the mountains. I planned a route which I hoped I could do in five days. I took a tent, food and a stove, but I mostly ended up staying with local people in their yurts. To reach Issyk-Kul lake, which was the end of my journey, I had to cross a mountain pass, almost 4,000m high.

What’s the goal here?

The goal is getting across the mountain pass to the lake.

The goal in your story can be something big or something small. You can see in these two examples that we have something very easy and simple—catching a train—and something bigger and more difficult—crossing a 4,000-metre mountain pass on foot.

What about your story? What’s the goal? What do the people in your story want?

Keep this simple. Just add one sentence to your story, setting a goal for you or the other people in your story.

Pause the video, write your sentence, then we’ll move on to the next part.

Ready? Okay, remember that we said there are two things every story needs. What’s the second?

3. Adding Tension to Your Story

Every story needs tension.

What does that mean?

Simply, it means that your goal shouldn’t be too easy to reach.

Here’s a story:

There was a monster which liked to eat people. A hero killed the monster. Everyone was safe. The end.

Good story? Obviously not! If the goal in your story is too easy, then your story will be very short and boring.

There needs to be tension. As they listen to you, people should be thinking: what’s going to happen next? Will everything be okay? How are they going to get out of this problem?

The goal needs to be difficult. There need to be problems. People need to doubt whether you’re going to succeed or fail. This is tension.

For example:

  • I was travelling in Kyrgyzstan, and I decided to go hiking in the mountains. I planned a route which I hoped I could do in five days. I took a tent, food and a stove, but I mostly ended up staying with local people in their yurts. To reach Issyk-Kul lake, which was the end of my journey, I had to cross a mountain pass, almost 4,000m high. It was so hard, because the air is thin up there and I was carrying a very heavy pack. It seemed to take forever, but finally I got close to the top… and then a storm boiled over the ridge and landed right on my head. There was lightning all around me, even below me! The noise was unbelievable.

First, you hear how difficult it was, even before the storm hit. Then, the storm arrives. What’s going to happen? Did I make it over the pass? Did I get hurt?

How to Tell a Story in English - storm on a mountain image

Let’s look at one more example:

  • At university, I shared a flat with three other guys. We were all good friends, but like lots of guys in that situation, we played a lot of pranks on each other. One weekend, I was going home to visit my parents. I said bye to my flatmates, and told them not to do anything to my room. “Don’t worry, we won’t. Have a good weekend,” they said. I knew they were going to do something, but I couldn’t believe what they actually did…

This is a very different kind of story, but the structure is the same. I have a goal, which is to visit my parents and come back without my friends doing anything to my room.

You also have some tension. You hear sentences like this:

  • I told them not to do anything to my room.
  • I knew they were going to do something.

When you hear these, you know they’re going to do something to my room, but you don’t know what. This is called foreshadowing. You know something bad is going to happen, but you aren’t sure exactly what.

That’s where the tension comes from. What did they actually do? Hopefully, you want to know what happened next.

Now, think about your story. How can you add tension?

One way is to add problems or difficulties: things that get between you and your goal.

Another way is to use foreshadowing, like our story above.

Pause the video and add tension to your story. This is an important part of your story, so think about it carefully. Aim to write 2-3 sentences, and start again when you’re done.

Okay? Now, you’re ready to think about the end of your story.

4. How to Finish Your Story

To finish your story, you need to resolve the tension.

At this point, the people listening to your story should want to know what comes next. You’ve created some tension. They aren’t sure what’s going to happen, but they want to know.

So, finishing your story is simple: explain what happened in the end, and whether you (or whoever) reached your goal or not.

Let’s finish the three stories you’ve seen in this lesson:

  • It was summer, and I went with some friends to a beach in Crimea which you could only get to by boat. People had been going there for years, and there were benches and tables, places to camp, fire places and so on. It was kind of a hippy place, with everyone walking around naked and doing whatever they felt like. On the last day, we had to catch a train in the evening, so the boat was supposed to pick us up in the morning, but the boat never came. It was hard to get a phone signal, but finally we heard the news: there was an old World War 2 mine in the harbour, and no boats could leave! What could we do? We loaded our stuff onto a kayak and swam almost a kilometre around the cliffs. A naked hippy paddled the kayak, which was piled high with our things and looked like it could sink at any minute. We made it to land, and after several hours of hitchhiking and walking, we caught our train. It was stressful at the time, but looking back now it makes a good story!

You can see that the ending does two things. In this story, we have tension: there’s a mine in the harbour and we can’t leave by boat. How did we solve it? By swimming for a kilometre, with a naked hippy transporting our stuff in an overloaded kayak.

Secondly, the ending explains whether we reached our goal or not. In this case, happily, we caught the train!

What about our second story?

  • I was travelling in Kyrgyzstan, and I decided to go hiking in the mountains. I planned a route which I hoped I could do in five days. I took a tent, food and a stove, but I mostly ended up staying with local people in their yurts. On the third day, I had to cross a mountain pass, almost 4,000m high. It was so hard, because the air is thin up there and I was carrying a very heavy pack. It seemed to take forever, but finally I got close to the top… and then a storm boiled over the ridge and landed right on my head. There was lightning all around me, even below me! The noise was unbelievable. I forgot how tired I was and ran down the slopes to get to safety. I stayed the night lower down and tried again the next day. I made it over the pass, but it was a very frightening experience.

Again, the ending resolves the tension—I ran below the storm and tried again the next day—and also explains whether I reached my goal or not.

Finally, what did happen to my room at university?

  • At university, I shared a flat with three other guys. We were all good friends, but like lots of guys in that situation, we played a lot of pranks on each other. One weekend, I was going home to visit my parents. I said bye to my flatmates, and told them not to do anything to my room. “Don’t worry, we won’t. Have a good weekend,” they said. I knew they were going to do something, but I couldn’t believe what they actually did: they made my room into a jungle! I’m not kidding: there were flowers, plants, three whole trees, jungle animals made from paper, and a ‘sounds of the forest’ mix playing on my stereo. It took me three hours to clean up, and also I have hay fever—an allergy to pollen—so I was sneezing and blowing my nose the whole time. For my flatmates, that just made it funnier…

It’s the same pattern: we resolve the tension by answering the question: what did my flatmates do to my room?

We also find out whether I reached my goal or not (I didn’t).

Now you’ve seen the three stories; can you see what each one has right at the end?

Each story ends with a retrospective comment. Retrospective means ‘looking back’. A retrospective comment tells people how you feel now about the story, or how other people felt.

For example:

  • It was stressful at the time, but looking back now it makes a good story!
  • It was a very frightening experience.
  • For my flatmates, that just made it funnier…

You don’t have to put a retrospective comment at the end of your story, but it’s a good way to finish.

Most of all, a retrospective comment sounds like an ending. That’s useful, especially if you’re speaking, because it shows your listener that you’ve finished speaking.

Now, you need to finish your story. Pause the video and write an ending. Remember that you need to do two things: resolve the tension, and explain whether or not you reached your goals.

Let’s review: to tell a good story, you need to:

  1. Set the scene and give some background information.
  2. Establish a goal for the person or people in your story.
  3. Add some tension, so that people aren’t sure what will happen in the end.
  4. Finish the story and add a retrospective comment.

Of course, there are other things which are important in a story. Adding interesting details and descriptions can make your story more lifelike.

Adding jokes and humour can improve many stories.

Giving some background on the people and their personalities can bring the people in your stories to life.

But, nothing is more important than structure, and that’s what you’ve seen in this lesson. A story without good structure isn’t really a story.

Get the structure right first. Maybe you’re thinking, “I don’t have the vocabulary to tell stories like that.” Not true: I’ve heard very powerful stories from students who spoke very basic English.

Vocabulary doesn’t make a good story. Structure and emotion make a good story. Focus on structure and practise what you’ve learned in this lesson. You can tell great stories in English, too!

Thanks for watching!

Oli RedmanHow to Tell a Story in English – Video