A Great Story and a Great Storyteller - Dundurn
Dec 09, 2021

A Great Story and a Great Storyteller

Join Jeremey John tonight, December 9th, at 7PM ET at Indigo's Instagram page for some live, storytime fun! Grab the whole family and watch together, and get ready for some LOL moments! You can buy the print book exclusively at Indigo here.

A great story is a rare and special thing. Let me be clear, I'm not referring to the stories in my book. On this subject, I will keep my thoughts to myself and let you be the judge. When it comes to buying a book, it is your money, your time, and your enjoyment at stake — therefore, your opinion is the only one that matters. I’m referring to a great oral story. The kind of story that usually gets told halfway through the second bottle of wine. The kind of story that people ask to hear again and again. The kind of story where the storyteller takes over the conversation and has everyone at the table or party or office waiting in silence to hear what happens next.

Those are great stories, and I’ve been lucky enough to hear a lot of them. In fact, I come from a long line of great storytellers. My father and my uncle are two of the best storytellers in the world, and they have some of the best stories in their repertoires. They are the kinds of people that strange things seem to happen to all the time. Then when the time is right (the charges have been dropped, the credit card has been paid off, the barn that was burnt down in a "misunderstanding" has been rebuilt) they can turn that strange thing into a great story.

 I have sat at many dinner tables, long after the meal is finished, and heard them tell tales while the entire family listened and laughed along (like the one about the bow and arrow and the bottle of vodka. Yes, it ends exactly as you think it does).

I’ve listened to them at parties when friends asked to hear one of their stories again because there was a new person at the party “who just had to hear about the time you found a possum in your garage” (that is one of my favourite stories to tell, mostly because the teller has to do impressions of an increasingly angry possum). I have watched them tell and retell great stories. Here’s a little of what I have learned.

Live a life that invites great stories. 

Make bold decisions. Take big risks. Be the person that great stories happen to. If you can’t get tickets to the biggest festival of the summer, go anyway. Jumping the fence is actually easier than you think. And when your best buddy gets his pants caught on the barbed wire and spends the rest of the weekend in a toga made from Sheryl Crow concert t-shirts, it makes the story even better. If you are simply not that kind of person, that’s ok. Just make sure you have at least one friend who is like that…they tend to make things more interesting. 

Make sure your audience is ready.

If you’re going to tell a great story (like my dad’s story about the pig roast that ended up in a fight with the local mafia) don’t waste it. If you know the waiter is coming back in two minutes to say, “how were the first few bites?” don’t start a great story. Let someone else fill in with an update on how work is going or why they don’t like cilantro. Neither of those is the start to a great story, so it won’t be a shame when the waiter interrupts. Plus, make sure you’ve got the audience's attention. Two people or two hundred people, make sure you’ve got their attention before you start a great story. There are lots of ways to do this, but the easiest is probably to loudly let everyone know that they are about to witness something special. Just set up the story with something like, “I never told you about the time Jimmy Fallon stole my banjo? Seriously, you’ve never heard about Jimmy Fallon stealing my banjo!?” A few statements like those in increasing volume will get your audience ready for a classic tale.

Hook ‘em with the opening. 

The very first line of a great story has to grab your audience. Here are a few ways you can do this.

Start with a disclaimer.

“I’m not saying I was abducted by a UFO, all I'm saying is that no one can explain what happened to me that night.” From the very beginning, the believers in the audience are already invested in finding out what happened on that night and the skeptics in your audience are already looking for ways to explain why you were 500 kilometres from home, had no memory of the drive but still had a full tank of gas.

You can start with a warning.

For example, the uncle could start with, “please don’t judge me too harshly, it was a long time ago. But I was living with this one woman and out on a date with another.” That is a great way to hook ‘em. Because the audience at the party or dinner (certainly not a story to tell at the office) knows that the philanderer gets caught at the end, but desperately wants to know how.

You can start by giving away the ending. 

When Dad starts his classic story about cleaning the septic tank with the phrase, “your grandfather only ever hit me once, and I completely deserved it.” That’s the beginning of a fantastic story that never fails to make the grandkids laugh, and gross them out a little as well. Plus, even though you know that it (rightfully) ends with Dad getting a smack from his father, from that opening the audience’s mind is filled up with ideas about what trouble the storyteller caused and all the disgusting ways that the septic tank could be involved. 

Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. 

If the story is about arriving unannounced at the uncle’s house to find him in a state of undress, don’t say he was in boxer shorts! It’s a much better story to say he was naked. Don’t say it was 10pm on a Friday, it’s more bizarre to say it was 3am on a Saturday. When asked about his lack of clothes, don’t have the main character say, “I couldn't find my pants.” The punchline is better if the uncle says, “someone knocks on my door at 3am on a Saturday. I expect them to be naked too.” Truth is very important, always tell the truth, unless you can think of something better.

A great story, well told, is worth whatever it costs you. A hangover, a letter from HR, your pants. When you're in a dive bar and the first thing the waitress says to you is “it will cost you $10 to see my peaches,” that moment tells you that a great story is about to begin. All you need to do is say yes, and reach into your wallet. Ten dollars is very cheap for a great story, and when you explain that she pocketed your cash before pulling up her sleeve to show you her tattoo of a pair of peaches on her shoulder, it always gets a laugh. Your great stories will grow and take on a life of their own. They will be requested, they will be cheered, they will be embellished, and sometimes they will take on a life of their own as your friends will tell your own stories back to you. Your great stories are ready to be told or will be once you switch Seth Myers stealing your guitar to Jimmy Fallon stealing your banjo, then it’s a great story. I have learned from some of the best, and I hope I’ve done them proud with my stories in Robert’s Hill (or The Time I Pooped My Snowsuit) and Other Christmas Stories.  

Jeremy John is currently ranked as the sixty-second most famous person from Brantford, Ontario. (Look it up. There are a lot.) Following a career in radio and television, Jeremy now lives with his wife and kids, plus a dog he pretends not to like, in Sudbury, Ontario. Learn more here.