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The Passionate Art of Storytelling

Storytelling dates back to the beginning of time; sharing stories unites us.

I recently returned from my annual writing retreat in Hawaii. I’m drawn to the Hawaiian tradition of sharing wisdom through the art of storytelling, or Ka’ao. Hawaiian elders view life as symbolic metaphors, and believe that through stories, we learn about how to be in this world. They also feel that true stories can be closer to legend or myth than we may realize. Surely, you’ve heard people say, “Truth is stranger than fiction. You just can’t make that up.”

During my sojourn to Hawaii, I spent the mornings with my personal kahuna, or shaman. Her vibe is always positive and full of gratitude, especially with respect to nature. She reminds me to remain in the moment. We share stories, and while doing so, she identifies the wisdom and teachings within them. She reminds me that we feel happiest when we hear the true voice of God, spirit, or our ancestors. Remaining in the moment and being mindful also leads to happiness.

Kahunas teach and instruct in the form of story, which provides a vehicle for understanding relationships. Thus, the story becomes a form of philosophy. In Hawaiian culture, there are often rituals accompanying storytelling.

My kahuna usually drives me to numerous sacred sites where we sit in nature and exchange the stories of our lives. She then calls upon our ancestors and loved ones to join us in prayers, which she usually sings in her beautiful Hawaiian voice. Our ancestors and spirit guides are called to the ceremony to help with whatever needs to be worked on at the time, whether confessions or coping with life issues. Afterward, my kahuna usually performs a ritual with ti leaves. She pulls a few together into a bouquet and either plants them in the earth or sends them down the local stream. Kahunas believe that emotions are energies that can affect the environment, as well as individuals who enter that environment.

Storytelling dates back to the beginning of time. In fact, stories are perhaps the strongest bonds we have with other nations and races. Australian aborigines painted symbols from stories on cave walls to help storytellers remember their tales. The Egyptians were the first people to write down their stories; and the Romans, through their travels and conquests, were adept at disseminating stories.

The purpose of storytelling is to share stories that unite us. Regardless of our culture, stories bring us together and bridge the gaps among us. They’re also tools for learning and exchanging ideas. But, not all storytellers are created equal. Surely you’ve noticed that some people are wonderful storytellers, and others just make you yawn. The idea of storytelling is to relate events in words, images, sounds, and embellishments. It is a way to convey the emotional power of information. Author and professor Robert McKee, in his book Story, says, “Stories are equipment for living.” In fact, when a story is told well, the listener is transported on a journey to a new place.

The skills of an effective storyteller can be found in both the oral and written word. A good time to verbally share stories is during gatherings with family, friends, and colleagues, such as kahunas. Many of our strengths, preferences, and comfort zones related to storytelling harken back to the patterns of our childhoods. My parents were first-generation immigrants and worked very long hours. Typically, our dinners at home were often rushed, with little opportunity for storytelling. As such, most of the stories I heard during my childhood were parts of conversations I overhead when my parents had guests.

Since I didn’t have brothers and sisters, I spent a lot of time reading and writing, and often found myself gravitating to friends and family members who were good storytellers, which is how I learned to be a good listener. The greatest motivation for storytellers is to get their listeners/readers curious and interested.

Oral and written stories have both similarities and differences. When telling a verbal story, the most important thing to remember is to put on your “story hat.” In other words, before telling a story, get yourself in the mood to share it. Embody the feeling of the story. Wearing the storytelling hat is also an excellent way to take your mind off your audience, particularly if you tend to be shy. To increase self-confidence, some people also like rehearsing their stories in front of a mirror before “going live.”

Tips for storytellers:

  • Choose an appropriate occasion to share your story, taking into account the interest level and age of your audience.
  • Provide a logical plot by thinking about the story’s ending. A good story has a beginning, middle, and end.
  • Remember that the best stories build up suspense to a good climax, but always leave the listener wanting more.
  • Create a strong beginning. It’s important to capture listeners’ attention; make them curious about the subject being discussed.
  • When creating scenes, make sure that the sequence of events is in the correct order. This makes it easier for listeners or readers to remember.
  • Create believable characters. To do so, incorporate all your senses, and show, rather than tell, how your characters look and behave. Also, use dialogue to help illustrate your characters.
  • Engage readers and listeners on an emotional level by sharing universal emotions that resonate with them.


McKee, R. (1997). Story. New York, NY: ReganBooks.

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