Baba Yaga

Baba Yaga by Joshua Hoffine

What makes us listen to stories? Why do we get drawn in, why do we keep paying attention? In a nutshell, our curiosity is aroused.

The art of good storytelling relies on listeners’ curiosity, and plays with it on several levels. A good story is structured to not just satisfy curiosity but to keep generating more of it.

We get curious to fill in details – although our imagination will do that anyway. We get curious about motivations and feelings – “Why did she do that?” – but that often gets revealed slowly. What we really have to know, and what keeps us listening for the next sentence, is “What happened next?” Isn’t that what you want to know, desperately, when you look at the picture of Baba Yaga’s house here? Especially if you notice the skulls and click to see it full-size.

Traditional tales are entirely plot-driven, which is to say that “What happened next?” is the engine that drives the story forward. In fairytales and folktales the characters are deliberately one-dimensional, because they are universal and archetypal. They have virtually no inner life because they are more symbols than people – their natures are expressed on the outside through their appearance and actions. Max L├╝thi’s excellent book The European Folktale – form and nature has two chapters on the profundities of this idea. So the actions reveal everything, and we are left to unearth their meanings and purpose.

For storytellers all this means that we have to be aware of the curiosity we are provoking and satisfying, step by step. What do the words and images of this sentence provoke a desire for? And this one? How long will it be before the audience finds out their answer? Such psychology drives the dynamics of attention, and good storytellers are in turn driven to adjust their pacing, facial expressions, nuances of tone and more, in order to give the audience a feeling of the sense of purpose and drama of the story. Some hints and curiosities are enough to keep people’s attention until the next sentence, others until the next section or even the end of the story.

As the storyteller, you have an important feat to perform in your mind. You already know the story, so you don’t need to be curious about what will happen next. Yet you have to be, if you are to convey the full power of the story. You must try to immerse yourself in the present moment of the story so effectively that you embody it, and hence discover it afresh at the same time as the audience. In this way you travel through the reality of the story yourself, and only by doing this can you take the audience fully on that journey too. You are not a mere low-tech device for reciting the story, you are their leader on the adventure.

So… in what ways do you provoke curiosity in your stories, and in which places could they benefit from tweaking or increasing that?


  1. Marni says:

    Oh Tim, I could listen to you (better yet chat with you) all day about stories. Thanks for reminding us to be CURIOUS. I do love the stories old and lived and am as curious about the audience before me and what their energies will do to the telling in that moment. I was telling of Aphrodite recently convincing Paris to give her the apple. I’d told it to kids a bunch but with this group of adults – and we were in the dark – this white haired woman just BECAME Aphrodite and lifted the corner of my jacket as if to disrobe. The audience howled and I had had NO intention of doing that. We were IN THERE and it was deliciously fun. My hair turned dark again – and I was something like 23 just for the instant! Is THAT curious! Happy writing. I’ll love reading.

    • Tim says:

      Ah Marni, what a great point – yes, being curious about the audience has to be part of it. I’d love to have seen you discover Aphrodite coming to visit. I’m very glad to hear your thoughts in any conversation. I’m sure you deserve another hug by now.

  2. Pam Faro says:

    “You must try to immerse yourself in the present moment of the story so effectively that you embody it, and hence discover it afresh at the same time as the audience. In this way you travel through the reality of the story yourself, and only by doing this can you take the audience fully on that journey too.”

    SO beautifully articulated, Tim – thanks! I’m enjoying your posts – so glad you hopped on!

    • Tim says:

      I’m definitely enjoying it too Pam – it brings new clarity to my thinking when I try and express it. And feedback and conversation spurs it on to greater focus. Thanks!

  3. Tim, this is exactly right, and it was a very hard thing for me to learn to do. I am inclined to try to satisfy people with answers or explanations as soon as I see that they have questions. If someone looked really frightened during a ghost story, for example, I had to fight my instinct to “help” them by making it less scary or telling them “Don’t worry; it will be okay.” These days I love drawing out the scary parts, or the unanswered question parts, of course, and recognize that that delayed gratification–that coaxed-to-the-edge tension–is much better than “helping” them!

    • Tim says:

      I think you might like the post I have planned for later, Mary Grace, on Tension. It will go together with this topic, in exactly the way you describe. Yes, storytelling is a powerful thing and it takes courage and strength to use its power to the full! Meanwhile I’m reminded of the old joke popular at school, which I’ll update here: How do you keep an idiot in suspense? I’ll blog you the answer later in the month.

  4. Carol Connolly says:

    Tim, wonderful thoughts on curiosity and staying “in the moment” of the story. In addition to the various “pacing, facial expressions, nuances of tone and more” you mention, I think story is driven by the audience, as well. Their facial expressions and body language call me to be present in the story. It’s that interaction with listeners that make an old (to me) story become new and in the present for me. I hope you’ll talk about this interaction in future blogs.

    • Tim says:

      Your wish is my command, milady. I will indeed discuss that very topic next week. Meanwhile, I agree that the audience are key to guiding the dynamics of how we tell the story, though the structure of the story sets the basics for us all to respond to and play off. The whole subject of being present is so rich and central to live storytelling, though often for the beginner much of that is not apparent at all, and hardly possible at first.

  5. Jayanthi says:

    You made a pertinent point. As a stroyteller you know the story … but need to seem curious. I see that as something i need to work upon. I give away hints to the audience so they kind of guess what is coming. I am making amends to this … getting there.

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