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The Spark of Your Story Fire

This is a reprint of eTips from the Storytelling Coach #63, first published in May, 2006.




campfire with sparks at nightImagining is the most important storytelling skill. If you cannot imagine a story, then you have nothing to communicate.

The words of a story are much less important: they are just a medium through which you stimulate others to imagine. You choose words (and gestures, facial expressions, posture, pacing, and all the rest) based on what you have imagined. Words repeated without active imagination behind them are lifeless.

Great words and nonverbal language can add to the impact of a well-imagined story, of course. In this sense, words are like a fireplace: the container that shapes the fire and makes it efficient, not the fuel that burns.

Seen in one way, then, imagining is the fundamental spark in telling any story, which you must create in order to ignite a response in your listeners.

But imagining continues to accompany all the further steps of your story-development process: telling, retelling, and working with your story’s shape and meaning. In this way, imagining is also like tending the fire: the daily act that makes the ordinary alchemy of cooking – and therefore life itself – possible.

Gathering Firewood

But, in another sense, imagining is the act that puts you in contact with the unknown – like wandering in the forest to gather your daily firewood.

Like a flame that can burn steady or else surprise you with dangerous leaps or else sputter and die out, imagination also takes you into the unpredictable, the unknown. If you want to imagine a story that you haven’t yet fully imagined, for instance, you are going to have to discover something you don’t yet know!

Or consider a story you have told often and that has taken a set form in your mind. One day you may be telling it to a group, however, and suddenly you find yourself imagining something that you never imagined before: a new detail, a new scene, or maybe just a different sensory impression of something that has always been in the story: “I never knew that the tree was so large before.”

Because this by-product of the imagination process is unknown, you don’t know where to look for it. And so you have to go out with your sled and dig through the snow. When the surprise happens and you find a golden key (see “The Golden Key” story), then you have to follow it.

The sense of going from the golden key, to the box it opens, to opening the box, is very much like the process of imagining a story. From the golden key there is a new opening, but now you have to follow it and see where it leads you.

And who knows? Maybe at the moment you’re about to open the box – which may seem like the purpose of your story – you look up and you see the raven in the tree overhead. And maybe that’s the new thing you have to follow, the new spark that will re-light your story.



A. Imagine a story in different sensory modes.

Choose a story. Imagine a scene from it (or the whole story) in at least these seven sensory modes:
1. Sight
2. Sound
3. Touch
4. Taste
5. Smell
6. Balance (sense of gravity, knowing your orientation in space and when you are changing it.)
7. Kinesthesia (muscular and gut sensations).

B. Transform the Sensory Imagining

Choose one of the seven sensory modes in which you imagined a scene from your story, above. Now change the way you imagined it in that sensory mode.

For example, suppose you imagined the smells in that scene in Part A of this exercise. Now, in Part B, you might imagine a smell in your scene to be more pleasant than you first imagined it. Next, imagine it to be less pleasant. Then stronger; then less strong. Then coming from a specific direction. Then surrounding you. How do these changes in smell change your feelings about the story?

All the best,

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