Poppa Pete (my husband's grandfather) is the greatest storyteller I've ever known. He never wrote any of those stories down, but man, he knew how to grab the attention of the people in the room and enthrall them with the tales of his antics in his younger days. Lately I've been trying to figure out what exactly it is that makes his stories so memorable.
I have recorded (using a dictaphone) and transcribed some of the stories Poppa Pete told. They obviously don't translate perfectly to the written word. When he says something like 'Hoo boy, you knew you were in trouble," in his Yorkshire accent, adding a tremble to his voice, it's going to have more impact than just reading 'Hoo boy, you knew you were in trouble.' When we, as writers, write a short story, we need to add those kind of effects so that the reader doesn't just read 'Pete got into trouble for that.' We need to create tension and let the reader feel the fear. We need to be more descriptive, because the written word doesn't convey all the things that we can convey with tone of voice, etc.
One thing I've noticed is that Poppa Pete always knows how the story ends, before he starts telling it. Not just because it was his life, and he knows the tale intimately, but because he knows in advance how he's going to tell it. The start, middle and end of his story is planned out in advance. Now, I don't know about you, but I'm a pantser. That means I write 'by the seat of my pants'. It's a silly way of saying I don't plan. See, there are planners and pantsers. It is common for me to start writing a story with no idea what is going to happen or how the story ends. Is it any wonder then, that my stories often don't have a definitive ending? They finish more like the end of a chapter than the end of a story - a comfortable resting spot, but not a conclusion. I suspect there is a moral to this.
Poppa Pete's stories always have a punchline. He builds you up with a tale that sounds almost ordinary, then BAM!, he hits you with the punchline. You hear about a young boy living through WWII who is bored and looking for entertainment. He adds plenty of detail, so you understand that the soldiers have taken over the local movie theatre for sleeping in, and so on and so forth. You can picture the idyllic Yorkshire town and the cherub faced child. Then, out of nowhere, the army is converging on this small town, and it's all the fault of this little boy. If you've never heard the story before (and most of the family have heard them all innumerable times), it is a real twist. And all of his stories are like that. He's in the army, in the desert. Life is tough. The men are exhausted. You can almost taste the sand...then he tells you about putting (dead) snakes in his commander's sleeping bag. The commander of course goes nuts trying to shoot the snake, and everyone is diving for cover as the bullets rip through the tent fabric. And you're left wondering how your original impression of the scene was so out of whack. A short story only gives you a narrow window to make an impression on your reader. By giving them a twist they don't see coming (but a plausible one, mind you), you make the story memorable.
There are plenty of lessons to be learned. If you're not lucky enough to know a master storyteller like Poppa Pete, I urge you to read some really great short stories instead. Read a variety, then see if you can see some common traits.
And I wouldn't be doing my duty as a lover of family history if I didn't remind you all that if you are lucky enough to have a storyteller in your family, please take the time to record these stories. You never know when your storyteller won't be around to tell it one more time.