A flicker of firelight illuminated the campers’ faces as they leaned in to hear the lost legends of the forest. “It was a night kind of like this,” began award-winning storyteller Gary Ferguson. “The river was whispering in the distance. The smell of pine was in the air.”

Just then, a whip of wind stirred the embers. Clouds enshrouded the moon and a lone howl rose up from the blackness beyond the campfire’s thin ring of light. Ferguson continued, his audience hanging on his every word in this most ancient of traditions.

If you’re yearning to be the teller of spellbinding stories, or maybe just keep people from hitting the tents too early, here’s how to deliver a campfire tale that will become a legend of its own.

Make It Personal

Begin by linking your audience to the world where you’re going to take them. For example, Ferguson often tells a folktale, traced to the Luba people of Central Africa, called “The Birds Find Their Homes.” He starts by mentioning the birds in the woods around the campfire, naming a few of the species, then saying, “I’m going to tell you a story that I learned from the very birds that are sitting in the trees with us right now. In fact, birds all over the world tell this story, whenever one of their young wants to know where she came from…”

Use Story Structure 101

Classic story structure begins with introducing the heroes, who will eventually run into a barrier or conflict which they must resolve. Captivating tales build tension as they unfold, gradually raising the stakes until they reach the climax, or the ultimate struggle the characters must overcome.

“Then the characters either resolve it, and that’s a comedy, or they don’t resolve it and they die, which is a tragedy,” says adventurer and professional storyteller Jon Turk.

Don’t forget to try elements like foreshadowing, a surprise ending (plot twist!), and a conclusion where the meaning of the story becomes clear. You can even leave a teaser, setting yourself up for a sequel.

A great campfire tale allows listeners to have a shared imagining, not only engaging them but creating and strengthening social bonds.
A great campfire tale allows listeners to have a shared imagining, not only engaging them but creating and strengthening social bonds.

Set the Scene

Immerse your audience into a tale’s setting by describing where it’s taking place. Engage all of the senses when setting the scene: What do the bees sound like as they bounce along the apple tree blossoms? Does your character feel a cool mist on her cheeks? Is she able to linger and enjoy it, or does she need to quicken her pace because she’s running late?

Create the Mood

When describing a scene, think about how your choice of words evokes a mood. Are the birds singing or squawking? Is the wind rustling through the leaves or blowing through the branches? Is the sun warming her shoulders or burning her skin?

The length of sentences also affects mood and pacing. Longer, flowing descriptions can make you feel like you’re floating down a peaceful river, staring up at fluffy clouds. Shorter sentences bring the action. Blam! A fish leaps into the hull. It flops furiously. Everyone screams!

Focus on Pacing

Pacing is at the heart of excellent storytelling. It’s what keeps an audience intrigued enough to stick around. Think of it like your favorite song, and how that ebbs, flows, and sometimes charges forward to build emotion and energy. Try to create a rhythm to move your characters through the storyline and events.

Another way to think about it: “In a good story, you want to hear the next sentence,” says Turk. “If the next sentence is just going to be like the last sentence, then you don’t want to hear it.”

Show, Don’t Tell

Throughout the story, continue sprinkling in physical details that keep listeners experiencing it through the characters’ eyes. For example, Ferguson says, instead of “She was walking alone through the woods,” try, “She hadn’t slept much the night before. Her feet were clumsy. She kept tripping on the shallow roots that snaked across the trail.”

Seated or standing, a storyteller can give added dimension to their tale through gestures, pacing, volume, and sound effects.
Seated or standing, a storyteller can give added dimension to their tale through gestures, pacing, volume, and sound effects.

Leave Room for Imagination

While some description is good, don’t overdo it. To make a story relatable, listeners need to have room in which to insert their own life experiences and beliefs.

Practice Your Delivery

Good storytelling doesn’t just happen. It’s built through trial and error, which usually includes lots of bad storytelling. Don’t get discouraged. Your skills will evolve. To speed up the process, consider practicing on a solo walk through the woods, and listen to other storytellers on podcasts. And don’t forget to think about your body language, gestures, and maybe even a few sound effects.

Ferguson also suggests telling certain stories while standing up. “This not only better focuses people on you, but allows you to gesture with your body, which is a wonderful way to bring dimension to the narrative,” he says.

As for how long a story should be, it depends in part on how good the storyteller is, says Ferguson. “That said, I tend to think it’s wise to start with stories no longer than seven to ten minutes,” he adds. “And even then, pay attention to the ‘temperature’ of your audience. Are they hungry? Tired? If so, pick something shorter still.”

Don’t Confuse Talking with Storytelling

The elements of a compelling campfire story include setting, character, plot, pacing, conflict, climax, and closure. While it’s fine to recount the list of things you saw on your trip to Zion or Yosemite, don’t confuse that with a story.

“What comes to mind is that Jerry Garcia line, ‘Don’t dominate the rap, Jack, if you’ve got nothing new to say,’” says Turk. “If you don’t have anything great to say, then just listen.”