Campfire Stories: The Art Of The Tale

Once a record of bravery and a way to pass on tribal culture, the campfire story still warms the spirit.

Article Index

Squadrons of mosquitoes slurp at your neck and arms, acrid wood smoke seeps up your nostrils, and sparks pop onto your socks as stars drop into the blackening sky - ahh, summer! The Great Outdoors! Time for campfire stories!

Campfire tales are as old as the first circle of humans who crouched around an ancient fire - eyes glistening, faces flickering red-black-red - while the exploits of hunters fending off attacking mastodon or musk ox were recounted in halting tongues.

Then, campfire stories provided a talisman against a hostile world, a record of bravery, and a way to pass on the culture of the tribe. Now, campfire stories are told for the sheer pleasure of setting aside the mundane and engaging the imagination as the night nuzzles uncomfortably close.

What Makes Campfire Stories Special?

One reason is the campfire itself. "Human beings have always been fascinated by campfires," says Doug Wood, a storyteller, guide and author from Sartell, Minnesota. "Everyone will be around the campfire, putting little twigs in it, arranging the logs, staring into it. The campfire is a magnet. It's the center of human activity."

Because it's different from the usual experience of driving in a car or sitting in a living room, a campfire evokes unusual responses and emotions. "Most people feel a little bit vulnerable around a campfire," Wood says. "As night is dropping down, your senses are heightened. You're not too sure what the sounds are in the night. You're a little bit worried about, say, bears. People are ready to hear stories, and to use their imaginations to participate in them. So you take that atmosphere and it enables you to create some magic with campfire stories."

As a result of that created magic, the type of story told around a campfire is different from a story told at a party or workshop. The environment creates a sense of the mysterious and the mystical, so stories told around campfires also tend to be mysterious and mystical.

Types of campfire stories run the gamut from ghost stories, fables, tall tales and legends or myths, to nature stories, Native American lore, even personal experiences.

"My favorites," Doug Wood says, "have to do with the earth, the environment, natural history, because I'm always trying to educate while I entertain. I especially like Native American stories, about the moon or stars."

Telling Campfire Stories

"The method of telling a story is important," says LaRue A. Thurston in the Complete Book of Campfire Programs. "While choosing the right moment of telling a story is important, the most important factor in holding the group's attention is the choice of story."

The method: How a story is told can make the difference between a memorable tale and a ho-hum narrative. William Forgey, in Campfire Stories - Things That Go Bump In The Night, offers these tips for telling campfire stories:

1. The storyteller must enjoy telling the story. Ham it up, he says. Make a fool of yourself. Being stiff or formal distracts from the story and makes listeners uncomfortable.

2. Be in close physical contact. The closer the better. Eye contact is an absolute must.

3. Set a quiet mood.

4. Scream when it's time to scream. Use different inflections in your voice to add moments of fear or excitement to the story.

Wood, who also teaches storytelling workshops, says, "The basic principles of telling a good story are pacing, timing and memory, as well as use of words, gestures, hands, eyes and face. But the crucial element is the ending: It's irritating and disappointing to lead your listeners to the punchline of a story and then not be able to remember it.

"The key," he says, "is to forget the rest of the story. Make it up as you go. Use your imagination, embellish, change the names, it doesn't matter. All that matters is that you remember where you're going. Try to make the story your own. If you plot along trying to remember it word for word, you'll forget. It won't make sense any more. It's like a canoe trip: You look in the distance to see where you're going, and then you figure out how to get there."

The moment: As with all storytelling, timing is everything. A story will have a different effect on people if it's told at noon under a blazing sun or at midnight in moonlight before the dying embers of a fire. The weather, the season, and the events of the day can also affect the moment of the story.

"Set a quiet mood," Forgey advises. "I find that tired audiences are the best." Not only are audiences more receptive when they're tired, they also have less energy to resist the story. They're ready to believe! Forgey adds that the best moment for telling a story is just as the fire is burning out.

The choice: Nothing, the experts agree, is more important than the choice of story. Many variables affect the choice - the ages of the listeners, their interests, whether they're close relatives or not. ("Oh, you've already heard that one? Ten times?")

Ted Trueblood, a noted nature writer, said a campfire warms the spirit as well as the body. He might have added that campfire stories do the same thing.

Sometimes adding just the right kindling turns a tiny flame of a story into a conflagration that will hold the nipping little everyday cares away for a while, out there in the darkness beyond the circle of light.

By Bill_Vassler

View articles on similar topics