The New Book Of Plots: Constructing Engaging Narratives For Oral And Written Storytelling by Loren NiemiThe New Book Of Plots: Constructing Engaging Narratives For Oral And Written Storytelling by Loren Niemi

The New Book Of Plots: Constructing Engaging Narratives For Oral And Written Storytelling

byLoren Niemi

Paperback | September 28, 2012

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In the space of the thirty-some years I have called myself a storyteller, the balance of what I tell has shifted from children’s stories and traditional folk and fairy tales told in schools, churches, and community centers to stories drawn directly from my own experiences. But I also understand that by adapting and re-imagining traditional folk and fairy tale material, you can provide a point of entry for contemporary listeners to experience, as psychologist Bruno Bettelheim has suggested in his book The Uses of Enchantment, the continuing power of the old stories to speak to the imagination and heart.

            Wanting to make a connection between the older stories and our existential circumstance, I sought to re-interpret folk and fairy tales by placing them in a more contemporary context. The confusing Black Forest of the Brothers Grimm became the crowded shopping mall. Rapunzel’s mother sought a more familiar drug than the painkilling herbs of the witch’s garden. I also created stories that were in the style of the older folk and fairy tales. One featured a lowly cucumber plant that, after consuming radioactive water and junk-food compost, became the glowing, green Godzilla of pickles. Another featured a boy named Jack, who found fame and fortune racing inner-city cockroaches.

            In creating and performing original stories and reimagined folk tales, as well as teaching stories to students of all ages, it has become clear to me that how we tell the story, as much as why, is at the very heart of the art. By “how,” I do not mean how we use voice and gesture, etc., but how we organize stories to get across their meanings to an audience.

            There are two central facts at the heart of the oral story. The first is that it begins when the teller begins and ends when the teller ends it, though I could argue that it actually ends when the audience dismisses it. This is fundamentally different from the written story, where a reader can go back and read the same words again. With the spoken word, we are in the moment. Even if we could ask the teller to go back and say something again, the very act of asking would alter the way in which the information is conveyed to us. This leads directly to the second basic fact: the act of telling is an expression of the relationship of the teller to the audience. We always tell to someone, even if it is to ourselves. It is incumbent upon us to recognize that the choice we make about how we tell a story to a given audience is as much about our understanding of who that audience is as it is about what we are saying to the audience.

It is this crucial understanding of how the narrative is shaped and the choices we make as tellers to share a particular version of a story with a particular audience that I wish to explore with you. Whether we are working with a live audience in performance or with an imagined one while typing away on our laptops, the creation of compelling fiction and non-fiction begins with how to frame the story.

             This book is for storytellers and would-be storytellers, whether you call yourself a writer, minister, politician, journalist, lawyer, teacher, therapist, or street-corner b.s.’er. Whatever the name, the benefit you derive from the application of this material to your creative process will come from understanding how narrative is shaped and making conscious decisions about shaping that narrative content. This book was developed in workshops and classes I’ve conducted with storytellers and writers since 1986. In the course of those years, this teaching practice has refined my thinking and improved my ability to help participants discover new approaches to creating powerful, authentic, and entertaining stories.

Much of what I say will be framed around the creation of stories as oral performance, but the concepts and exercises I suggest apply to written material as well. Whether the stories are oral or written, this book is about three things: the choice of an appropriate narrative form to provide the story’s structure, the choice of an appropriate point of view and timeframe to support the story’s emotional arc, and how those choices help or hinder the transmission of the meaning of the story to an audience.

Loren Niemi teaches writing and communication at the college level in Minneapolis, Minnesota and also is producer of the performance series, Two Chairs Talking.  A former Chairman of the National Storytelling Network, USA, Niemi also performs himself at storytelling festivalsand venues throughout the USA.  This is his second handbook o...
Title:The New Book Of Plots: Constructing Engaging Narratives For Oral And Written StorytellingFormat:PaperbackDimensions:188 pages, 8.5 × 5.5 × 0.7 inPublished:September 28, 2012Publisher:Parkhurst Brothers Publishers IncLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:1935166638

ISBN - 13:9781935166634

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From the Author

By profession, I am a storyteller. I am fortunate that my chosen occupation not only provides a source of income but also is my life’s joyous work. The fact is, I have been a storyteller from childhood, although, contrary to the definition put forth by some academic folklorists, I am not passing along tales told to me by my family or that I took in from one particular culture.            My family did not tell stories in any formal sense. Listening to traditional or folk stories was not a regular part of my childhood, nor was I was raised hearing tales of Northern Minnesota logging camps at my grandmother’s knee. My paternal grandmother spoke Finnish, a language I still have not mastered, and whatever stories she had to tell about her days of cooking in those rough-and-tumble camps were clenched as tightly between her teeth as the sugar cube through which she was fond of sucking black coffee. My grandfather, who had been a miner and a lumberjack before becoming a dairy farmer, died soon after I was born. The same is true for the grandfather on my mother’s side. My mother’s adopted mother was, in her own words, a no-nonsense woman who did not believe in “fairy tales.” No, stories were not told to me, but I absorbed them from the interaction of the adults around me. They were tales of illness, accidents, and work told by my aunts and uncles to each other, and children were not the intended audience. Even now, my parents’ histories are sketchy and incomplete. As was the case with many children of immigrants who survived the Depression and World War II, they were focused on the future, not the past.            Furthermore, while growing up, I bounced in and out of several cultures. My parents were professionals—my mother a nurse, my father a corporate manager—and we moved every time my father got a promotion. I was born into the industrial and mixed-ethnic communities of Minnesota’s Iron Range. Then we moved to the New Mexico of the 1950s—equal parts Spanish, Native American, and Cold War-era U.S. military in its cultural worldview. I spent my junior-high years among the rough kids of Buffalo steelworkers, and went to high school in a heavily Catholic suburb dominated by a culture of cars, JFK, and, later, the Beatles. Always the outsider, I intuitively observed local culture and listened for the playground stories whose retelling would help me find my way in.            Like many of my fellow Baby Boomers, my most frequent exposure to stories was through television. My fairy tales were fractured, the classics as interpreted by Bullwinkle and Rocky. My morality plays came through the tragedies of Gunsmoke and The Twilight Zone, or the comedies of Lucy and the Beaver. While the stories were entertaining, I was aware of a kind of “sameness” about them. In the world television offered, the good guys wore white hats, father knew best, and any problem could be resolved after a commercial.Even as a child, I wanted something more. Theater, movies, books, music: I took them all in as often as I could, learning what kind of stories each could tell. Some mediums were more satisfying than others, but all lacked the intimacy and fluidity that I now recognize is central to the live, oral storytelling experience. From my perspective, the call to tell stories was not the embrace of a tradition or culture. It was an accident, a gift of Fate or Grace in spite of environment and heredity.            In my publicity materials, I say that I began as a child fibber, but soon discovered that I was less interested in telling lies than I was in improving the truth. More than just being a nice turn of phrase, this notion goes to the core of what I believe storytelling is about. Storytelling is the transmission of experience and imagination. Its primary expression was and is through the spoken word. It also is manifest in written and modern media forms, but in the history of human development, writing is really quite new and the moving image, celluloid or digital, but a blink in the course of human history.Oral storytelling is the most basic of human activities. It recounts experience and gives voice to internal thoughts and feelings. In its traditional forms, storytelling is simultaneously entertainment, education, and transformational enchantment. Storytelling always has been the primary means of articulating our fundamental core values, of describing who we are as individuals and peoples, and of confirming our perceptions of what it means to be human. It shapes the chaos of the ever-changing world and speaks to what is “right” and “true.”

Read from the Book

The hero or heroine then faces a number of challenges that must be overcome, each one being more difficult than the one before it or testing a different aspect of his or her character. How many challenges does the hero usually face? One theory is that the number of challenges is based on the “core number” of a cultural tradition. When you look at the Western tradition, both European and American folk stories use three as a core number. Three wishes. Three bears. Three pigs. In numerous folk tales, there are three brothers or sisters, and it is the third one—the youngest, the weakest, the slow one—that is fated to be the hero. With three as the core number, there would be three challenges, and in story after story, there are. As an aside, you can see how deeply we have embedded three in our worldview when you look at how it permeates our basic belief of such things as time (past, present, future), religion (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in Christian tradition, or Virgin, Mother, and Crone in the feminist pantheon), or even our literary points of view (first person, second person, and third person). Not every culture has the same core number. Native American tradition, for example, often uses four—the four colors, the four directions, the four seasons. Chinese folk tales often use two as a core number, and feature the concept of Yin and Yang: one thing is in tension with another, but between the two of them, there is harmony. Another approach to determining the nature of the challenges is to think about the challenges as a progression from external to internal. For our purpose, let’s use the number three as symbolic of that progression. In Rumpelstiltskin, as an example, the heroine barters with the “ugly little man” three times. The first time, she offers him a locket, a clearly external object; the second time, a ring (symbolic of marriage and intimacy); and her third offer consists of something internal and completely personal: the promise of her first-born child. With each promise, the stakes are raised, and success or failure becomes more important.

Editorial Reviews

“Niemi’s insightful book is a rock solid tool for writers, storytellers, classroom teachers and writing coaches.”