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Once Upon a Time

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What makes a story great? What makes someone a great storyteller? Storytelling is something we all do naturally, but there’s a big difference between good storytelling and great storytelling, with novelist Rachel Hamilton explaining: “Creative storytelling builds imagination and creativity by allowing children to explore life inside other bodies, places, times, and situations. This empathetic, open-minded way of thinking helps in all fields of life. Another important skill storytelling teaches is how to communicate your thoughts and feelings in a way that captivates your audience.”

Rachel, who studied at both Oxford and Cambridge, saw her debut novel, The Case of the Exploding Loo (published by Simon & Schuster), awarded the runner-up spot in the Emirates Festival of Literature ‘First Fiction’ Competition, and went on to win several other awards. She is also the author of the Unicorn in New York series (published by Oxford University Press), which was chosen as part of the Big Read, Summer Reading Programme.

We asked Rachel what the key components of a good story are. “There are many answers I could give to this question. I could focus on the traditional story elements of plot, character, and setting; or I could stress the importance of accurate spelling and punctuation. However, the best stories have a unique magic that can’t be found in any list of components, only by exploring and experimenting and injecting yourself into them, because the key component of a good story is an authentic voice.”

Storytelling has been at the heart of civilisation since humans first began to communicate, but what form does storytelling take in the modern age? “New technology and new media channels have created new ways for people to share and consume stories,” Rachel says. “While audiences were once limited to those sitting round the same campfire, modern stories can cross oceans, time zones, and cultural divides. Gaming and other digital platforms have led to more interactive, multi-layered storytelling, and who knows what the impact will be of artificial intelligence and augmented reality? There has never been a more exciting time to be a storyteller.”

Of course not every storyteller is naturally gifted in verbal storytelling, but Rachel believes that there is one really effective way to boost verbal communication abilities: “Read! Every author will tell you that the best way to become a writer is to become a reader. Just as every expert will tell you the best way to learn a skill is by practicing it. So, keep reading and keep writing. Also, remember that not every storyteller works with words. Stories can be told, equally beautifully, with images or music or movement.

“And storytelling is vital in this day and age. This is because our minds are far more open to stories than data and hard facts. In today’s fast-paced world where we’re constantly bombarded with information, storytelling is often the only way to cut through the clutter and be heard.”

Despite all of the positive aspects of storytelling, many young writers are put off developing their skills, with Rachel explaining: “This is because, despite having the best intentions, adults sometimes turn creative writing into a tick box exercise for kids, telling them great stories must include features like ‘wow words’ and ‘powerful punctuation’ and ‘extended metaphors.’ These things have their place, but if you want kids to enjoy storytelling, sometimes it is a good idea to remove the rules and just encourage them to have fun. 

“A child who is a great storyteller has a huge range of career opportunities too, from journalism, marketing and politics through to publishing, digital media and computer game development. But, why would anyone want to follow another career path when they could be an author? I wanted to be an author or an astronaut (I may not have got past the ‘A’ section of the careers handbook). So now I’ve had a few books published, it may be time to turn my attention to space adventure!” Rachel concludes.

“The key component of a good story is an authentic voice.”

Rachel Hamilton is the author of The Case of the Exploding Loo and the Unicorn in New York series.s