What is the Storytelling Trance? Deep Listening to a Story
As a storyteller I love the moments when the listeners and I are totally immersed in the story. We are in a storytelling trance. How does that work? Is that dangerous?
The Storytelling Trance is a light, dreamlike trance listeners can experience while listening to a story being told. Faces relax, breathing becomes deep and silence fills the room. The storytelling trance can be encouraged, but not forced.
This begs all kinds of questions: What happens when in a storytelling trance? Is it dangerous? Why does it not always happen?
What is a storytelling trance?
I walked into a big tent and sat down on a wobbly wooden bench. The tent filled up and we waited. When the charismatic storyteller started his performance, I was gripped by the story. I saw a blacksmith, darkness, a bridge of bones; a world of story opened.
Time seemed to fly. When I walked out of the tent an hour later I looked around bewildered. Sitting down it took me some time to arrive in the real world again.
From this powerful storytelling experience (and later ones) I know how deep listening to a story can bring you into a storytelling trance.
As a storyteller I experienced this many times with my audience. First, you feel it in a room: a hush, a ‘full, meaningful’ silence. Second, you see see the signs of a storytelling trance in your listeners:
Signs of a storytelling trance
- the face relaxes and loses tension
- the mouth falls open
- the eyes gaze in the distance, almost without blinking
- the breathing becomes deep
- the body is silent, no sound or movement
Is a storytelling trance dangerous?
The storytelling trance is a light trance, not a full on hypnosis. It’s more like a dream or daydreaming. So, are dreams dangerous? Are books dangerous? Are movies dangerous?
Deep listening to a skilled storyteller and going into a storytelling trance is not inherently dangerous. You will only go there when you trust the storyteller to take you with him or her into the story and to bring you safely home after.
All forms of communication can be used for bad or for good. As a storyteller I am aware of the storytelling trance, but I don’t try to force it and I am not seeking to manipulate my listeners.
It all boils down to two things: Seek understanding and do no harm.
Can you induce a storytelling trance?
You cannot induce a storytelling trance, but you can make the circumstances optimal for it to happen. Factors of influence are the imagery in the story, the distractions around you and the way your story appeals to the minds of your listeners.
As a storyteller I simply tell stories I love to an audience that I care about and I am open to what happens between the story, the listeners and myself.
There is no need to force anything. When you try to force something to happen, it often does not work. I found this also to be true to the storytelling trance.
As a professional storyteller I think it is important to seek knowledge about what you are doing and how what you do influences the audience. That starts in sensing and listening and being present in the storytelling situation.
Out of discussions with other storytellers on this subject, research and my own experience, I found that these five factors influence the happening of a storytelling trance.
Five factors that influence a storytelling trance
- the story bubble
- the appeal on the analytical mind
- the use of imagery
- the use of theatrics
- the enchantment of the storyteller
Don’t break the story bubble
When telling a story I like to imagine that there is a bubble blown around the listeners and myself. We are in our own sheltered story world, where everything is possible, where time and space work differently.
This bubble can easily break when something from the outside forces itself in, or when the teller reaches out and takes something of the outside world inside.
Skilled storytellers are very careful to not accidentally break this bubble.
The bubble can be broken from the outside by visual or audible noise. Unexpected things that happen. A siren, a crying baby, somebody walking behind the storyteller.
The bubble can be broken from the inside when the storyteller refers to things that happen ‘in the real world’ or to personal things that are outside of the story.
A storytelling trance needs a story bubble. Minimize the things that break it from the outside and the inside.
Don’t call on the analyzing mind
Without going deep into how the brain works, it’s safe to say that different areas are more active in different moments. When listening to a story you use different areas than when solving a mathematical problem.
When you keep your story flowing from image to image, it is easier for your listeners to stay in the story and in the storytelling trance. Don’t ask them to reflect or think or have an opinion about something in the story.
Make multi sensory images with your words
Most storytellers don’t learn a story word by word. They develop the story image by image. And with an image I mean a multi sensory image. What you hear, see, feel, taste and touch.
Telling a story is like going from image to image. Images that your listeners make themselves in their own imagination.
This flow of images enhances the storytelling trance.
Don’t put attention on yourself
There are as many ways of telling a story as there are storytellers. I wrote another article in which you can see several oral storytelling examples.
However when it comes to the storytelling trance, the way you tell the story matters. It works best when you allow the story to happen in the imagination of your listeners.
That means that you need to tell it without a lot of ‘theatrics’. Not a lot of movement, not a lot of impersonating characters, not a lot of things that draw the attention to ‘the stage’ instead of to the story in their own imagination.
Tell stories that entrance you
Here is where it all starts. If the story does not entrance you, there is not a very big chance that it will entrance your listeners.
All I can say is: find the stories that you love and that love you. (More on that in this article: How to tell a fairy tale).
The stories where I mostly see these storytelling trances happening in the faces of my listeners, are wonder tales that have deeply touched me.
Further research into the storytelling trance
- You can download and read ‘The Web of Silence: Storytelling’s Power to Hypnotize’ (Fran Stallings) on the website of the National Storytelling Network. Highly recommended.
- You can download and read ‘The Enchanted Imagination: Storytelling’s Power to Entrance Listeners’ (Brian W. Sturm) on the website of Semantic Scholar.
- The famous psychotherapist Milton Erickson worked a lot with stories to induce trance states. You can find many of his materials online.
Personally, I find that each telling is an opportunity to learn more. Not necessarily the kind of learning that happens when you read and analyze, but surely the kind of learning that you do intuitively: sensing and listening. Let’s keep learning.
You’ll find more things I have learned about storytelling in this article: 34 Oral Storytelling Tips for Beginners.
💡 Occasionally, I send out an email with new writings on storytelling and fairy tales.