How to Tell a Great Campfire Story
Spin a tale that’ll keep them hanging on your every word.
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Many years ago on the internet, there was a How-To about campfire stories — much like the How-To you’re reading at this very moment. Everyone who found the How-To and read it felt a newfound confidence in their storytelling abilities … but there was a catch.
You see, most people think it’s free to read and use the information they find on the internet; and most of the time that’s true. But this was no ordinary online instruction guide. With no byline, no author laid claim to it, and it wasn’t published by any known organization. No, this How-To made itself; and it lay in wait, luring in would-be storytellers to its page to feed off the hundreds of thousands of potential stories still locked in the minds of the poor knowledge-seekers.
With a loud ZAP! and a whiff of ozone, the dreaded How-To attacks its victims head first (where the creativity is stored), and sucks their prey into the digital world with them, trapping them forever. The only way a poor soul can hope to escape the cold vastness of being trapped in this internet-netherworld is to pass the knowledge of storytelling to another unwitting victim who will take their place.
Don’t ask me how I know — just read on for these helpful hints for telling the coolest campfire stories!
Know Your Audience
Consider the ages in your group. Being scared is fun for some, but not everyone likes it, and not all campfire stories have to be scary. They can be silly, teach a moral or lesson, or be full of action and adventure. It’s your story, and your audience, and you should choose a tale that best fits your group.
Make It Personal and Specific
Stories that sound like they happened to you, or someone you know, seem more believable. That way you can give your audience a firsthand account of what it was like to be there when it happened — or the grisly aftermath you observed.
Also, try to pepper your story with specifics: Maybe as the monster was chasing you, it grabbed the back of your favorite blue hoodie. Or make note of the weather that day, how it was hazy, with a fall chill in the air, and how you caught a glimpse of an eerie figure looming ominously in the distance. You don’t need to go into every little detail, but throwing a few in here and there will make your story feel even more like it really happened.
Find a Familiar Setting
Telling a story about a monster out in the forest, quietly stalking campers, is going to feel very relatable to people hearing this story out in the woods, but creepy things can happen pretty much anywhere. A stormy night is a classic setting for scary stories, but you could also use basements, attics, or closets — and you don’t even need to drag out the camping gear.
Consider Mood Lighting
A campfire isn’t required to tell a great campfire story. There are plenty of options to change up the lighting in your space for the perfect storytelling atmosphere. When choosing your light source, keep in mind placement: Lights that are placed low, at ground level, create a spookier environment than lights from above. Consider these options:
Pause for Dramatic … Effect
You want the suspense to build, and build, and BUILD. R-e-a-l-l-y draw out your speech, and speak slowly and deliberately to make sure that your audience is hanging on to your every word. Do your best William Shatner impression, and … go a little overboard ... with the dramatic … pauses.
Use Different Character Voices and Sound Effects to Enhance Your Story
If you really get into it, your audience will follow. A high-pitched, strained voice could be a wicked witch in the woods, or maybe there’s a monster lurking, warning of his presence with a low, mournful growl. Keep the volume of your voice low — this will make your audience have to lean in and really listen — then save the loud noises for climactic moments, and you’ll have them jumping outta their seats!
Use the Five Senses
Just reciting the action can get a little boring. Pull your listeners into the story with you. What does the air smell like? Sweet, like spring flowers and new grass, or wet and mildewy, like the last chilly days of fall? Does the air taste salty? There could be an ocean nearby. Hearing howls in the distance on a dark night could mean dangerous animals are nearby, but hearing maniacal laughter could mean something even worse. Tap into the senses beyond what can be seen, and your story becomes a world for the listener to step inside.
Keep It Short and Sweet
No need for long drawn out epics! It’s too much pressure for the storyteller, and too much to ask the attention of your listeners for that long. Stick to shorter, direct stories you can embellish in the moment for dramatic effect, and tweak for your captive audience.
Everything gets better with practice, so if you really want to be a master campfire storyteller, write, or choose a story you love, and recite it out loud a few times before you’re in the storytelling spotlight.
Gather Up the Gang, and Start Telling Stories!
Here’s a list of stories to set you on your storytelling path. Remember to tailor them to your audience and your environment for a more powerful storytelling experience!
Learn local legends and campfire classics that have been passed on by generations of American Campers with Campfire Stories: Tales from America’s National Parks.
The Scary Stories Paperback Boxset is perfect for older kids who think telling scary stories is baby stuff. One of these tales might make them think again!
Want to write your own story, but feeling stuck? Try this Campfire Story Deck; it’s full of creative prompts that’ll have you spinning tales in no time!
Finally, Cool of the Wild has great stories for all ages, including for little ones who scare easily, or don't like to be scared at all. Some are silly, some are scary, all are entertaining!