PRINCETON — Take a teacher who looks like Wonder Woman, add some cow lungs from a science lesson and a tank of helium left behind by a clown, and you have everything you need for a tall tale.

Almost 50 Mercer County students honing their storytelling skills at the 26th annual Writing Camp heard how to create tall tales from a master of the art, five time West Virginia Liars Contest champion Bil Lepp.

Writing is something anybody can do, Lepp told attendees at Princeton Senior High School. For instance, horror author Stephen King “was a nobody” until he published his first novel.

“You just have to put in the time and the work, ” Lepp said during a break. Part of the process involves being alert for story ideas. In Lepp’s case, the sources are personal.

“Just about everything that I write is something I did or something that happened to somebody else,” Lepp said. “I take a kernel of truth and blow it up wherever it will go.”

When looking for tall tale ideas, write down “three of the dumbest things you did today” before going to bed, Lepp advised, recalling one occurrence that inspires thoughts for tales.

Lepp recalled the time when he was told to fetch a plunger from a nearby church. This church had a large picture window, and young Bil wondered what would happen if he threw the plunger at it. Would it stick to the glass?

Lepp the boy didn’t do that, but Lepp the adult can’t help but wonder what might have happened if he had hurled the plunger at the window. This is one possible ingredient that can lead to a tall tale.

One good example is the list of ingredients that went into the tall tale of how some fourth grade students learned whether their teacher, Mrs. Baird, was really Wonder Woman. In this tale of terror, Mrs. Baird reveals her secret in order to save one of her students from what appeared to be The Blob. Well, it actually turns out that the child used a cow lung, a rubber hose and some helium to simulate the attack.

The surreal scene sprouts from a few kernels of truth.

“When I was in the fourth grade, we thought that Mrs. Baird looked like Lynda Carter,” Lepp recalled. “And she did bring some raw cow lungs to school one day, and it [story] evolved from there.”

Those kernels of truth, the seeds that give birth to a tall tale, are important. For a tall tale to work, it has to be believable.

“You have to establish some sort of truth,” Lepp told the students.

This means starting out with something simple that everyone can understand. For instance, most everyone knows what a dog is — there are no “dog agnostics” waiting for proof that dogs really exist-and almost everyone has had a dog and named a dog, he said. Starting the story with truth keeps the reader and/or listener from dismissing it right away.

The idea is to gradually make the story more and more outrageous. Drawing a human head on the blackboard, Lepp drew a square and told the kids it was everyone’s “context box,” the part of the brain that suspends disbelief and “lets you be entertained by this.”

A good example is found in the cartoon “SpongeBob SquarePants.” In the episode “Frankendoodle,” an artist sketching in a small boat drops his pencil into the water. SpongeBob and his pal Patrick the starfish find it and discover that everything they draw with it comes to life. Soon they’re being chased by an evil doodle of SpongeBob. The fact that the story starts with a believable scene helps the viewer suspend belief and enjoy the antic parts of the episode.

Opening the mind’s “context box” starts with simple, believable ideas. Most people realize that there really isn’t a sponge wearing pants and a tie running around at the bottom of the sea, Lepp said.

“Ahhhh,” a girl sighed with disappointment.

“I know this is crushing to some,” Lepp acknowledged.

Continuing the lesson, he emphasized this: “Get your audience going along, ease them into it, and they will believe you.”

The believable to unbelievable pattern is found in classic tall tales, also known as folk tales. Classics such as the tales of lumberjack Paul Bunyan start out with his name and profession, then lead into the fact he’s 60-feet tall and has a giant blue ox named Babe.

Tales like those of Paul Bunyan give people a chance to boast about their homes and lives. Rather than tell straightforward and not terribly interesting stories about themselves, they created tales of exceptionally interesting people.

Paul Bunyan was “kind of a marketing tool” for folks in the logging industry. Princeton students who want to boast about their school to Bluefield kids would be wise to follow the Paul Bunyan example, Lepp said.

“You don’t want to tell them about ‘Princeton Patty.” Two-feet tall, thick glasses, body odor and can’t spell,” Lepp said.

Instead, talk about Princeton Patty, Princeton High’s super athlete who wins all the games and takes home all the academic prizes in her spare time. The story becomes a way to brag about yourself.

American folk tales are instructional, too. Anyone who hears the tall tales of Paul Bunyan comes away with a good idea about how lumberjacks lived.

“You know what they ate, what they wore, how they got logs to the sawmill and what happened to the logs when they got there,” Lepp said.

Lepp’s stories are for fun rather than instruction.

“The moral of one of my stories would be ‘Don’t lick moving trains.’ If you’re not cognizant about that, there’s not much hope for you.”

Telling tall tales runs in Lepp’s family.

“My brother Paul, who has since passed away, he won the Liar’s Contest. Won it six times,” Lepp said. “I just figured I could do that, and that’s how it started.”

And now the next generation is taking up the task of tooling up and telling tall tales. Lepp’s seven-year-old son Noah recently won the 17 and under portion of the Liar’s Contest in Charleston this year.

— Contact Greg Jordan at

Recommended for you