Monday, April 2, 2012


The first law of storytelling ...
Every man is bound to leave a story better than he found it.
Mrs. Humphrey Ward
Storytelling encompasses so much that it defies an easy label. The telling part of the term touches on its most manifest aspect: but it also includes listening, imagining, caring, judging, reading, adapting, creating, observing, remembering, and planning.
Jack Maguire
Storytelling is one of the oldest and most natural of human activities. We are all storytellers – when we tell a joke, when we talk about our day around the dinner table or when we recount the plot of our favourite movie. This unit provides you with the skills necessary to become a storyteller.

Two videotapes, Storytelling with Caroline Fehler Bauer, provides many valuable hints about the art of storytelling, and The American storytellers series, provides an opportunity to view professional storytellers. A variety of storytelling styles and different types of stories are demonstrated.

Storytelling comes to us from the oral tradition. Originally, all knowledge was transmitted orally. Storytelling was one of the major ways that information was passed on from generation to generation. Whether the setting was a castle, a church, or some rough hut on the edge of the woods, it is not hard to imagine a group of people gathered around the storyteller and listening intently. And while children were certainly present when stories were being told, they were often not the primary audience.

Over the centuries, storytelling has been used in a variety of ways. Long before the advent of recorded music and radios, storytelling was used as a way of passing the time while doing repetitive work such as spinning or sewing. Parents and grandparents both used storytelling – as a way of entertaining or calming (grand)children or even putting them to sleep.

Storytelling differs from reading aloud in two key aspects:

  1. Storytellers do not display a book while telling the story.
  2. Each story telling experience is different – even if you’re telling the same tale. Reading aloud, however, is more fixed or static as you read the same words each time you present the story.
Whether the storyteller changes the story each time it is told varies from culture to culture around the world. For example, Inuit storytellers must tell a story exactly the same way each time the story is told. On the other hand, Zuni storytellers are expected to embellish their stories or the audience will be disappointed.

Storytellers form a unique bond with their audiences. Not only must storytellers convey the plot of the story being told, but they must also take their audience right inside the tale and convey a sense of actually being there.

A decline in the art and practice of storytelling occurred after World War II for a number of reasons. First, the rise of literacy and mass publishing undermined the role of the traditional storyteller. The introduction of television simply hastened this decline. Second, changes in the family unit affected how often family members were exposed to storytelling. As families moved into urban centres, the links with the older generation, typically the keepers of the oral tradition, were often lost.

Finally, the explosion in children’s literature that began about 30 years ago has had both a negative and positive impact on the art of storytelling. Writing down a story often changes it dramatically as written language differs significantly from spoken language. Furthermore, once a story is written down, no one has to remember it anymore. On the other hand, today’s storytellers are able to mine a rich vein of stories because others took the time to collect, record and publish the stories.

Storytelling is once again part of our culture. It is now a vibrant and exciting art form. And we understand – thanks to the writings of such diverse scholars as Carl Jung, Bruno Bettleheim and Joseph Campbell – that the stories told in traditional folk, fairy tales and myths still have much to teach us.

Ironically, even though today’s children are bombarded with visuals – in textbooks, picture books, television, video games and so on – many believe that modern children are losing their powers of imagination. Storytelling for them is often a unique experience as they learn how to make pictures in their own heads.

How to choose a story: sources
The oral tradition consists of two types of material: inherited stories and life stories. Inherited stories include traditional stories such as myths, legends, and folk and fairy tales that are passed on within a cultural group. Life stories focus on people and their experiences – as individuals, or members of a family or tribe. Life stories are powerful – teaching many lessons and becoming the glue which binds a group together. Finally, a third type of material is now being created and used. Many contemporary storytellers weave together a variety of threads – from both traditional sources and more contemporary sources – to create a new kind of story.

You will undoubtedly read many stories before you find one that you feel comfortable telling. Traditional stories such as folk and fairy tales, legends, and tall tales are all good sources of storytelling material. You’ll probably find many anthologies in your library’s collection. Look outside your own culture for interesting variations of inherited stories.

Children are always interested in stories about other people – perhaps you can tell a life story. Focus on telling about one incident from the life of a famous person, or you may be able to tell a story from your own family’s experiences that suits your purpose. Ballads and narrative verse are suitable for telling to older children.

If you choose a folk, fairy tale, legend, or tall tale you can usually find a simplified version of the story in a picture book. Reading that simpler version will help you to fix the basic plot in your mind. But do not use that version to tell your story.


  • Read several versions of the same story. You may find one that you feel quite comfortable re-telling or you may wish to combine several different versions and create your own new version.
  • Avoid most simplified versions of legends. These picture books, which are aimed at younger children, tend not to adequately convey the sense of wonder found in these stories.
Look for the following characteristics as you read stories:

The story should

  • Have a single theme
  • Have a well-developed plot
    • Opening
      • Is brief
      • Sets the scene
      • Introduces the main characters
      • Arouses anticipation
      • Then plunges directly into the action
    • Middle
      • Has lots of action
      • Shows a logical progression betweens incidents
      • Keeps any explanation/descriptions brief
      • Avoids subplots, flashbacks, digressions
    • Ending
      • Resolves the conflict and eases the tension created in the story
      • Leave readers feeling satisfied

  • When choosing stories to tell to children, match your story to the listening, not the reading ability of your audience. Remember that children’s listening skills are usually more well developed than their reading skills.

Literary folk tales
You’ll also need to pay attention to the style used in the story. Be wary of using “literary” folk tales since these often require extensive memorization to reproduce the author’s exact words. Many of these authors/collectors of traditional stories, recorded them in fairly formal language which doesn’t translate well into an oral style.

Authors/collectors of literary folktales include
  • Hans Christian Anderson
  • Rudyard Kipling
  • Andrew Lang
  • Charles Perrault
A story that is suitable for telling will have the following characteristics:

  • Employs an oral styleo Contains more dialogue than descriptiono Paints vivid word pictureso Uses rhythm and repetition
  • Shows effective characterizationo Characters should be believable ORo They may represent qualities* E.g. goodness, evil, beauty
  • Contains dramatic appealo A good story is a “drama in miniature”
  • Appropriate for listenerso 3-5 years old* Like rhythm and repetition* Simple, direct plots* Clear and simple images* Action that quickly builds to a climax* Satisfying endingo 6-9 years old* Shows peak interest in traditional folk and fairy tales* Look for variants from other cultures* Legends, hero tales and tall tales are suitable* Ballads and narrative verse can also be used
Consider the age of your audience when choosing a story.

You’ll want to avoid stories with any of the following elements:
  1. Side issues, didactic morals
  2. Unfamiliar words
  3. Too many details
  4. Over explanation
  5. Too much introspection
  6. Satire
It will take time to find the right story for you. It’s important that you find a story that matches your personality and style. Choose a story that “suits” you; one that speaks to you in a very personal way.

Then you must live with the story until the characters and setting are your own. Your goal: tell the story like a personal reminiscence – something that you would like to sharer with your friends.

How to learn a story
There is no one right way to learn a story. The method or methods you choose should be based on how you learn new material. Ask yourself some questions:

  • Do you learn best by imitating others? Then you’ll want to watch other storytellers in action and begin copying them. Of course, over time, you will develop your own style of storytelling.
  • Do you learn best by memorizing? Then you’ll be most successful if you learn your story by listening to it and reading it.
  • Do you learn best on the spot – by improvising? Then you should focus on putting the story into your own words.
  • Do you learn best by drawing pictures? Then you’ll learn best by drawing a storyboard that outlines your story.
  • HINT As you learn your story you also need to focus on your purpose. Why are you telling the story?
    • Is it to entertain or to educate your audience?
    • What mood do you wish to create?
    • What response are you expecting from your audience?
    • What word pictures do you want them to see?
    • What do you want to share about the story?
      • E.g. its humour or nonsense, or its sense of wonder or beauty?
A Useful technique
Breaking the story up into individual scenes may help you learn the sequence of the story. As an example, here is the story of Little Red Riding Hood broken into individual scenes:
  1. Red sets out to deliver her goodies
  2. Red meets Wolf
  3. Wolf runs to Grandma’s house and eats her
  4. Red distracted in the woods
  5. Red encounters Wolf in Grandma’s clothes
  6. Wolf eats Red
  7. Woodsman rescues Red and Grandma
  8. All three eat cake
  9. And they all live happily ever after ...
Other ways to learn a story
  • Prepare a story mapo Divide your story into its beginning, middle and endo Describe in point form what happens in each section
  • Tape the storyo Lets you focus on the words and your delivery of themo But, remember that the tape will show all your vocal imperfections
  • Test yourselfo Write plot without referring to story
  • Tell the story to a family member or friendo Ask for constructive criticism about your presentation
  • Read the story before you go to sleep, while riding the bus or doing other tasks
  • Type or write out your storyo Compare your version with your source material

  • Pay close attention to the beginning and your ending
  • Study the beginnings of some folk and fairy tales. Note how, despite using different words, they all accomplish the same thing. For example, the traditional “Once upon a time ...” works because it immediately transports us to another time and place.
Stories also end in a variety of ways. Be sure that all the threads of your tale are tied up, before you signal that your story is over. The traditional “and they lived happily ever after” is effective because it provides a sense of closure to the story. Different cultures use different types of endings. A personal favourite is an ending used by Swahili storytellers who say, “If the story was beautiful, the beauty belongs to all of us; if it was bad, then the fault is mine, who told it.”

The Use of props
Beginning storytellers often wonder if they should include a prop when they tell a story. The advantage of using a prop is that it gives you something to hide behind while making your presentation. You know that your audience’s attention will be focused on the prop for at least part of your story. However, some storytellers find that the prop is just one more thing to worry about. They prefer to concentrate on the story and its presentation.

Props can include the use of
  • Costumes, either full or partial
  • Puppets
  • Stuffed animals
  • Masks
  • Chalkboard/white board
  • Flannel board
Make the story your own
Once you’ve chosen a story you’ll need to read it several times:
  1. Begin by reading the entire story, noting it’s overall effect.
  2. Read it again, focusing on the characters:
    1. Become familiar with characters and scenes
      1. What are they like?
      2. What motivates them?
      3. What conflicts are they involved in?
      4. Are they clever? Kind? Greedy? Vain?
    2. How are they dressed?
    3. How do they speak?
      1. Quickly – in short sentences?
      2. Or more slowly in longer sentences?
  3. Next, turn your attention to the structure of the story as you read it again:a. Focuses on what happens in the story. In what order?b. Where is the climax?
  4. Finally, read it for a fourth time, concentrating on the setting(s):a. Visualize the individual scenesb. Take a walk through the storyi. Imagine the sounds, tastes, scents, coloursii. Observe the characters – what are they doing?c. Key – see the story vividly
  • Resist the temptation to memorize the story
  • Instead, focus on learning the story, so you can recreate it for your audience
  • The exception:o Do memorize your beginning and conclusiono Do memorize any catch words or phrases that are repeated in your story
Common faults encountered when telling a story
Telling a story is like any kind of public presentation. You’ll want to avoid the following:
  • Speaking too quickly
  • Speaking too slowly
  • Speaking too softly
  • Speaking with too high a voice
  • Lack of eye contact
  • Using distracting gestures
You’re on – the presentation
The time has arrived and you’re about to tell your story. But, before you begin, make sure you have done what you can to control your environment. Many public libraries have a separate storytelling room. This is an ideal situation as it allows you total control over your environment. If, however, you are telling stories close to the book stacks, you need to minimize the interruptions as much as possible. Consider –
  • Arranging for someone else to answer the telephone
  • Turning the intercom down/off
There are a number of techniques for preparing children to listen to a story:
  • Light a story-time candle. At the end of storytime, have the children make a wish and then blow out the candle.
  • Ask the children to close their eyes and imagine the setting of your story.
  • Use music, either taped or live as way of setting the mood.
  • Briefly introduce the main character OR some aspect of the plot.
Before you start
  1. Place yourself so that your audience can see you.
  2. Get your audience ready to listen to you.
  3. Call up the essential emotions in the story.
  4. Breathe deeply.
The Presentation itself
  • Start presentation with an intimate toneo May introduce source of story or leave for the end of presentation
  • Begin story with dramao Instantly transport listeners into another world
  • Look directly at your audience
  • Speak in a pleasant, low-pitched voice
  • Speak clearly and distinctly
  • Use your hands naturally
  • Remember your storylineo Do not veer off the path
  • End your story in a satisfying way
  • Acknowledge source of story if you did not do this at the beginning
Storytelling provides an intimate and joyful way of presenting stories and getting children interested in books. Although this unit has primarily focused on telling stories to children, storytelling works well with all ages.

It’s natural to feel nervous when you tell a story. Over time, some of the nervousness will disappear as you begin to take ownership of the story.

Work at developing a repertoire of different types of stories. That way, you will always have a story to suit the audience and the occasion.

Treat each time you tell a story as a learning experience. Take a few minutes afterwards to evaluate what happened and think about how you might change it or improve it for the next time.

But above all – relax and have fun!
Today, we live, but by tomorrow today will be a story. The whole world, all human life, is one long story.
Isaac Bashevis Singer


There is no right way to learn a story. This module contains a variety of techniques gleaned from practice as well as watching and talking to other storytellers. The best way to learn storytelling is to watch others and practice yourself. As noted in the module, it’s important to choose a story you like for storytelling. Then, using the techniques outlined in this module, (the ones that feel right to you) practice with your story until it feels natural to you.

Here’s a list of books about storytelling available. Some of the books also contain techniques for planning story times.

Baker, Augusta and Ellin Greene. Storytelling: art and technique. New York, NY: R. Bowker Co., 1987.

Bauer, Caroline Feller. Caroline Feller Bauer’s new handbook for storytellers: with stories, poems, magic, and more. Chicago, IL: American Library Association, 1993.

Cobb, Jane, complier. I’m a little teapot! Presenting preschool storytime. Vancouver, BC: Black Sheep Press, 1996.

DeWitt, Dorothy. Children’s faces looking up: program building for the storyteller. Chicago, IL: American Library Association, 1979.

Livo, Norma J. and Sandra Reitz. Storytelling: process and practice. Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited, Inc., 1986.

Moore, Vardine. Pre-school story hour. Metuchen, N.J. : Scarecrow Press, 1972.

Pellowski, Anne. The family storytelling handbook: how to use stories, anecdotes, rhymes, handkerchiefs, paper and other objects to enrich your family traditions. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1987.

Pellowski, Anne. World of storytelling. New York, NY: Bowker, 1977.

Sawyer, Ruth. Way of the storyteller. New York, NY: Viking Press, 1962.

Shedlock, Marie L. Art of the storyteller. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1951.

Tooze, Ruth. Storytelling. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1959.

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