A manual for beginners
by Barry McWilliams
a Word version
the lesson plan
Effective storytelling is a fine and beautiful art. A well-developed
and presented story can cut across age barriers and will hold
the interest and reach its listeners. Stories will be remembered
long after other orations. Knowing and applying the basics
of storytelling will strengthen your stories.
There are many kinds of stories you can work with. It is recommended
you start with simple folktales, with simple elements.
While traditionally stories were learned by listening, the
best source today is the childrens department of the
Public Library - particularly in the section (J)398. There
you will find all sorts of folk and fairy tales, tall tales,
trickster stories, etc. Many stories are on the internet as
well. As you browse, look for stories that "touch"
you. Start with simple stories, then as your experience grows,
be sure to explore and branch out.
With time you will probably find many kinds of tales that
will interest you personally. All sorts to choose from including:
folktales from many countries and cultures, accumulative stories,
droll and humorous tales, traditional fairytales in numerous
versions, wish (magic) tales, trickster tales, tall tales,
myths, legends and hero tales from the sagas and national
epics, animal fables, scary stories, urban legends, Bible
and religious stories, literary stories, pourquoi (why?) stories.
With time and experience you will want to try a variety of
stories and perhaps even branch out into telling your own
personal stories or giving Improvisational storytelling a
And be aware of copyrights, it is best to work with traditional
folklore or tales in public domain, than to plagiarize a living
author or storyteller without their permission. Remember to
give credit to sources.
Characteristics of a good story:
A single theme, clearly defined
A well developed plot
Style: vivid word pictures, pleasing sounds and rhythm
Faithful to source
Appropriateness to listeners
Baker and Greene, Storytelling: Art and Technique, pp. 28
Adapting to our audiences:
The audience has a very important role in storytelling - for
their minds are the canvas on which the teller paints his
tale. Oral storytelling involves much interaction between
teller and hearer. I have observed that our audiences have
lost some of the skills to follow a narrated story and see
things in their minds. Storytelling has become more difficult.
Attention spans are shorter and more demanding, more sophisticated,
yet less able to independently imagine or visualize. People
seem to need more visual stimulation.
Take the story as close to them as you can.
Keep it brief and simple- especially for younger children
- pare down to the heart of the story.
Stimulate their senses so they feel, smell, touch and listen
and see vivid pictures.
Describe the characters and settings, and help them sympathize
with the character's feelings.
Aim your story at the younger ones when telling to a audience
of mixed ages!
Storytelling is a task shared by storyteller and story
it is the interaction of the two that makes a story come to
Once you settle on a story, you will want to spend plenty
of time with it. It will take a considerable period of time
and a number of tellings before a new story becomes your own.
Read the story several times, first for pleasure, then with
Analyze its appeal, the word pictures you want your listeners
to see, and the mood you wish to create.
Research its background and cultural meanings.
Live with your story until the characters and setting become
as real to you as people and places you know.
Visualize it! Imagine sounds, tastes, scents, colors. Only
when you see the story vividly yourself can you make your
audience see it!
Stories paint word pictures and use the sound and rhythm
and repetition of words.
In developing and learning a story concentrate on its visual
and audio aspects:
either assemble it into a series of visual pictures like a
or consciously absorb the rhythm and arrangement of the sounds
of the words.
Learn the story as a whole rather than in fragments. Master,
and then simplify, its structure to a simple outline of scenes.
Don't try to memorize it, though you should always know your
first and last lines by heart!.
Map out the story line: The Beginning, which sets the stage
and introduces the characters and conflict; the Body, in which
the conflict builds up to the Climax; and the Resolution of
the conflict. Observe how the action starts, how it accelerates,
repetitions in actions and how and where the transitions occur.
If simplifying or adapting a story, do not alter the essential
Absorb the style of the story: To retain the original flavor
and vigor, learn the characteristic phrases which recur throughout
the story. Observe the sentence structure, phrases, unusual
words and expressions.
Practice the story often - to the mirror, your cat, driving
in the car, with friends, or anyone who will listen. Even
when telling an old and familiar story, you must use imagination
and all the storyteller's skills to make it come alive. Use
your imagination to make the story come alive as you prepare.
Give your characters personalities...live
the story with them...know and feel their emotions...breathe
the breathe of life into them, until they become so real to
you that you feel like they are people you know.
If you are convinced - your listeners will be too.
Sincerity and whole heartedness (Be earnest!),
Enthusiasm (This does not mean artificial or noisy excitement),
Animation (in your gestures, voice, facial expressions)
Stories are more interesting when there is animation and variety
in the voice of the teller.
Particular Oral Storytelling Skills:
A Storytellers skills include: emphasis, repetition,
transition, pause and proportion.
Dialog should make use of different voices for different
characters and using the Storytelling "V" - where
you will shift your facing (or posture) as the dialog switches
from character to character.
Use your voice to create the atmosphere or tension as the
Use gestures and facial expressions add much to the visualization
of the story. Be sure they are appropriate and natural. Practice
Pacing involves both the volume and rate at which you speak,
and the progression of the action in the story. Dialog slows
a story's pace down, while narrating action speeds it up.
Repetition and Exaggeration have always been basic elements
of story telling.
Experience will hone these skills, and when - and how - to
use them most effectively.
Most importantly --- relax and be yourself.
Develop your own style - one you are comfortable with.
Beginning a story:
Storytelling is best done in a relaxed atmosphere free of
distractions. The audience ought to be comfortable and close.
Candle light and campfires are ideal situations for telling
stories, but often impractical. The teller needs to give careful
attention to the setting before hand - and be prepared to
rearrange a room to bring his hearers closer, or use a backdrop
or hangings to create atmosphere - especially in classroom
settings. Props, costumes, or some getting acquainted patter
may also help in getting and keeping attention and creating
Storytelling traditionally begins with a "Once upon
a time..." opening. and then a storytellers silent
pause to gather his thoughts. The traditional openings, of
which there are many (often with responses from the audience),
were "rituals" that served as a signal that the
teller was suspending "time and space" as we know
it and transporting the audience to a world of imagination
and play. They identified the teller and established the audiences
commitment to accept for the moment that imaginary world and
its "rules". Similar "rituals" also signal
the end of the story and their return to reality. Many adults
today have forgotten these "rules of the game."
There are online lists of Beginnings and Endings.
Some attention keepers:
Many factors affect the attention of your listeners. A storyteller
always needs to be sensitive to his audience and may need
to regain their attention before continuing.
Involvement or participation. Use volunteer(s) from
the audience in your story. Or have the audience participate
in hand motions or making sound effects. Or responding with
"chants" or refrains
A distinct change in your pace, voice, or mood.
An unusual or unexpected twist in the narration.
Throw-away lines or asides work well as does comic relief.
Be especially prepared to deal with disruptions with groups
of children. There is always one or two children that want
the attention. Sometimes you can just ignore it; sometimes
it make take a stare, or a pause till the disruptive behavior
ends, sometimes maybe involving a child in your story - whatever
you do - do not speak harshly or in anger, or you will lose
Once you finish the story - stop! Don't ramble on. Leave their
thoughts lingering over it. Don't feel you have to explain
everything, or tie together all loose ends. Let them go away
thinking about what has been said, and drawing their own meaning
Applause is no measure of the effectiveness of a story presentation.
Sometimes it will be exuberant, but other times the audience
is quietly savoring and treasuring the story. An attentive
audience and the feeling you told it well are
the best reward you can have.
Finally...and most importantly: The more you practice-
the more skilled you will become. Don't be afraid to try different
methods. Be creative. As you do learn from your experiences.
Expect to flop, the best of us do. Don't be overly self- conscious.
Have fun and share the joy of story.
In the end, it is most important that you should tell your
story in your own words with sincerity and enthusiasm and....
Tell stories!, Tell stories!! Tell stories!!!
© 1998 Barry McWilliams