The craft of storytelling
Andrew Wright

These notes are designed to accompany the experience of a living

workshop in which participants try out various aspects of telling stories.
If you would like to take part is such a workshop please click on

TEACHER TRAINING on the opening frame.

What is a story?
Any description which contains an element of drama is a story.  Drama

is essentially ‘responding to problems’.  Stories include:
•    real life descriptions and these might come from your life or

from the newspaper, etc.
•    local legends
•    traditional stories
•    literature eg Roahl Dahl.

The power of stories
Stories are so important!  Stories grip people!  Stories offer a path to

walk along through a chaos of experience.  Stories offer a living
context for language!  Stories offer a mine of content which can set
teachers and students off on all kinds of ‘project’ journeys. Telling a

story well is therefore an important skill for a teacher.  But how to do it?

Telling or reading stories?
Salt and pepper are both necessary for any cook.  They are different.
Spoken telling
Full drama with your body.  Natural opportunity for eye contact.

Personal feeling of giving a story rather than reading somebody else’s

story from a book.  Natural to use English which is comprehensible to

the learners and natural to repeat an idea in different words in order to

make sure it is understood.  Natural to stop and comment on the story as

a person rather than a neutral narrator.  Adapt easily and repeat sections

to help with meaning.
Story reading
No remembering to do. English correct…no worries about that.

Styles of telling
There are as many ways of telling a story as there are individuals and

story telling contexts
Our way of telling is determined by:
The character of the teller and his or her relationship with the listeners
The telling style(s) of the time and culture (listeners commenting is

common in some cultures)
The immediate context of telling (a friend, a class, a noisy party)
The character of the teller (risk takers, outgoing sharers, more reserved)
The nature of the story (funny, moving, action or character)

General principle
Storytelling is art.  In art we must be ourselves but more so.
If you are quiet and shy then be quiet and shy in your telling and

emphasize your quietness and shyness…and it will come over as

strength.

Activity
Think about how people you know tell you about what they have been

doing and what has been happening.  Describe three such people and

their way of telling to a colleague.  You might include people who do

not engage and sustain your interest.

This workshop session on the craft of telling
Nobody can tell anybody else how to tell a story. But we can share our

own experiences and can hope that some of them might be useful in

some way.  In this workshop I will share some of my experience of

storytelling to children and adults during the last fifteen years.
Please note that this set of notes does not include extensive ideas related

to teaching a foreign language.  For suggestions related to choosing,

adapting, presenting and using stories in foreign language teaching

please go to ARTICLES and the click on, Ways of Using Stories with

Young Children.

Some aims for a storyteller
The aim might include:
– speak clearly so that the listener can understand the words spoken but

also to organize ideas so that the listener can follow the story
– express the feelings and ideas behind the story
– create a vivid mental image of what is happening in the minds of the

listener.

Activity
Tell your neighbour in what sort of situations you tell stories or describe

experiences.  And say whether these three aims are:  relevant to you; can

be added to; ones you are OK at or not so good at.

Choosing a story
You must like or admire the story you choose or you will tell it without

conviction.  Of course, you will try to choose a story the listeners will

like but you can never be sure about that.
What mood is coming from the listeners?  If they are restless or

inattentive it might be good to grip them with a modern or an ancient

myth which contains strong emotional challenges and clear actions.
Will they understand all the language?  I think the question should be,

Will they understand enough of the storytelling to enjoy it?  You will be

using actions and perhaps pictures and you will be preparing them…and

you will tell the story several times.  They don’t need to understand all

the language in the story.
You might choose a particular story because it is relevant in subject to a

topic which you have introduced already or want to introduce.

Modifying a story
Modifying the story in order to maximize the chance of the listeners

understanding the story and appreciating the feelings expressed:
– words and phrases
– tenses
– sentence complexity
But don’t remove all the language roughage and produce a pap thin

story.  And don’t remove all the unknown language and rob the listeners

of the development of real listening fluency which means being able to

deal with unknown elements.

Remembering and mastering the story
We all have different ways of remembering and ‘mastering’ a story and

we should make sure we use the way which is most suitable for us! The

proof of the pudding is in the eating!
I, personally, need to write down a gist version of the story in flow chart

bubble form.
I then need to try out the gist of the story without expression on a

friend…just to see if I can remember the basics.
After that I need to tell the story many times before I begin to feel on

top of it.
I never try to remember a story word for word.  This is very difficult and

makes me terrified of forgetting a word and makes it harder to live out

the drama (unless you are a professionally trained actor).
I find it is important for me to see, in my minds eye, the story almost

like a film.

Activity
What sort of rememberer are you?  Tell your neighbour how you have

remembered a number of different things you do know and can talk

about.

Preparing the story
Deciding which key items will be made understandable before the story

and which during the story.
Deciding if you are going to chat about related subjects before beginning

the story in order to produce listening readiness.
Getting together any pictures or objects which I might need.

Preparing the listeners.  Listening readiness.
However good a storyteller you are you can lose everybody if they

haven’t brought their readiness to listen with them.  Here are some ways

I try to increase story readiness by signaling the time and place for a

story session but not calling out, ‘Quiet please! I am going to tell you a

story!  Sit up and pay attention!’
1 Arranging the seating in a different way eg in a semi-circle.
2 Sitting in a place or on a chair or desk corner which they have come to

associate with stories.
3 Adopting a body position which they have come to associate with your

telling of stories.
4 Quietly making sure they are comfortable, not hidden from you, have

nothing on their knees which they might drop.
5 Cueing their expectations with:  a story corner, a story carpet, a story

bag or coat or scarf or box or puppet which they have come to associate

with your telling of stories.
6 Music: perhaps the same music every time you are going to tell a

story.
7  Intriguing them with a story box or other object.
8 Insisting quietly on total silence and stillness.
9  Intriguing them and focusing their minds on relevant content and

language eg through chatting and asking questions.  Has anybody got a

cat at home?  Yes, well I am going to tell you a story about a cat.

Activity
1 Tell your neighbour which of these nine things you do, or what things

you do anyway or which of the things in the list you would feel

comfortable doing.

Sustaining interest
1 Content which is interesting to them eg cats.
2 Dramatic elements: how is he going to try to overcome the

problem…will he succeed?
3 Feelings.
4 Rich language
5 The richness of the use of the voice and body. (see below)
6 Characterfulness and vividness of people, places and objects, etc. you

create in their imaginations.
7 Managing to link the listeners directly with the story, perhaps by a

passing comment on an experience the listeners have with an experience

in the story.
8 Active, explicit participation of the listeners: miming, making

background noises, chanting, repeating key lines, inviting the listeners to

guess what is going to happen next or to say how the protagonist feels,

asking the listeners to listen out for the answer to a particular problem.

Discipline
However hard one tries to carry out the ideas suggested above listeners

can have a strong personal agenda which does not coincide with your

own.  Some listeners need to fiddle around, others need to whisper to

their friends or to poke them or pass them notes or to grin for no obvious

reason at someone opposite to them.
I find it disastrous ever to shout in a story session or ever to show

serious disapproval.  I feel that story telling is story giving and that

warm concern must be the overriding atmosphere.
My way of dealing with behaviour which might distract other listeners

and pull them out of the story is:
1 Increase the dramatic edge in the story in content and manner of

telling.
2 Tell the story directly to the deviant, making strong eye contact.
3 Stand near the deviant and tell him/her the story but loud enough for

the class to hear, of course.
4 Momentarily putting my finger to my lips and looking the deviant in

the eyes but without interrupting the story.
5 Stopping and saying something like: Is he your friend?  I am not

surprised he looks a nice boy.  And of course you want to talk to him

and be close to him but during the storytelling please don’t!  Save it up

until later.  When people like a story they go into it and forget the

classroom and the story becomes real.  But it is real, like a beautiful

soap bubble is real and the story can be broken and disappear as easily as

a soap bubble if you bring us back into the room by doing things like

talking and poking.  So please don’t bring us back into the classroom.
6 Moving the deviant.
But all the other things described in earlier sections are all contributing

to making deviancy unlikely!

How to begin
Various ways to begin:
You might stride into the room and strongly deliver the line, ‘Once upon

a time there were three little pigs!’
You might say the same line only once you have settled everyone and

yourself in the ways described above.
You might begin with a richness of language and a strong piece of

description of character but you might begin with a question or a

problem.
You might begin by seeming not to have begun a story at all.
You mustn’t begin apologetically or with hesitation unless that is a key

part of your story.

Using your voice
The sound of the voice and the sight of body movement are the first

levels of reality…like the quality of oil paint in a Vermeer…like the

quality of instrumental sound in a flute…like the quality of marble in a

Michelangelo.  The voice and the body have been the source of our

communication with each other from the beginnings of our time 4

million years ago.
The human voice can be used in a greater variety of ways than those of

other animals:
Monotone.  Quiet/loud.  Fast/slow.  High/low.  Hard/soft.  .

Flowing/hesitant.  Pause.
Formal/informal.  RP/dialect.  Urgent/relaxed.  Happily/sadly. Etc.
Many people, when sustaining oral description, make use of a near

identical intonational pattern for every sentence, no matter what its

content and potential feeling.  I have heard many students giving

presentations who use the intonational pattern most appropriate for

reading out a shopping list…monotone with a rise at the end of the

sentence…for every sentence!
Of course, we can use variety in our voice just to sound interesting and

that is better than sounding boring!  On the other hand, much better is to

make use of the various characteristics of the voice and delivery in order

to make things clear and to express explicit and implicit meanings.
You will do this according to your personality; some people work within

a narrow range and others a broader range but not to do it at all or to use

a very limited and repeated manner whatever the content

is…monotonous.

Activity
1 Try to say Hello in all the ways given above.  Try to imagine what the

circumstances might be for saying the word in each of these ways.  Do

this with your neighbour.  After a few minutes do some of your ‘best’

ones again for another pair of neighbours.
2 Using several of the above features say the following sentence as if it

is the start of an amazing story: ‘This morning I woke up, got out of bed

and opened the curtains.’
3 Directors and actors study the story and the text and build up a clear

character for the protagonists and a clear set of relationships between

them, for example, some are dominant and some subservient.  Spend a

few minutes discussing the character of Beauty and her sisters and her

father and their relationship and then study the texts below,  from the

story of Beauty and the Beast and work out how the texts should be

spoken in order to convey the character, concerns and relationships of

the protagonists.  Then try it out and take it in turns to be ‘director’ and

‘storyteller’.
‘Now father!’ her sisters said, ‘Make sure you bring us some beautiful

clothes and hats and shoes!  All in the latest fashion, of course!’
‘I’ll do my best!’ he said, ‘And Beauty, what would you like me to bring

for you?’
‘Just yourself, dear father. Have a good and safe journey!’
‘Something Beauty!’
‘Then bring me a rose, father!’

Using your body
Summary
The body can be used to communicate:
– physical appearance
– relationships
– action
– expression of feelings
– expression of abstract concepts
The body may only be used to communicate utter uninvolvement…but

that IS a communication even if it is not the one you want!

General suggestion about using your body
1 Telling a story is art and is heightened life:
– emphasise it (if you raise your hand and open out your fingers to show

surprise…raise it further and open your fingers more)
– do it more slowly than you would in normal life giving time for your

story listener to see and feel what you are doing
– and, if possible, sequence your actions so that you only do one thing at

a time rather than several bits at the same time.
How you move your body is thus natural but more so!  Doing it slowly

and emphasizing it gives people time to see and to perceive and to

reflect.

2 Usually, I think I make my action precede the words which relate to it.

In this way the listener sees, has time to reflect and then (hopefully) has

it confirmed by the words spoken.  In this way the listener feels he or

she has supplied the meaning and the words merely confirm it…so in

this way the listener feels it is his or her story.

Physical appearance: examples of using your body
I am bald but I can show thick long hair hanging over my face by using

both my hands with my fingers open, starting in front of my forehead

and then hanging down over my face by slowly lowering my hands.
I can show a deformed, tense man by lifting one shoulder and elbow and

by letting my head droop forward and my mouth hang open.
I am an ageing man but I can show a smart young woman by lifting my

head and turning my chin, half closing my eyes, lifting one shoulder a

little and pushing out my chest and slowly moving my hips.
I can show a dog by drooping my shoulders, drooping my eyelids,

leaving my mouth open and panting.

Activity
1 Try each of these activities in pairs.
2 Think of a type of person physically, write it down, mime it and ask

your partner to guess what it is that you are miming.

Relationships: examples of using your body
I can show a dominant person by raising my chin and looking down and

slightly sideways as if I don’t even need to bother looking directly at the

other person and raising one eyebrow.  I have a slight sneer on my face.

I gesture with one hand, beckoning with my forefinger.
A moment later I switch to the subservient person by rounding my back,

looking up and slightly sideways and raising my eyebrows  and drooping

my mouth.
I can show a person loving another person and asking him or her to,

‘Come to me’.  Dipping my head on one side, softening my face and

smiling and raising and opening out my hands and at the same time

moving my upper body forwards.

Activity
1 Try each of these activities in pairs.
2 Think of a type of moment of a relationship, physically, write it down,

mime it and ask your partner to guess what it is that you are miming.

Combining voice, words and body
‘Beauty’s father knocked on the door.’ (leaning forwards, head turned as

if to listen more carefully, eyebrows raised as if not knowing what to

expect, and then raising the hand, with the knuckles of the second finger

crooked to knock on the door. )
‘He turned the handle of the door and pressed it open, slowly and looked

into the lobby.’ (Fingers slightly bent, finger ends vertical pushing open

the door, head cranes forwards to look into the lobby, eyes turn as far as

possible to the left and then to the right, at a slightly higher angle.)

Activity
1 Try this activity in pairs.
2 Think of a type an action and plan it with your partner.  Act it out for

another pair.

Expression of feelings: combing voice, words and body
‘Beauty’s father went into the lobby.  Everything seemed to be so

normal but there was noone there and nobody came when he called.’  (If

you are sitting then move your feet forward, slowly, cautiously, lean

your body forwards, turn your head stiffly, precede a turn of your head to

the right by turning your eyes first, keeping your eyes wide to show

anxiety, even fear.)

Activity
1 Try this activity in pairs.
2 Think of a type an action where the feelings are strong and plan it with

your partner.  Act it out for another pair.

Expression of abstract concepts: combining voice, words and body
(The narrator is sitting even when the protagonist stands up)
‘He sat in front of the roaring fire (rubbing hands in the heat of the fire),

waiting for someone to come to him but nobody came (looking over his

right shoulder towards the door).  The supper lay on the table untouched

(looking over his left shoulder).  At last he stood up (slowly leaning

forwards as if to stand up), went to the table (remaining seated but

looking left and pointing with the right hand towards the table),

hesitated for a moment (raised right hand held for a moment) and then

reached into the bread basket and took a piece of bread (taking the bread

and laying it on a plate), then he picked up a knife and cut a sliver of

cheese.’  (picking up a knife and cutting a piece of cheese and lifting it

and placing it on the bread.)

Activity
1 Try this activity in pairs.
2 Think of an abstract concept and plan it with your partner.  Act it out

for another pair.  (Love./ So small…so big!/Beautiful and precious and

so rare./)

Using interaction by the listeners
In order to…show understanding, express feelings and ideas and show

understanding and personal response.
Listeners can:
– comment
– provide background sound effects
– join in with repeated phrases
– be asked what they think will happen next.
– be asked what they would do in the same situation.
– mime

Are you interested in developing your ability to tell stories?
Consider coming to one of my ‘craft of storytelling workshop weeks’, in

Hungary where I live.
Go to the opening frame and click on TEACHER TRAINING.

Copyright or Copy Wright?
If you would like to publish this text or to reproduce it for your students

then simply email me and tell me what you want to do. I am almost

certain to give you permission to go ahead.
Email andrew@ili.hu

6 Responses to “The Craft of Storytelling”


  1. 1 craig January 30, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    I’m very much interested in learning the craft of telling stories would you be kind enough to refer some good books to help with this or where can I go to get help?

    thank you,
    craig

    • 2 Andrew Wright January 31, 2013 at 9:07 am

      Dear Craig My book, ‘Storytelling with Children’ published by OUP has a very practical section in it on the craft of telling stories. And it has a lot of stories plus activities you can do if you are a parent or a teacher…class lesson plans. Of course, working with someone is the best way and last year I ran a workshop with the professional mime Jay Miller on the craft of telling and that was really such a pleasure to do for me and I think it was for the participants…anyway they say very nice things about it. Where do you live? How far are you willing to travel for a workshop like that? Andrew

  2. 3 Noor Akbari Ismail Ali July 11, 2013 at 3:19 am

    Thank you for sharing your notes on the Craft of Storytelling. I would like to request your permission to reproduce your notes for my students who are training to be primary school teachers. Thank you.

    • 4 Andrew Wright July 19, 2013 at 3:40 pm

      Noor! Of course, you can copy them for your students! Please also suggest they buy my three books! Storytelling with Children. Oxford University Press. Creating Stories with Children. Oxford University Press. Writing Stories. Helbling Languages. You can get them all through Amazon.

      Where do you live? Are you a college lecturer?

      Best wishes Andrew

      • 5 Noor Akbari Ismail Ali July 20, 2013 at 6:27 am

        Thank you!
        Yes, I am based in Malaysia. Happy to inform you that I have been using Creating Stories with Children a great deal and have recommended it to all my students. During my sessions with them I often let my students try out the activities. We would also look at how best to apply the ideas when teaching children in Malaysian primary schools and opportunities to develop EL proficiency with these young learners. Thanks again.

        – Noor

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