Bringing Stories Alive

Every storyteller has his or her own style which develops naturally as one begins to tell stories to audiences. Whatever the style though, ones job is to help bring the story alive for the audience and to respond to the audience.

The first essential element in bringing a story alive is the enjoying of the story.

Those stories that you enjoy, or that you think have that 'certain something', are the ones that you will most easily be able to bring alive. In fact, if you are not enjoying a particular story, either find a way of enjoying the telling, or don't tell that story.

Most storytellers, play around with details of the story a little as they learn it. If you get into the habit of using the retelling method ( you will find it also encourages you to bring a story alive. Playing with the description of an object or character in step 2 can turn an ordinary character into a really interesting or more relevant one for a particular audience. Playing around with your stories and being playful in your storytelling is not only enjoyable for you, audiences love it as well.

Emotion. Putting an emphasis on expression in your telling is probably most effective way of bringing stories alive. How do you do that?

The easiest way is to add emotion to the telling. Think of how the character/s would be feeling at the time and add that feeling with the voice, face, eyes, hands and body.

A story without feeling is a dead story - not very interesting at all.

Characterisation i.e. different characters can have different ways of talking, standing, sitting, and moving. Little Red Riding Hood will speak, walk, and scream differently to her grandmother and, of course, the wolf. Another easy way to distinguish between characters and add interest is with character's emotional make-up eg. Grumpy, Smiley, Dopey.

Variety of delivery is especially important. As teller you can provide variety by changing tone, loudness, speed, rhythm, silence. This variety can be ordered to provide good pacing ie a sense of the right time to make the right change so that it all adds up to a satisfying whole. This comes with practice and with watching your audience for signs that they are entranced or becoming distracted etc.

Watch other performers or your colleagues tell and decide when you would make a change in one of the above or for when the story has gone too long without a change.

Props can be useful but it is best that they be kept simple so as not to distract from the storytelling or absorb energy and time. They work best when they fit in well with some action or participation in a story. Most of my props are sound effect generators.

Sound effects can be great and are particularly useful for student or audience participation.

Audience involvement is really important. Talking about how the audience can be involved in a particular story might give a list like:
ask the children to join in on the repeating lines of a story
eg"Who's that trip-trapping on my bridge?"
the children can take parts and help act out some stories
eg the pedlar and the monkeys in 'Caps for Sale';
they can provide sound effects
eg frog or drinking noises in Tiddalick;
they can be asked to suggest what should happen in the story next
(be ready for some surprise answers and be ready to improvise if appropriate)
they can become co-tellers with you as conductor
eg joining in with the ritual beginning and ending.

Regularly thinking about how to bring particular stories alive while you are learning with the re-telling method has the added advantage of bringing some of these skills gradually in to your storytelling. Don't forget you don't have to know the story perfectly to be able to tell it. It is far better to tell it, reflect on the performance and improve it next time then not tell it all.

Children in particular want to have fun during storytime. Probably the most important way you the storyteller can add to this is to engender a sense of play. How? Play. Have fun yourself.

It’s interesting to think about how a small group of children ‘play make believe’. Basically they all enter into the spirit of the particular scenario. While they all keep on agreeing to do this they are playing. As soon as one says ‘No. I don’t want to do it that way.’ They have an arguement and play stops until everyone says 'yes' again.

Saying ‘Yes’ to the spirit of the story and the wonderful gifts it contains is essential for playing and good storytelling. Saying ‘yes’ to offerings from the audience is another important part of the balance between total unstructured play and telling the 'exact' story from beginning to end. We can play with this balance and different audiences will need different balances.

‘Impro’ by Keith Johnstone (Methuen) has some really good reading on this and many other aspects of performing.

Warm Ups
Warm ups are important from a number of aspects. Whether we like it or not, we will warm an audience up or cool it down. We might as well do it awarely and achieve the result we want to achieve.

i) How do you warm your selves up to good storytelling?
The workshop game 'All the people who' works as a warm up to action, disclosing, storytelling, having fun, spontaneity.
The 'object stories' work as a warm up to disclosing, interaction with others, thinking creatively, thinking of other sources of stories.
Doing some physical warm up frees up your body for movement.
Doing a voice warm up warms up your voice and allows the use of it's full range.
Putting on your 'costume' or favourite storytelling hat, shoes etc can get you in the right mood. So can just standing watching the children having fun.

ii) How do you warm the audience up?
What do you want to warm the audience up to? I want them to have fun, to pay attention to the storytelling, to be curious, to be creative, to enter into the world of each story etc.

Audience warm ups can include:
your preparation routine,
your props eg my trunk,
a back drop, scenery, costumes, music,
the way you welcome them into the storytelling area,
the way you behave ie the model you set - are you having fun?
your storytelling 'costume' (hat, apron)

How the performance area and the audience are set up can have major effects on the success or not of the show. So, in general:

tell in front of a wall, divider, curtains, or backdrop so that the audience aren't distracted by activity or movement behind you;
set up at the opposite end of the room from the toilets, office, kitchen, and any other noise or traffic;
seat the audience so that their attention is more easily on the telling than on each other. A solid rectangle is the probably the best shape. A horseshoe or circle encourages audience to interact with each other;
sitting on the floor on rugs or carpets gives best visibility and the least noise;
seat parents behind the audience not off to one side so that they won't be a source of distraction to the audience.

Point of View
One way of making a story more interesting for you the storyteller and for your audience is to change the point of view of the story i.e. who is telling the story? Three Billy Goats Gruff for example is traditionally told by the narrator but how would it change if it was told by the littlest billy goat, or the troll, or the bridge or even the Pasture Protection Board, or the R.S.P.C.T. If done in the spirit of the change, this can turn the dullest or the most repeated story into something fresh.

Sources of stories
Stories are everywhere. The most obvious source is from storybooks. In terms of stories to tell rather than read the familiar childrens picture books are not necessarily the best source because the stories are often quite literary rather than oral in style. Collections of folk stories or fairytales from different countries are often a good source of tellable stories. In libraries with a Dewey system they can be found in the 398 section. There are lots of stories and lists of stories on the internet these days. Just do a search for 'folktales' or 'fairytales' or 'stories of ...' and you'll find heaps.

But basically you find stories by reading lots of stories and selecting those that appeal to you. Collections of folk and fairytales are good sources of traditional stories.

You don't have to wait till you've learnt one from a book or another teller. You can make one up or tell the story of one of your experiences or of one of the objects around you.

The object stories exercise is great practice for this. First talk about the object then tell it in the first person. It's good to start this with something like "Hi ! I'm Daryll's jumper." Everyone can do this. It's just a question of practicing in a supportive environment. Asking some one about an object is a good way of getting them to tell you stories. The two most important aspects of the object story are giving the object emotions (expressing them strongly) and creating pictures from the objects point of view e.g. what will a washing machine look, feel, smell like to a football jersey?

Improvising & Creating Stories
You can also make up stories about events that happen, or objects that can be found, in the centre or your children's environment. It may be appropriate to disguise the participants in the story by changing the names to ones that are similar. This may be particularly appropriate if you want the story to work as a lesson or as a way for the child to get over a particular distressing incident. (More info on this technique can be found in 'Annie Stories', Doris Brett; McPhee Gribble/Penguin,1986.)

For more detailed information go to my notes on 'Creating and Improvising Stories for Children'.

It’s Easy
Don't forget storytelling is a participatory art. The more you do it the better you get and the less scary performing becomes.

Don't hesitate to contact me if you would like to ask some questions or would just like some encouragement. Your local Storytellers Guild is also an excellent place to hear other tellers perform, hear different stories, see different styles and to feel like you belong to a tradition that is old as the human race itself. I'm happy to run any more advanced storytelling workshops that you might like to suggest. These can concentrate on specific topics e.g. improvising stories, storytelling for a specific age group, etc.

Summary - bringing stories alive
enjoy the story you tell and tell stories you enjoy
put feeling and emotions into your telling and characters
variety - pace, level, silences
keep props to a minimum and keep them simple
audience participation is really important
warm your audience up awarely
create a good storyspace with minimal distractions
practice - it's easy

© 1998 Daryll Bellingham. One copy of the above notes are available for your personal use for developing your storytelling skills. If you would like to copy, distribute or publish them whole or in part please seek my permission.

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Daryll Bellingham, Storyteller
P.O. Box 5300, West End, Q4101, 
Brisbane, Australia
Tel. 61 (0)7 3846 3135
Mob. 0417 478408

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Last update: 1st, August 2010.
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