The art of story-telling - Story-telling - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


47. Story-telling


Mary Medlicott


The art of story-telling


Story-telling is a live, expressive form in which story-tellers have a number of instruments: voice, facial expression, body movement, eye contact and, where these are used, musical instruments and props. Setting, too, is important and, as in the theatre, arrangement of the venue can also be part of the art.

Voice is the major instrument. Use of it varies enormously between tellers and cultures. Sometimes the emphasis is on an evenly paced narrative style, sometimes more on dialogue and mimicry, for example of animal sounds and birdsong. Some tellers use the actor’s ability to put on different voices; others rely on change of tone and pitch rather more than accent. Ability to draw on dialects is almost always admired. As well as pace, rhythm and dynamics of speech, the story-teller draws on the value of silence. Pausing is essential to give the audience time to move through the mental images summoned by the tale. The length and weight of a pause is as vital as in music.

Use of facial expression and body movement also varies greatly. Some tellers enact; others recount. Much also depends on venue. In the glow of a fireside telling, voice assumes unique importance; large gestures will seem out of place. In other settings, hand gestures, for example, may play as expressive a part as in the associated art of shadow-play.

With children, eye contact is the aspect which most strongly differentiates story-telling from story-reading. It gives a host of advantages, ranging from the freedom to observe which children are restless to being better able to establish rapport and communicate emotions. Some story-tellers use cloths or interesting objects to focus interest or enhance the story. Sound-making instruments may also be used, either for effects within a story or to punctuate the telling. Where props are used, it is vital to consider the size and arrangement of the audience. Whether people will be able to see is greatly affected by whether the teller sits, stands or moves about. With children, it is important not to adopt a position which might feel intimidating. For seated tellers, a low seat is often ideal and, considering the arm movements that may be used, a stool is often preferable to an armchair.