Preparing to tell - Story-telling - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


47. Story-telling


Mary Medlicott


Preparing to tell


Preparation involves attending to the story as well as the circumstances in which it may be told, the nature of the event and the kind of audience. Getting to know the story is the greatest challenge and is easiest when the story has been heard and not read. Being able to remember a story that has been heard probably means that the previous story-teller has told it in a memorable way, the words, sounds and meaning already shaped and patterned for telling. With a story found in a book, the work of bringing it to life has to be done from scratch. In either case, preparation involves considering how to make the story your own.

Imagination is crucial and strongly linked with memory. Remembering a story requires making a relationship with it and visualisation, essentially the act of making pictures in the mind, is an important technique. (Significantly, story-tellers in several traditions have often been blind.) The mental pictures on which the story-teller subsequently draws during the telling may be formed from all kinds of information, visual, aural, olfactory and textural. They may also be fed by research.

Another primary technique involves getting to know the story’s underlying shape and structure, a task which is also helpful in identifying different types of stories and their inter-relationships. In America, Margaret Read Macdonald has published a source-book for story-tellers giving motif indexes and guides to tracing variants.

Words are also important. In traditional story-telling, freshness and beauty are important requirements but so is the reassurance of phrasings which sound well settled, honed by time and repeated use. According to Alan Garner, the writer and collector of folk tales, ‘folktale is no dull matter that anyone may touch, but more a collection of patterns to be translated with the skill, bias and authority of the craftsman, who, in serving his craft, allows that craft to serve the people’ (Garner 1980: 10).

The word stock of oral tradition consists of a wealth of phrases, refrains, formulaic runs, dialect words and proverbs and riddles. Alliteration is a frequent feature: ‘There wasn’t a stone but was for his stumbling, not a branch but beat his face, not a bramble but tore his skin.’ Metaphor, too, is common. A person may disappear ‘into the night of the wood’ or run ‘as swift as the thoughts of a woman caught between two lovers’. Also available are patterned beginnings and endings. ‘Crick!’ says the West Indian story-teller. ‘Crack!’ the audience replies. ‘There was, there was not ...’ may be a starter in Ireland. Other starters summon another kind of time: ‘When birds made nests in old men’s beards ...’

Endings soften the return to reality: ‘They lived happily, so may we. Put on the kettle, we’ll have a cup of tea.’ One common Armenian ending reminds the audience of the nature of the oral tradition: ‘Three apples fell from heaven: one for the story, one for those who listened and one for those who first told this story long, long ago.’

Particularly important with children are refrains and chants encouraging participation. ‘Run, run, as fast as you can. You can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man’: chanted or sung, such choral forms are also a peg for memory. Where they have not been handed on, it is worth making new ones. Where research can dig them out, it is good to bring them back into currency, adapted or in their original form.

Bringing stories to life in these ways is something which children can enjoy practising just as much as adults.



Cook, E. (1969) The Ordinary and the Fabulous, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Garner, A. (1980) The Lad of the Gad, London: Collins.

Macdonald, M. R. (1982) The Story-teller’s Sourcebook, Detroit, MI: Neal-Schuman/Gale Research.

- (1999) Traditional Storytelling Today, Chicago, London: Fitzroy Dearborn.

Sawyer, R. (1942/1962) The Way of the Story-teller, New York: Viking Press/London: Bodley Head. Shaarawi, H. (1986) Harem Years, London: Virago.

Shedlock, M. L. (1915/1951) The Art ofthe Story-teller, New York: Dover.

Singer, I. B. (1976) Naftali the Story-teller and His Horse, Sus, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Troughton, J. (1992) What Made Tiddalik Laugh, London: Penguin.

Williamson, D. (1983) Fireside Tales, Edinburgh: Canongate.


Further reading

Colwell, E. (1963) Story-telling, London: Bodley Head.

- (1980) Story-telling, South Woodchester: Thimble Press in association with Westminster

College, Oxford.

Heywood, S. (1998) The New Storytelling, London: Daylight Press.

Macdonald, M. R. (1993) The Story-teller’s Start-Up Book, Little Rock, AR: August House.

Mellon, N. (1992) Story-telling and the Art of Imagination, Rockport, MA: Element.

Warner, M. (1994) From the Beast to the Blonde, London: Chatto and Windus.