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The Language of Literature, Grade 8
 
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The Oral Tradition: Storytelling

The Oral Tradition: Storytelling

Today, we have many alternatives to the oral tradition to communicate important ideas and tell stories. Books, newspapers, movies, television shows and Web pages all perform some of storytelling's original functions. But storytelling continues to be a vital art despite these new ways of communicating, in part because stories tell us things about people of other times and places that we can't learn from a history book, and in part because a good storyteller can entertain listeners and capture the imagination in a special way. With some creativity and practice, you can join in this ancient tradition and become a storyteller yourself. The guide below will tell you how.

Choose a story
The first step in storytelling is finding one to tell. You could choose one that reflects your heritage, or a family story, or a story from a culture you want to learn more about. There is an almost limitless store of folktales, myths, and legends from which to choose. To help you narrow the field, follow the steps below.

  • Identify your purpose. Ask yourself why you are telling a story. Is it to entertain a child for whom you baby-sit? To pass on a traditional story? To teach a lesson? To scare your friends on a camping trip? Your answer will help you choose a type of story to tell.
  • Explore different sources. Stories can be found in many places. The Internet and the children's section of your library are good places to begin. You might want to adapt a family story that you have heard many times, or ask an older relative if she or he has a good one to tell.
  • Pick a story for the audience and for yourself. After you have looked through folktale anthologies, fable websites, and your family history, how do you decide which one to choose? The best story is one that is right for both the listeners and the teller. It is the right length—not too long for your listeners' attention span or your memory, not so short that you don't have a chance to get into the story. It fits the situation—it's appropriately funny, exciting, or thought provoking. And, most importantly, it speaks to you—so much that you want others to hear it, too.

Learn your story
Finding a story that you really want to tell is important, because it takes work to learn a story from scratch. To begin, read the tale a few times or listen to a recording of it until you know the main plot points. You can memorize a special beginning or closing, or a dramatic passage if you wish, but don't try to commit the whole story to memory word for word. Instead, use the following techniques.

  • Visualize. Pretend your story is a movie and imagine it in your head scene by scene. Think of the sounds, sights, and smells for each scene. This technique helps you remember the action, and aids you later when you are telling the story because you have a clear image in your mind of what you are trying to describe.
  • Improvise. When you tell a story, it becomes yours. You can embroider or edit it as you wish. The plot points are the skeleton around which you build your tale. Use the mental images you have created to flesh out your skeleton. If your story had a distinctive style—the romantic phrasing of a fairy tale or the humorous exaggeration typical of tall tales, for example—don't worry about recreating it word for word. Analyze your source story to see how it creates its effect. Build up a memory bank of expressions that help you speak in that style, and draw from it as you tell the story.
  • Practice. Of course, the first time you try to put the whole story together, it may be difficult. Tell yourself the story over and over until it becomes as familiar as a movie you saw over and over when you were little.

Tell your story
Now that you know your story, you're ready for the important part: telling it to other people. Remember that your listeners have probably never heard the story before, so help them follow your tale by speaking to be heard and dramatizing the action. The strategies below will make your telling more enjoyable for your audience.

  • Create characters. You are in charge of introducing the people in your story to your audience. Make each character unique by giving him or her (or it) a distinct way of speaking or a particular way of sitting or moving.
  • Pay attention to pace. Storytellers normally speak slightly slower when telling their tale than they would in normal conversation. You can vary your pace when the story calls for it—speed up to show nervousness or excitement; slow down to convey thoughtfulness. And don't try to speak the entire time—pauses can be excellent for building suspense or letting a point sink in.
  • Perform. Look at the pictures of the professional storyteller at the start of your unit. You can almost imagine the tale being told just from the storytellers' facial expressions and body language. As you speak, use your voice, hands and face to make your story come alive.

The Internet has a wealth of storytelling resources, from storytelling guides to collections of fairy tales, folk tales, myths, and legends, to links to storytelling organizations and festivals around the world. Here are a few worth exploring.

Guides

Effective Storytelling: A Basic Manual http://www.eldrbarry.net/ roos/ eest.htm
A storyteller shares his advice on finding stories and adapting them to your audience, and describes how to keep listeners hanging on to your words.

Tell a Story! (A Guide to Storytelling) http://www.aaronshep.com/ storytelling/ Tips.html
Learn some tricks of the trade from a professional storyteller.

Collections of Stories

The Moonlit Road http://www.themoonlitroad.com/
Read and listen to ghost stories from the American South at this spooky Web site. Each story is accompanied by cultural information on the area it comes from and the people who first told it.

Storytelling of the North Carolina Native Americans http://www.ibiblio.org/ storytelling/ index.html
Learn about the storytelling characteristics of three different tribes of Native Americans. The site includes video clips of two performers telling their stories. (You will need RealPlayer to view these performances.)

Storytelling Organizations

National Storytelling Network http://www.storynet.org/
At this site, find information on the National Storytelling Festival, a storytelling listserv, and information on hosting your own storytelling event, as well as links to additional storytelling resources.

International Storytelling Center http://www.storytellingcenter.com/ index.htm
The International Storytelling Center, based in Tennessee, sponsors a National Storytelling Festival each year. Learn more about the festival and the organization here.