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Tools of the storyteller

Tales good for telling

Shaping the story

Final Polish and feedback

Telling the tale


Voice, sound, and language

Make sure your voice is loud and clear. Try different breathing exercises to have the correct support. Stretch, yawn, shake, laugh, loosen up the muscles necessary for the best voice production.

Try to use vivid but clear language that paints word pictures for listeners. Remember that the listener may only hear the words once, so the words must be memorable.

Practice the art of the pause: to create suspense, to underline an image, to invite a laugh. Play with sounds from the story: of nature, of doors closing, of a monster’s growls, anything that lends itself to a sound effect.

Props, music, and audience participation

Adding music — a melody, a sound, chant or beat — to certain stories is a great idea. If you are lucky enough to play an instrument, see if you can use it in your telling. Practice simple songs and chants that could enrich a tale. Find easy percussion instruments to use.

Props both fancy and simple can help some stories. Consider an Asian prop, try a familiar puppet or toy, or use your imagination to create something new from boxes, yarn, paper, anything. If you will be telling to young audiences, consider some type of audience participation: a song or chant that audience can sing, a phrase or gesture for them to repeat, some actions for them to mime or act out simply.

Gestures, repetition, and more

Experiment a bit with gestures, but don’t feel that you must use big actions if you feel too shy. Each story offers various possibilities for gestures, and each teller has her own approach. Some people are very dramatic and use their whole body in telling, others use mainly their faces or hands. There is no right way, so try various actions and find ones that seem natural for you and for your story.

Remember that repetition is a fine tool to use, in the right story. One can repeat a phrase, gesture, word, chant....

The inner tools of imagination, concentration, and visualization are crucial; these develop with time. A sense of humor and of timing is helpful, they will also grow with practice.

All tellers have different strengths and tools, you will find and develop your own. Flashy technique is not needed, however, just a good story and a good heart. Indeed, two very important tools of the teller are warmth and sensitivity.


Choose the right material

Traits of tellable tales

In choosing a story, look first for one that you like and which will appeal to your listeners. Then decide why it appeals to you, for this will help you to learn it. Is it funny or scary? Does it remind you of another country? Do you like the characters? Here are some other things to consider when you look for a good story:

limited number of clearly drawn characters

a plot that moves steadily on

pleasing language and possibilities for sound effects or music vivid images

elements of suspense, humor, drama, surprise, or pathos.

Types of stories

As you consider tales, remember to use family stories. If you like to create, you can make tales to tell. For many tellers, the field of folklore provides endless material. The types of tellable tales vary from short endless tales and anecdotes to rich myths and epics. Here are a few of the most popular Asian characters and story types; each world region has a similar storehouse.

TRICKSTERS: Birbal and Tenali Raman in India, Judge Rabbit and A-Chey of Cambodia, Sieng Mieng of Laos, Sri Thanonchai of Thailand, Monkey from China’s classic, Journey to the West, the fox and badger among many in Japan, Kanchil from Malaysia and Indonesia.

FOOLS: Foolish in-laws, children, officials, couples, gurus and priests, even towns of fools — all make great stories to share.

TALL TALES: Many Asian storytelling traditions include stories of unbelievable misers, of super strong men and women, of lazy men, and of strange animals, weather, and more.

HERO TALES: Listeners learn so much about a culture through hearing about its heroes, from all walks of life, like Phu-Dong Thien-Vuong or the Trung sisters from Vietnam; the different bandits, scholars, and fighters in Chinese lore; the more modern Jose Rizal of Philippines, and so many more.

SCARY STORIES: The range of strange creatures across Asia is a long one — from Japan’s oni, tengu, and yamanba to Sri Lanka’s raksha. Vengeful spirits, helpful ghosts, and everything in between can be found.


Refine the form

Everyone remembers a story in a different way; use your strengths to help you. If you are a visual learner, then map out the tale, draw scenes, or see it as an inner video. If you learn well by listening, then tape it and play it repeatedly, or read it aloud. If you move to learn, act out the tale and mime the setting. While you are learning the story, you will also be shaping its form. You might drop excess wordage or weak images while adding more places for dialogue, gesture, etc.

Consider the range of storytelling tools

Soon you will have in your mind and memory a version of the story that works for you. Now you can add the final polish to the story as you consider the following types of suggestions.

Find words that appeal to varied senses, and that truly paint word pictures. If telling from another culture, consider a few words from that language.

See if a sound effect or two will enrich your telling. Explore the possibility of character voices. Add a pause at times, and check that the rhythm of the telling is suitable.

Try out a gesture or two to define a character or to sculpt the setting for your audience.

Consider adding repetition of a sound, word, or phrase: for emphasis, to build drama, to stretch out a scene, or to add humor.

Use a beginning that hooks your listeners and an ending that leaves them satisfied.

Decide if music or a prop could be added, or if audience participation would enrich story.

Final Polish


Now that the story feels about right, tell it to a good friend, or into the tape recorder. Before and after you tell to others, use this list to (gently) critique your telling.

Is the story plot clear? Is tale told without hesitation?

How is the opening? Does it interest listeners? Is the closing strong enough and appropriate for the story? Is the story about the right length?

Is there descriptive language? Are there enough (but not too many) details?

Is there a place for a pause, to create suspense or to quicken interest? How is the timing and the rhythm of the told story?

Could character voices be used? Should more dialogue be added? Does voice share feelings at times? Does it have interest: with changes in volume, texture, pitch, inflection, etc.? Is speech clear and easy to follow? Are sound effects used well?

Are gestures/ expressions — of face, hands, whole body — used? Do they add or distract?

Is eye contact made with audience? Is teller sensitive to listeners’ responses?

Is repetition used — of gesture, phrase, word, sound? Could it be added?

Is there any audience participation: a question asked, a song sung, a clap shared? If music or props are used, do they help story or simply distract the listeners?


Prepare yourself

Before you start telling to an audience, check the setting. Dim the lights, if possible. Have audience close to you, perhaps on the floor. Try to reduce background noises. Put up decorations and make the setting attractive. Create an atmosphere that is comfortable and inviting. If time allows, plan for a snack for all to share after the telling.

As you prepare to tell, relax! Remember that getting up to talk in front of a group is a challenge. To calm nerves try deep breathing, laughter, a pep talk, a good stretch, or a quiet moment thinking about the story.

Respond to the audience

Know that the audience is on your side. They do want to hear a story, and they are not judging you. Even if you make a mistake or two, they won’t mind. In fact, they probably won’t even notice unless you make a big deal and stop the story or start crying! If you’re telling to very little ones who love to talk, too, find gentle ways to quiet them with a look or a gesture, so that you can finish the tale. Be sensitive to the audience, pause slightly when they laugh, look for friendly faces to return to, and watch for restless signals that the story is getting a bit too long. Relax and enjoy yourself, then start learning your next story....