Principles of Story Telling

I became involved doing VBS story-telling, started thinking about our methods and did some further study on storytelling as an art. I discovered that when our style of storytelling was at its best, it was because we had maintained some of the basic principles of storytelling, and when we flopped, often we had failed to follow one of these principles. Knowing and applying these basics will strengthen your lessons and Bible stories.

  • Introductions
  • Delivery
  • Attention keeping,
  • Conclusion.

    Some Basic Principles:

    Introducing the Story

    ... Your introduction is crucial. "You will win or lose in the first three minutes depending on how you begin." Barrett, p. 38. You have to create your "audience" out of a group of children each with his own thoughts and focus of attention before you can tell your story to them. There should be the promise of exciting things to come, their curiosity aroused, uniting them in anticipation. Don't give everything away in the introduction. Always keep up a certain level of mystery, anticipation and surprise through out the story. Don't forget to deliver it by the end however.

    I often try something dramatic or mysterious to gain attention.

    Some cautions are needed here:

    * The introduction must not overpower or obscure the story.
    * Once you have gotten their attention (any storyteller with experience knows when he or she has that), then don't linger with the introduction - proceed into the substance of the story.
    * The best story tellers keep their props, plots and costumes simple and provoke their children's imaginations to the maximum. In fact, the masters of the art need no props at all. They can create everything with their words.
    * We as adults tend to underestimate children's ability to accept imagination or fantasy as such, and sometimes make too much effort trying to justify our "scenario" or explain its details. Actually the children delight in trying to figure out the implausible aspects of the story afterwards. That's fine - you have their attention and they are thinking about what you are saying.
    * Sometimes, once the story has actually started the costumes and gimmicks become irrelevant and "invisible".


    Barrett's hints concerning delivery include: Salesmanship, sincerity (Don't try to fake excitement, happiness, sadness. Be earnest!), whole- heartedness, enthusiasm (This does not mean artificial or noisy excitement), animation (in your gestures, voice, facial expressions) and most importantly being yourself. Finer points include emphasis, repetition, transition, pause and proportion. We should keep in mind the principles of effective public speech, even in telling a child's story. I recommend Storytelling: It's Easy, Barrett or Storytelling: Art and Technique, Baker and Greene for further explanation on these.

    Some attention keepers...Many factors affect the attention of your listeners. A storyteller needs to be sensitive to his audience and may need to regain their attention before continuing.

    * The running "joke" or pratfall. This finds the children paying careful attention waiting for the expected laugh.
    * The "throw away sentence" or digression. Like the "rural storyteller", you "digress" with an offhand remark that perks interest.
    * The gimmick. Costumes or object lessons can include a number of these.
    * Involvement or participation. Use volunteer(s) from the audience in your story. Or have the audience participate in hand motions or making sound effects.
    * A distinct change in your pace, voice, or mood.
    * An unusual or unexpected twist in the narration. Use different voices describing dialog between different characters.
    * "Never state a fact if you can bring that fact to life!...Make them real. Make them come to life!... Plunge into your story with glee, and don't leave out the fun." Barrett, p.87


    We want our message to come through clear and well defined. Our objective is to communicate the Bible truth in a personal way with a clear application. However you do the story, make sure that they get the point! Don't take for granted they got it. Make it as real as the story. Barrett says not to give it in "a let down voice and dreary summation. Leap into it, with the same intensity as the story....pick one point and drive it home quickly, as if it were the most exciting news in the world." p. 49.

    * Apply it personally with a up-to-date, where-you-are-at twist.
    * Keep it simple and direct!
    * Once you have made it-stop! Don't ramble on. If you are using a costume character, exit quickly without the drama and flourish with which you came. Leave their thoughts lingering over the point that has been made.
    * Don't feel you have to explain everything and tie together all loose ends. Let them go away thinking about what has been said.


    The more you practice- the more skilled you will become. Don't be afraid to try different methods. Be creative. As you do learn from your experiences. Expect to flop, the best of us do. Don't be overly self- conscious. Don't be afraid to be a clown or a fool for Christ's and the children's sakes.

    Humility, love and prayer are important elements of storytelling along with creativity and innovation. Children get more than the story from you - they need to catch your personal excitement about the message. They need to see you have been touched by it as well. Prepare your heart as you prepare your story.

    © 1996 Barry McWilliams
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