Finding and Preparing Stories for Church Story Telling

Characteristics of a good story:

1. A single theme, clearly defined
2. A well developed plot
3. Style: vivid word pictures, pleasing sounds and rhythm
4. Characterization
5. Faithful to source
6. Dramatic appeal
7. Appropriateness to listeners
-Baker and Greene, Storytelling: Art and Technique, pp. 28

Be sure there is drama in the story as well. There should be a situation (a conflict or predicament) building to a climax and resolution in the tale. The conflict can be introduced immediately or foreshadowed to increase the suspense and intrigue. Try to have the audience worry along with your characters and care about what happens next.

"As the suspense of your story builds, be sure to have some comic relief periodically. Approach the climax through ever increasing tension interrupted with periods of relaxation." Hanford, Puppets and Puppeteering, p. 101.

The story has to seem real to you. "Become so thoroughly familiar with it, it is a part of you....Don't just tell it, live it!" Barrett, p. 35

Children respond to sight and sound more than logic and plot. Look over good children's books, or anthologies of stories. Notice how the stories paint word pictures and use the sound and rhythm and repetition of words. In developing and learning a story concentrate on its visual and audio aspects: either assemble it into a series of visual pictures like a filmstrip, or consciously absorb the rhythm and arrangement of the sounds of the words. Repetition and Exaggeration has always been basic elements of story telling.

Even when telling an old a familiar story from the Bible, you must use imagination and all the storyteller's skills to make it come alive. Use your imagination to make the story come alive as you prepare. Give them the story with them...know and feel their emotions...breathe the breathe of life into them, until they become so real to you that you feel like they are people you know. If you are convinced - your listeners will be too.

Developing an appropriate story: Imagination and resources:

Use imagination to create your stories. "Imagination is to paint a picture in the mind, to invent ideas by seeing, because to imagine a thing is to image it." Feed that imagination. "It is reasonable then that the more you see and hear and read and experience and remember, the more the materials you will have on hand with which to feed your imagination. The more you practice the easier it will become." Barrett, pp. 85,86

Bible truths can be made into stories in quite imaginative ways, ways that will cause them to ponder, to apply, to understand their Bible lessons from different perspectives.

Good inspiration for story ideas include the stories of George MacDonald, the Narnia tales of C. S. Lewis, John Bunyun's The Pilgrim's progress, and The Holy war. These men were masters at making Bible teachings come alive. The children's section of your local library is another place for ideas and inspiration in preparing stories.


Sometimes your audience needs to be prepared for the story by giving to them "listening tasks" (listening for certain information, or elements of the story). Perhaps you want them to listen for and respond to a particular word or phrase. Sometimes unfamiliar elements: objects, places, customs, etc. need to be illustrated or explained ahead of the story before puzzled looks or misuderstanding results. Pre-teaching can use a variety of visuals and activities, and can help bring the point into sharper focus.

Making the point...

Our stories must be kept simple and to the point. We are teaching children, with short attention spans, communicating in a story context which can and must add "clutter" to the message, aiming for no longer than 10-15 minutes!

The point should be summarized in one simple sentence. As I have told my son "A good preacher tells you what he is going to say, says it, then tells you what he said - and that is the sermon."

We retain only a tiny portion of that we hear, a little bit more what we read, and most of all that which we memorize. The VBS lesson is actually a combination of the story, the class lesson in their books, and their memory work. I suspect we would be rather humbled at how little they actually "catch" of the messages we aim at them.

VBS Bible lessons have depth and strong biblical content to aid you in your preparation, usually more than you will need for the actual story. But you must boil them down as you study the lesson till your focus is clear and precise. Develop sub-concepts only with strong reasons and make sure they remain subservient to the main message. Much as we wish children would catch the whole story, we must be realistic.

If you feel the prepared material covers too much, or misses the point then please adapt it. It's your lesson. Do however be sure that you look at what the children will be doing in their class workbooks when you are making your preparation. If the story departs too far from the lesson, they may become lost in the workbooks.

Personal preparation...

The story teller must really study the lesson well. You have to "Know a great deal in order to teach a little bit." Barrett, Storytelling: It's Easy, (Zondervan),p. 30, 35

The key in storytelling is to be gripped by the message yourself. When the story has come alive to you- if your relationship with God has been touched by it- that will communicate that the point you are making is important. For this reason it is important that you allow ample time to prepare the story.

The Rotation Model: Idea and Lesson Exchange

Adapting to our audience...

I have observed that our audiences have lost some of the ability to follow a narrated story and see things in their minds. I suspect this is because of TV and other "instant, no-room-for-true-imagination media" and a general dearth of reading and being read to. Storytelling has become more difficult. Our children's attention spans are shorter and more demanding, more sophisticated, yet less able to independently imagine or visualize abstract truths. They seem to need more visual stimulation.

Hints on your audience: * They can't concentrate from a distance- take the story as close to them as you can.
* They can't concentrate for long periods- keep it brief and simple- especially for younger children. The secret is in your preparation- the last step of preparing is trimming all unnecessary or distracting details- paring down to the heart of the story.
* Children learn with their senses. They love to feel, smell, touch and listen and see vivid pictures. Describe the characters and settings vividly, help them sympathize with the character's feelings.
* They are fanciful and imaginative. They love pretending! There are no bounds to their imagination, once it is tapped.
* In a mixed audience, try to aim your story at the younger ones!
Children at different stages of development have different needs: "Youngest listeners respond to rhythm and repetition, simple direct plots in which familiarity is mixed with surprise, short dialog, clear and simple images, action that quickly builds to a climax and a satisfying ending....6-8 year olds have a peak interest in traditional folktales and fairy-tales. Through the story content they work through their inner fantasies and come to terms with the "real" world....9-11 year olds enjoy more sophisticated folktales. They are looking for something that will appeal to their developing power of reason and judgement and to their concern about competency. These children enjoy hero tales, myths and legends....11-13 year olds are experiencing sexual awakening and are involved in a search for personal identity. They are ready to appreciate the development of plot, the beauty of language and the deeper meanings that lie behind the words." -Baker and Greene, Storytelling: Art and Technique, pp 28-30

"Pre-school children understand you literally. They don't distinguish clearly between fantasy and reality....For younger elementary children, going to school, making friends, enjoying creating things, struggling to be persons in their own right, and handling the tension between being safe and taking risks dominate their lives." They need role models and affirmation as persons of worth....Older elementary children are trying hard to master and control reality...competition is uppermost in their minds." -Coleman, "Maximizing the Children's Sermon",Leadership -Winter 86, p. 83.

© 1996 Barry McWilliams
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