Story Magic

by Phyllis McDuff

As life emerged on earth from the primeval slime, there was a group of cells that carried the potential to become human — to transform the jelly blob into the thinking, feeling, dreaming being we call man. These were the storyteller cells.

Man developed differently from ape because he found a way to tell his stories. Through grunt and gesture, sign and symbol he transformed his experience into a story. Listeners learnt not only from their own adventures but from each other. Thus they reached back for generations, bridged gaps between strange cultures along the paths of early trade routes and reached on ahead in landscape and in time.

Stories allowed this ape to know more than his own life span, to see patterns and consequence and to make plans. Stories are the key to strategy. Stories enable creative problem solving.

Since the time of the first story, the history of all mankind has been linked. This has produced that mysterious human intelligence and human spirit which has given this fragile, naked ape, mastery of his world.

As parents we may see our children as fragile naked apes and we surely long to give them mastery of their world. Through offering life-enriching stories we offer them potent tools of conquest. We offer fascination, inspiration, determination and a vast array of viewpoints as the story heroes and heroines overcome their challenges.

Stories are not simply an amusing set of circumstances. Stories are not dry pieces of information. A real story is a potent human experience, which holds universal truths, which impact on our own lives. Stories reveal patterns. They take us to a far, objective viewpoint and at the same time take us close to the emotion of the human in the drama. We safely share the experience.

How can we give these riches to our children?

The powerful storyteller honours three sacred duties:

  • When storytellers have a deep trust of themselves in their storyteller role, offering no excuses, no inhibitions, no distortions, they will tell their stories well. The wisdom of the story will reach the audience.
  • When a storyteller creates a safe place for their story, allocating time, quiet, comfort, reverence then the story comes to life and touches the audience.
  • When a storyteller chooses material that has wisdom value then they enrich their audience.

It is not only the words and actions within the story that create powerful magic. The magic is developed from the teller’s self-belief, reverence for the story and loving focus on the audience needs. This shapes an experience, which the listener may harvest continuously through a long life. How often in our own life’s crises have we remembered advice, patterns, moments of insight given to us in this manner? Our life’s decisions are made under the influence of the stories that we heard.

Regular storytelling followed by discussion of the story, encouraged the listener to think at deeper levels, to look at the evidence of the words from many points of view, to learn to ‘harvest’ information and to balance judgments. When closing a story session with children it is good to ask and to respectfully listen to their points of view.

It is helpful to use open questions, which require a little explanation from the listener. Rather than, ‘Did you like that story?’ ask ‘What/who did you like in the story? Why? Could you do that? What if … had happened? What might have happened then? What were the scary bits? What were the bits that made you happy?’ Thus the story provided not only a bond between listener and teller but a means of self-revelation between members of the group. This self-revelation is ‘safe’. After all, despite strong symbols and connection, it is ‘only a story.’

Respectful listening to varied points of view (eg, What was the scary bit?) introduces this strategy of social skill to the child. It is experiential learning. Respectful listening then becomes part of the child’s social repertoire.

Storytelling invites creative language use. It gives permission for extended vocabulary, fantasy words and sound, grunts, squeals, whispers, moans. These are extreme expressions not encouraged in daily conversations. All this enlarges the child’s communication repertoire. Storytelling invites varied sentence structure; short, long, rhythmic, incomplete. It invites a wide vocal variety; soft, loud, angry, gentle — each with appropriate facial expression. All this encourages the child to share the emotion and to become increasingly articulate in expressing both experiences and needs. It equips the child to influence the world.

Where do we start to embark on this adventure?

Regular reading aloud will teach us how to use our voices, to breathe, to interpret sounds and to explore punctuation. If we choose material we love, poems and stories that had significance for us, our interpretations will become more vital as they carry our emotions.

Material we read aloud will not always be comfortable in our mouths. It was written for the eye and may need some adjustment. Change the written piece to fit your style and skill. Simplify. Edit. Keep it short as reading is exhausting. Keep it slow so that every drop of value is absorbed. Punctuate with meaningful silent pauses so that listeners can catch up and savor the whole experience. Create a reading piece that you and your audience can share and enjoy.

Tape recorders are a wonderful tool to assist our development as storytellers. Initially recording and reviewing our chosen reading piece allows us to hear our voice as others do. Often this is confronting and we need to do this often enough to become comfortable with how we sound. We need to identify those aspects of our voice and our delivery that we enjoy. Self-regard is a wonderful tool to inspire our continued adventure into storytelling. There will be aspects of our delivery that we wish to change. Re-record and change them. Was the delivery too flat? Too fast? Uneven? Was the voice to high? Too soft? Could there be imaginative additions to the script, perhaps some growling sounds, perhaps some raindrops finger-tapping on the window, perhaps a sing song piece?

An alternative to reading is to ‘tell’ from memory and from the heart. This allows us to use eye contact, gesture and interaction. These are restricted when we read as we move our focus from the audience to the page. We gain complete control of these options when we prepare our ‘telling piece’ so well that we know segments off by heart. Recording and replaying is a valuable strategy to help edit and develop ‘telling’ skills.

Trick technology to work for family intimacy rather than for separation as so often happens. Give your child a story tape for the times when you can’t be there. These personal tapes can inspire a child to ‘read’ a story that is otherwise too challenging without the help of the parental presence.

Following this example some children choose to make their own tapes thus becoming conscious of voice and language. Grandparents, aunts and uncles are delighted to received gifts of ‘home made’ taped stories and often reciprocate with story tapes made for their special child.

When developing material look for exciting introductions, strong descriptive language, satisfying endings. One well chosen and prepared piece will teach us all the skills we need to fascinate our children, to inspire a love of reading, to install listening and articulation skills and to encourage creative imagination. These gifts are precious and endure throughout our lives.

Storytelling is an art and although techniques help our self-expression there is no ‘right’ way. There are no mistakes. You cannot fail. Experiment. Enjoy. Laugh.


© Phyllis McDuff

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*

I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.

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* Gloria Steinem