In praise of Oral Storytelling (2 of 2)


Another discovery made this week is what I believe to be an innate understanding we (and children in particular) have of story structure.

Often in Tellings I might ask ‘what happens next’? It’s a leading question – an invitation to debate.

When I create stories with children, it’s my job to weave the disparate whizzing thoughts of up to 30 young people into a coherent strand that is recognisable as a narrative. It’s not an easy task.

Often responses that I get might shoot off on a completely different tangent to what I as a ‘storyteller’ had in mind. Anyone used to working in groups will recognise that different agendas pull in different directions. (For instance, maybe I want to wrap up as I’m watching the clock for the end of session, but a 7 year old really wants to explore their favourite zombie superhero character).

But when I pose the question ‘what does the story need?’ the children demonstrate a sophisticated understanding. Events need tying up. Characters need satisfaction of their desires, or discovery of something new. There needs to be some feeling of closure.

So when I embarked on a new experiment with origin stories and creation myths based on Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime Stories @ Jubilee Primary in Hackney this week of working backwards I discovered that the children were the best laboratory to work with.

The method went like this:

  • Take an animal

  • Work out its most distinctive/interesting feature

  • Take those things away

  • Work out how it got them

In playing this by myself I got bogged down in details: ‘but why does Koala really want eucalyptus?’

But in playing the story with 30 children already excited about Shark’s rows of sharp teeth, I found that a) there were myriad possibilities and b) the best ones were the ones we agreed felt true. In using our gut feeling, we concluded stories that felt truly satisfactory.

Finally, it’s worth stating the difference between this laboratory-style exploration (group discussion, play and drama) and solo writing. Individual children’s different stages of writing ability aside – there’s something different between being able to discuss something out loud, embody the characters and hear their words in the atmosphere, and committing thoughts to paper.

Teachers often point out their children’s lack of grasp of the direction of a story – or seemingly random characters or events – that frequently appear in their writing*. But I find that in discussing stories with partners or groups, the children are better able to draft, and make positive decisions.

We often talk about speaking for writing. But I would urge spending time on this important idea-formation period as an exercise in itself before committing stubby pencil to paper.**

*It's also worth giving these stories their due. They're an extremely important part of a young writer discovering their voice. Disclaimer: teachers know this - they, like all of us just want their children to succeed, and also have a desire to read a satisfying story!

** The children are writing their responses to our story soon – I can’t wait to see what they come up with!

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