ORAL STORYTELLING Story Versus Telling


In this 3-part bi-weekly series, storyteller Chip Colquhoun shares many of the key lessons authors can learn from the art of oral storytelling.

The first article in this series explored how the practice of oral storytelling can help writers read their work aloud in ways that are sure to enthral every audience. And I say “every audience” with utter confidence, because as an oral storyteller I see it happen all the time.

As an example, a boy in a class of ages 9–10 once interrupted my story before it had even begun by loudly exclaiming, “If it’s not football, I’m not interested.” And yet, by the end of my Arthurian legend, he had gasped, smiled, and joined in all the actions as much as all his classmates.

But with this confidence arose a great danger – one I only came to realise when my reputation as an engaging oral storyteller for children came to the attention of The History Press. They commissioned me to write a collection of folk tales for children from my home county of Cambridgeshire, the result of which became my first published children’s book. 

Knowing it had been my oral storytelling that won me this contract, I wrote the stories for the book almost verbatim as I told them orally. One of the stories is a particular favourite of my live audiences, always prompting joyous laughter before moving listeners to tears. Here’s an extract from the beginning of this story, as included in my first book:

By the start of the 20th century, several Fenmen had started working on steam trains.

      For example, Jim Nightall was a fireman. Nowadays, firemen put fires out, don’t they. But on a steam train, Jim’s job was to keep the fire burning – to power the engine! If you asked Jim how long he’d been a fireman, he would say, “I've been a fireman for seven years!”

A couple of months after the euphoria of the book launch party had subsided, I happened to open the book at that page – and I know I’m in danger of stifling my sales here, but I have to admit my immediately thought was, “That’s awful writing! 10-year-old Chip wouldn’t have read that…!”

Honestly, the book isn’t that bad; the story’s great once you get into it. But that was the problem: to get into it, you had to go through me.

With oral storytelling, as mentioned previously in this series, I felt like the secret of my success had been captured in an Edinburgh Fringe review that had said, “It felt more like a conversation than a performance.” The conversation allowed listeners to feel they were telling the story with me, rather than just having it told to them – and that was the key factor that got them invested in the experience.

But that wasn’t working on paper. Why not? Why was something so powerful in an oral medium suddenly useless in a written one? More importantly, was there any lesson from oral storytelling that could improve my writing?

To find the answers, I looked to the history of why we started telling stories in the first place...

Why We Tell Stories

According to the Ashanti tribe of West Africa, we tell stories because Anansi the Spider asked Nyambe, the god who kept all stories in the sky, to share them with the creatures of the Earth. Nyambe only granted Anansi’s request after the spider completed a series of seemingly impossible challenges, such as capturing a swarm of hornets with stings like fire.

Plot aside, that Ashanti story is a fantastic example of why humans began telling stories: to explore the fact that life is challenging, and provide encouragement that those challenges can be overcome. But there was something important about who overcame those challenges too...

Because he’s a spider, it may seem obvious to us that Anansi should catch the hornets by building a huge web. But the Ashanti Anansi is more human than spider, and thinks up a far more human solution: drenching himself with water to mount a convincing argument that a great storm is coming, and encouraging the aquaphobic hornets to take refuge in his gourd.

Ancient stories like this convinced me that Anansi would not have become such a legendary figure had he simply caught the hornets in super strong and sticky silk. Humans couldn’t solve a problem in that way, so the story would have been useless. Fun maybe, but not worth remembering the next day, let alone passing to the next generation.

It’s there in every legend. Even Hercules, for all his might, can’t just rely on his superhuman strength and stab the hydra in the heart. He has to chop off innumerable heads before realising that some mental agility is required, at which point he figures out the trick of scorching the necks immediately after each decapitation.

Likewise with my Arthurian legend that brought around that football fanatic: Sir Gareth, the focal knight of the tale, actually began that story as a regular kitchen boy, who needed to prove he was worthy of joining the knights of the round table – not by being mighty, but by being loyal and brave. He did something any of us could do.

Ultimately, I realised that the oral storytelling tradition began as a survival skill: a means by which community elders would help their kin develop the critical thinking required to survive and thrive in dangerous environments. Storytelling was an essential element of our evolution.

Nowadays, most of us are lucky enough not to face existential threats on a daily basis. But pretty much all of us still experience threats to our mental health – especially today’s children and young people. And that’s why absolutely everyone will connect with any story – so long as it contains all those essential components. So...

What Does a Story Need?

Not ‘a Beginning, a Middle, and an End’ as my primary teachers used to like to say. If beginnings were that important, Shakespeare would be in trouble for skipping the set-up to practically all his plays; and as for endings, the lack of one doesn’t seem to have harmed the popularity of Coronation Street

But those letters, B and M and E, can help us identify the common elements of every engaging story of old...


B is for "Bad Thing"

We’re all writers here, so I won’t bang on too long about this. We all know our stories need problems – though perhaps realising how this is tied to the role of stories in humanity’s survival can help us to pay it a bit more attention…

M is for "Message"

...because the story shouldn’t just present the challenge, it should give us belief that the challenge can be overcome. This is true even for tragedies, which often highlight the mistakes that led to the disaster – the message being, "Avoid those mistakes, and your life will be happier than these folks."

Probably the most important element, though, is...

E is for "Empathetic, Effective Main Characters"

By this, I don’t mean that the MC needs to show empathy. Rather, we need to empathise with them. Whatever bad thing happens to the MC, we need to understand how it would feel for us – and, more significantly, we need to feel the solution they reach is one we could reach as well.

That’s why Anansi couldn’t rely on his thread, why Hercules’ superhuman strength never meant an automatic win, why the knights of the round table had to trust in more than their sword and jousting skills.

At the same time, though, there’s no point us empathising with the MC if all they do is watch from the sidelines as another solves the challenge for them. Where’s the Message in that? Deal with the bad by being lucky enough to have a more clever/skilful friend nearby?

Ultimately, the Message in the story should be to help us – so we need to see ourselves in a MC who either survives and thrives, or is sacrificed so that we may learn from their mistakes.


Putting It Into Practice

After gathering these lessons from my exploration into the history of storytelling, I realised what had to happen for a story to engage on the page as much as it did orally: it needed all those elements, B and M and E, to appear as soon as possible.

Here’s a good example from our most recent British SCBWI Crystal Kite Award winner, Camilla Chester’s Call Me Lion:

Even though my trampoline is in the shade, the heatwave makes it too hot for bouncing. I bounce anyway because when you have no friends in the summer holidays there’s nothing else to do.

We’re barely three lines in, and we can already sense all three of our essentials…

  • B: It’s too hot, and having no friends.
  • M: Maybe the best way to cope in a bad situation is to keep going (“bounce anyway”).
  • E: We can all understand how it feels to be young and lonely.

Here’s another award-winning example, this time from Michael Morpurgo and Kensuke’s Kingdom:

I disappeared on the night before my twelfth birthday.

We’re less than a line in, and there are hints to all three essentials…

  • B: Disappearing.
  • M: Actually, it’s past tense – “I disappeared”. This story must end in survival.
  • E: We’ve all been twelve, or (in the case of Morpurgo’s readers) soon will be.

So from that moment on, I resolved to use the B-M-E of storytelling as my yardstick for almost every page of every story I wrote – and definitely page one. Perhaps that’s why the next book I had published by The History Press performed so well that it garnered a second edition.

Why don’t you be the judge? I’ll end this piece by sharing an extract from that second book, and ask you: How well did I do?

King Knut knew the English didn't like him much. After all, his Viking soldiers had killed many English soldiers. But now Knut had conquered the English lands, he wanted to know how to be a good king for them. To learn, he disguised himself as an English farmer so he could get close to ordinary English people.

In the next and final part of this series, we’ll ask: If we’re supposed to think “Show Don’t Tell”, why is it called storytelling and not storyshowing? What can oral storytelling teach us about that elusive “writer’s voice”…?

For a more detailed exploration of the history of story, and how that impacts reader/listener engagement, find Chip's book All the Better to Read You With in bookshops now  illustrated by Korky Paul and published by Epic Tales.

*Header image: In-house collaboration between Ell Rose and Tita Berredo 


Chip Colquhoun began storytelling for children in 2007 and was asked to write the EU’s guidance on using stories in classrooms in 2015. He became a children’s writer when The History Press commissioned him in 2016 to write Cambridgeshire Folk Tales for Children. He’s since had 22 books published, most as part of the Fables & Fairy Tales series he co-produces with illustrator Korky Paul (published by Epic Tales), and is currently working with the National English Hub and the National Literacy Trust to raise the rate of recreational reading in schools. You can find him at storytellerchip.com


Ell Rose is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures.

Find their work at www.fourfooteleven.com.

Follow them on Instagram and Twitter.

Contact them at illustrators@britishscbwi.org

Tita Berredo is the Illustrator Coordinator of SCBWI British Isles and the Art Director of Words & Pictures. 

Follow her on Instagram and Twitter or www.titaberredo.com.

Contact her at: illuscoordinator@britishscbwi.org

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