The first Storytelling Technique is Step into the Story. Let’s look at three aspects of this. First of all, we need to step into the roles of the characters in our story. Secondly, we need switch between the different roles as we tell the story. Finally we are going to look at how to narrate from within the story. Let’s first look at the characters in the story. Each story has several characters, and by stepping into their roles, you will make them come to life for the kids.
Discover the Dialogue
We start by looking for spoken words and dialogue in the story. Any words that are spoken will reveal some kind of emotion of the person. How we say things reveals more about our message than the words alone. Let me show you what I mean with the word ‘no’.
How we say things adds so much to the story. When Bible stories are told or verses from the Bible are read aloud, often people say the words in a boring kind of way, without much expression. But when you look at the stories in the Bible, you can see that in real life the words must have been said quite differently. Pay close attention to words in the stories that reveal more about the conversations in the Bible, and you’ll see that there are many clues as to how people said the words.
Genesis 42:7 – As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them.
Genesis 45:1 – Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!”
Luke 4:33 – In the synagogue there was a man possessed by a demon, an impure spirit. He cried out at the top of his voice, “Go away! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?
Luke 18:38 and 39 – He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more: “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Luke 7:9 – When Jesus heard this, He was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” (All verses NIV, italics added.)
Now look at these verses again and see how the passages change if we were to replace the italicized words with something more general.
‘.. but he pretended to be a stranger as he spoke to them.’
‘Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he said, “Have everyone leave my presence.”’
‘In the synagogue there was a man possessed by a demon, an impure spirit. He said, “Go away! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”’
‘He said, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he repeated, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”’
‘Jesus turned to the crowd following him, and he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”’
If we were to change these words, it would not only change the overall tone of the interactions, we’d also miss out on crucial details that reveal much about the deeper meaning of the story.
When the Bible is not as specific, you can discover a lot by looking at the context of the overall story, and by imagining you were there. I don’t mean that you should make up a bunch of things yourself, but if you really put yourself in the place of the person who spoke, and try to understand how that person felt, you will be able to dig into the story and make tremendous discoveries.
Study the Conversations
Once you have found all the spoken words in the story, dig into the story by studying the characters well.
First, ask yourself, ‘What were this person’s emotions?’ Come up with more than just one word to describe the feelings. How intense were these feelings? Does the Bible give clear clues about these emotions?
Secondly, think about the context of the story. What do you know about this person? Do you know anything about his past, his experiences, his relationships, his life? Are there any stories about this person that tell us what happened before? Does this story connect to any other stories in any way? Do they give more information about where the character is at? What do those things tell you about this person’s attitude and intentions as you look at the words this person speaks?
Let’s look at the story about Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus was a blind beggar. This, of course, is of huge importance to the story. What was life like for him? Did he have any hopes of being healed? As soon as he heard that Jesus was coming by, he responded by shouting loudly, so he must have heard about Jesus before. He knew that Jesus could heal blind people. What did he feel when he heard that Jesus was on his way? How strong were his feelings? How can we tell? Take time to study the character so you can understand him and put yourself in his position. As you do this, you will make great discoveries about the different people in your story, and you will likely discover some deep, hidden truths that will help you understand the story at a much more profound level. It is a powerful Bible study method!
Time to Step in
Now that you have crawled into the story and have gotten to know your characters, you are ready to prepare for the actual telling of the story. Look again at the words that are spoken, and test-drive the words. Try to say them in different ways, and see which way seems to be most fitting. Play with your volume and intensity of how you display the emotion. Are you holding back? Is your voice too strong? Are you bringing the words across in a way that does justice to the story? What body language will you use?
When you step into the story and become a person within the story, you will address someone else in the story. As you are that person, for example Peter, you imagine that the other person, let’s say Jesus, is actually right there with you, and that is how you speak to Him. You look at where Jesus is, and speak as if Jesus is with you in your teaching area. Then you switch back to being narrator, and look at the children again. If you switch roles to Jesus, you physically move to the spot where you imagined Jesus to be, and now you speak looking at Peter, right where you stood when you played his role. In this way you present the conversations as a drama within the story.
Let’s look at an example of a dialog in the story about the Prodigal Son. This is the dialog between the older son and a servant, and then the older son and his father.
There are so many emotions woven into these dialogs! The brother goes from wondering what is going on, to being surprised and then angry. There is a hint of self-pity as he talks about how obedient he has been, he is bitter that he never got a goat for himself, he is disgusted with his brother’s behavior wasting the money, and he is appalled at his father’s choice to celebrate. He says, “This son of yours”, indicating that he wants no personal connection to his brother himself. Anger, self-pity, bitterness, disgust and more anger.
And then there is the father. Dear son…. We are very close…. Everything I have is already yours…. It is right to celebrate… He is your brother… he was dead and has come back to life… he was lost and is found…. The father’s words are filled with love, gentleness, forgiveness, joy, compassion, generosity. Such contrast! As we speak the words of these two different characters, we embody these different characters and bring across all these emotions in how we say these words. Stepping into the characters allows us to help our listeners experience the emotions of the different people in our stories.
Most beginning storytellers fall into one of two categories: the Under-Dramatize-Category, or the Over-Dramatize-Category. Finding a balance between a boring bland presentation and an over-the-top presentation is crucial, but not always so easy. Let’s look at some lines from Joseph lesson 5 – The Brothers Face a Test. Here is the script:
The brothers were very distressed. They said to each other, ‘We are being punished for what we did to our brother Joseph. What is God doing to us? This is terrible!’ And Reuben said to the others, ‘I told you guys! I said we shouldn’t do this! Remember how Joseph was pleading with us for his life? Remember how distressed he was? I knew we should not have done that evil thing to him! Now we have to pay for it!’
How do you think the brothers felt at this point? They knew things were looking very bad. They were desperate and they were scared. They feared for their lives. This situation was very intense. These were real feelings that happened to real people. But often stories are presented in a way that does not bring across the intensity of what actually happened. The words are there, but the meaning does not come across, at least not to the level of how the people most likely experienced it.
So let’s add a double dose of drama. It’s quite easy to present it over-the-top, which will make the kids laugh about it, but too much gets lost when we allow that to happen. Let me show you what I mean.
Very quickly the kids will start to laugh as we overly dramatize the story and make it look silly. But it is costly to do this. The kids will actually miss out on the fact that this was real. We want the kids to realize that these stories are about real people who lived real lives and they dealt with real problems – often huge problems. We want them to be able to see that the people of the Bible were ordinary people just like them, so that they can connect these stories the Bible to their own lives. Unfortunately that won’t happen if we make it comical, and it will be even harder for them to engage with the story at the real-life-level once they have been exposed to the story in this way. Sadly, this over-dramatizing happens a lot. So let’s look at a more balanced way to present the story.
Let your listeners feel the heaviness of the situation. Let them sense the desperation the brothers felt so they will be drawn into the story and connect with the brothers’ situation. Let them connect with the brothers and experience their feelings of desperation first and later great relief when they discover who Joseph is. As they listen and connect the stories to their lives, they will be able to discover how wonderful it is that God also rescues us from our misery, and how forgiveness changes everything. The stories from the Bible are such powerful tools to help us see God’s deep and passionate love for us.
There is no single best way to balance the drama-level in storytelling. It requires practice and test-driving and developing your own style. Watch the children as you tell the story, and their response will provide you with some feedback. If they lack engagement, you probably need to add a bit more drama. If they laugh when it’s actually a serious moment, you’ve probably overdramatized. Don’t hesitate to ask one of your fellow-teachers for their honest feedback, and perhaps you can give other teachers your feedback so that you can help each other grow as storytellers. We have looked at the spoken words in the story, and how to step into the roles of the characters. Switching roles during storytelling requires skill and practice as well.
Coming up next: Switching Roles