This list of activities -- 20 so far -- began in 2011. It is being compiled by Eric Miller. Most of the activities have been
contributed by people on two listservs -- Storytell, and Storytellers
From Eric Miller:
One activity I often begin with is:
Participants go into pairs and, for approx five minutes each, tell each other
something that has happened in their lives in the last 24 hours.
Then the full group reconvenes, and some participants tell either their
story, or their partner's story -- either in the first person ("I did
this"), or the third person ("She/He did this"),.
This activity is a good ice-breaker, both socially and in terms of raising
consciousness about how we are constantly processing experience into stories.
I learned this activity many years ago from Medicine Story, when he did it
with a group I was in at a Rainbow Gathering.
I was amazed by the simplicity of the activity, and remain so.
Another activity I often invite participants to do is:
Participants choose an episode of an epic, such as Ramayana or Mahabharata.
(In the USA, they might choose a fairy tale, but here in India I have found
that more substantial material often comes out when participants choose
episodes of their epics.)
Participants discuss the emotions the characters feel in the chosen
episode. Then they tell the episode,
either as a narrator, or from the point of view of one of the characters.
One variant of this activity is:
Choose a rakshasa (demon) or some other marginalised, sub-altern, or Other,
type of character in an epic.
The tellers are encouraged to develop unique ways of speaking and moving for
I also encourage participants to develop their "Life Stories," and
to keep Storytelling Journals about all of this.
From Richard Martin:
I find ice-breaking is more effective when I have mixed the group up first,
otherwise many just interact with those they have entered the room with,
often friends. Randomly partnering them all off creates an equality, with
most ending up with working with a person they didn't know before.
My easiest way is simply to count them off, telling them to establish eye
contact with their new partner. (This in itself can inject a note of playful
activity and mildly confusing anticipation into the first minutes of a
workshop - helping establish the atmosphere for the rest of the day.)
The only problems are if there are more than about 80 participants and they
are sitting in fixed, raked lecture hall seating - as was the case in
Gothenburg last fortnight. Then even I accept the logistics of random
partnering are too much trouble and they work with those they are already sitting
However, once they have a partner, I concentrate on brevity. For my tastes,
many ice-breaking phases simply last too long, slowing down the atmosphere,
letting the ice re-form. Consequently I go for short, high-energy activities
between partners - without any follow-up of reporting back into the whole
group. I know that is the usual thing and see there are good reasons for
everyone being able to say something at the start to the group. But with
workshops often between 30 and 60 large, I opt for keeping the energy level
high. Moreover, some participants will probably find reporting back to the
wider group still intimidating at this stage.
My usual first activity is a simple one, 60-second non-stop talking.
Partners A begin. The task is to talk turn to their partner (emphasise the
physical turning) and talk for 60 seconds about the topic I'll give them -
but without stopping. Partners B have to turn and support the probable
nonsense being told by good, strong listening behaviour. My stop-watch
comes out, and with an Olympic time-keeper's panache, the first round is
Topics work best if they are essentially comic or paradoxical. My standards
- riding my bike underwater
- getting chewing-gum in my hair
They can offer autobiography:
- the first time I cut my own hair
- the worst present I ever received/gave someone
- digging a hole in the ground
I explain that truth is not a requirement: the more nonsense said, the better
the activity works.
I remember Tim Sheppard once offered "Speed-skating mushrooms" in
relation to something - that is just the sort of idea.
This activity also offers possibilities for the voice-work you mentioned. I
sometimes do a second round and e.g. they talk for 60 seconds with genuine
enthusiasm on "Why I LOVE cleaning windows", with angry jealousy on
"Eating a piece of toast", mournful sorrow at having won the
It invariably works well. All have thrown themselves into speaking in a
non-threatening partner-situation, energy is high, they are mixed up with new
people - and all in five to ten minutes.
From Megan Hicks:
Exercises to help people to drop their self-consciousness and cut loose
orally with personal histories:
I owe the late Julie Portman for these techniques. She used them in her
memoir writing workshops, and oh the creativity that woman was able to
Whenever I'm doing my workshops on finding personal histories, I have the
group create lists of things I know will spark their memories:
new inventions during their childhoods
what the grownups cooked for holidays
pop culture icons
headlines that, as children, they were aware of
...just to name a few
(Note: These are objects or people remote from their daily lives.)
Even the most reticent participants start hollering out items, and I
sometimes have a hard time keeping up with them as I list them out on a
Then, after a sermon titled "Thou Shalt Not Engage in
Self-Censorship," there's a 5-minute speed writing exercise where
everybody writes a paragraph about one of the items in one of those lists and
in that paragraph includes at least one detail representing each of the five
senses. I emphasize that we're not going for timeless prose. Just get it out of
your brain onto the paper.
After writing, and after a sermon about how in this class there will be no
judgments (no criticism, no praise -- because either one can be the death of
creativity), only observations (what I noticed, what I noticed wasn't included),
volunteers read their hastily written paragraphs. After one or two
observations we move on to the next thing. By the time everybody who wants to
read has read, everybody realizes what amazing writers they all are.
If it's a long class -- more than two hours -- and we have time to actually
get into crafting stories, we have a time of writing and focusing on an event
and the outcome of that event -- working on a real story for perhaps 20
minutes. After which people partner up and read their stories to each other.
When everybody is finished reading to their partner and the room is quiet,
with the permission of the writer, the listener tells the rest of the group
her/his partner's story. In this way, the writer gets to compare what was
heard with what was intended. Listeners get the experience of speaking in
front of everybody else and still be out of the spotlight because the focus
is really on the writer.
From Ellouise Schoettler:
When I am working on a new personal story for myself or a class I always
borrow one of Donald Davis's classic prompt lines: "take me somewhere I
can't go if you don't take me."
The first time I did that in one of his workshops I walked into my
Grandmother's house - down the hall to her bedroom - over to her bureau,
opened the 3rd drawer and took out a package wrapped in white tissue - the
long auburn hair she kept when it was too heavy and she cut it off. No one
was more surprised than I was as I told of lifting out that forgotten
Family photographs are also excellent prompts especially when you study them
carefully and ask tough questions of the photo - who took it, what happened
before and after the photo was taken, how old were they, etc - questions to
recapture the people and the moment. Those questions can prompt memories far
beyond the moment in the picture.
From Michael D. McCarty:
Here is a how-to for the Story Bag I use.
THE STORY BAG
A GREAT STORYTELLING TEACHING TOOL
I became a professional storyteller in 1992 and met Kathleen Zundell
(1/1/48-11/5/09) at Community Storytellers, a group she co-founded with Peggy
Prentice in 1981. In 1993 I took a workshop KZ was giving at the El Dorado
library in Long Beach. It was there that she introduced me to the “Story Bag”
as a teaching tool.
In the Story Bag you have a variety of objects, from the mundane (pens,
books, a toothbrush), to the wacky (puppets, noise makers, robots). You
reach into the bag and pull something out. Then create a story that
involves that thing. Simple enough, and it has proved to be very
powerful. I’ve added my own rules. You can’t look to see what’s
in the bag. The object that’s pulled out can be anything that you want
it to be. If you want to focus the stories, you can have objects from a
particular time frame, country or culture.
The first time I used the Story Bag was at a continuation high school here in
Los Angeles. Tough kids in a tough neighborhood. When none of them
would volunteer, I drafted the two class clowns. They had fun with it,
which prompted the class ring leaders to participate. They made up
great stories. I’ve had teachers amazed when a child that rarely spoke
would volunteer and make up a story. From kindergarteners to senior
citizens, the Story Bag has stimulated the telling of tantalizing tales.
Kathleen shared it with me, and I share it with you. Have fun!
From Lynnie Mirvis:
Thank you for your suggestions -- like choosing episodes from those
stories. Wondering about filling in the gaps of those stories:
What happened off the page in the white spaces, between the lines? In
the Jewish tradition, this is called midrash making.
From Eric Miller:
My question is --
How to get into those "spaces between the lines"?
Perhaps have participants imagine life experiences of characters
(even beyond the story at hand)?
Am thinking a good way to approach all of this might be to work
tangentially -- with fragments, such as story- and character-
related smells, colors, emotions, body movements, etc.
From Karen Chace:
Four activities --
by Karen Chace, Dec 2011
Imagine you are a newspaper photographer. You've just come upon a scene in
your story. You pick up the camera; look through the lens, focus and click!
Describe the picture you just took.
Where are you?
Who is there?
Describe the landscape.
What do you smell?
What do you feel?
Describe the weather?
Describe one of the characters in the scene. What do they look like?
What emotion did the camera capture on their face?
Describe their body language/gestures.
by Karen Chace, Feb 2012
The process not only requires the students to think about the setting and
characters in their stories but also reinforces alliteration. In addition,
the game will access a variety of learning styles on the Gardner's Multiple
Intelligences Chart: Kinesthetic, Verbal-Linguistic, Interpersonal and
• Bring in two large bowls. Fill them
with plastic alphabet letters A-Z. You will find these in most toy stores and
you will need two sets.
• Place one set in each bowl on two
separate chairs in the front of the room.
• Divide the class into two groups; line
them up in a straight line.
• The object is for one student from
each group to run to the front of the class, reach into the designated bowl
and draw out a letter.
• The student must then choose two
descriptive words that begin with that letter and relates to their story.
For example: If the student is working on the story of Little Red Riding Hood
and the following letters:
• B they might say "brown
• G they might say "green
• W they might say "wicked
• Or they could say two completely
separate words that begin with the letter but aren't directly connected. For
Example: Using the folktale The Three Little Pigs and the select the letter
"P" is chosen they might say "pigs and puff."
Once they finish their descriptive phrase they drop the letter back into the
bowl, run back and tag the next student in line who repeats the process. The
team that finishes first wins the Alphabet Soup Story Relay!
For a variation on this game purchase two sets of plastic numbers from
1-9. Place those in separate baskets and set up the relay teams. Each student
runs up, picks out a number and must name the same number of things
associated with their story i.e. names of characters, details of setting,
descriptive phrases or words, whatever comes to mind. You could also forgo
the relay portion and just have students sit in a circle and take turns
selecting a number and sharing that number of details about their stories.
8c) What's Driving Your Story?
by Karen Chace, March 2011
This is a writing activity. It may help to clarify the sequences of
events in stories.
This activity uses driving a car as a metaphor for telling a story, for
listening to a story, or for being a character in a story.
1. Is the driver alone or did they bring someone along? Name the
characters in your story.
2. What did they pack for the trip? Name two things in the story,
it can be a person, animal, place or thing.
3. What happens as they drive down the story road? Write one turn/event
that happens in the story.
4. Describe two things you see, hear, touch or smell as you travel
through your story.
5. Write about a second turn/event that is driving the story.
6. How does your story/trip end? Write one sentence describing it.
8d) Character Creation
by Karen Chace, March 2011
This is a writing activity. It may help tellers to visualize the
characters and understand their emotions in stories.
1. Choose a character and scene from your story. Think about what
is happening at that time to the character. How are they feeling at that
moment? Are they happy, sad, mad, etc. Draw their face using the
emotion you have chosen.
2. On one arm write a word or words that best describes the emotion on
3. On the other arm choose a few words that describe their body type
(tall, short, skinny, heavy, etc).
4. On one leg write a few words or sentence that describes how they
walk (hunched over, eyes down, etc).
5. On the other leg describe how their voice sounds when they speak
(high, squeaky, deep, scary, etc).
6. On the straight line for their body, describe with written words a
gesture they might be using at this point in the story.
From Fran Stallings:
For start-from-scratch beginners I often start by asking duos to tell
each other WHO told stories to YOU? Sometimes all they can remember is
recorded media (includes print) until they recognize kitchen-table telling as
a valid precedent. If the group is small, I ask for brief reports from
the listening partners. If large, a show of hands: heard from parents, other
family members, teachers, etc. I can comment that our lifetime
listening experience plants the roots for our own storytelling.
For personal/family workshops I have a printed list of memory joggers similar
to Megan's, headed "Tell Me About--". Participants scatter
and find new partners to exchange 3min (timed) memories about something on
I also have a box of small objects (pinecone, shell, playing card, barrette,
screwdriver--about 60 items) which I spread out on a long table.
Participants take an item to a new partner and exchange anecdotes about which
the item has reminded them.
But after several of these scrap-collecting exercises, we have to go
deeper. Reconnect with one of those partners for help in figuring out
WHY this episode stuck in your memory? Off-the-wall mythic or psychoanalytic
suggestions can be offered...sometimes the teller is amazed at the relevance.
This is important because listeners expect a story to have a POINT.
What did you learn? Where did it take you? etc.
Then we're ready to work on grooming one of the scraps participants have
retrieved. More exercises.
From Eric Miller:
I am realising that two areas in which I am yearning
for activities are those that help workshop participants:
A) to express and discover themselves, and (near-)effortlessly
B) to get deeper into the stories and characters they are
By the way: As I type, I am hearing (via WBAI radio online)
an oral verbal game being played as part of the 17 Nov
Occupy Wall Street festivities in NYC:
Each person in a circle is giving a different ending to a
sentence, beginning with
I pray that ...
When hope comes back, he will ...
This is a type of exercise, I am recalling, that is often
done in creative writing classes, such as:
When I was a child, I used to love to go to ...
My favorite thing to do is to ...
When I was growing up, the relative who most
believed in me was ...
Also by the way: I have read two books by Jack
Zipes about his storytelling work with children:
_Creative Storytelling: Building Community,
Changing Lives_ (1995), and
_Speaking Out: Storytelling and Creative Drama
for Children_ (2004).
Three storytelling workshop activities described
in those books are:
Introduce a random object, and come up with ways
that characters of stories respond to that object.
At any point in a story, change the story by asking
"What if?" For examples,
What if Cinderella had not left her slipper on the staircase?
What if Snow White had refused to eat the poisoned apple?
Doing this generates alternative storylines.
Mime a character physically interacting with a number
of objects in each scene of a story.
Anyway, please keep the activities -- ice-breakers and
others -- coming!
Please also mention articles and books in which such
activities are described.
From June Barnes-Rowley:
As each participant introduces themselves they say their name and that is the
only true thing they say about themselves. Everything after that in
their self introduction has to be a lie. It’s fun and often hilarious.
To get the ball rolling I will start it off with some fantastic story about
myself. On the odd occasion when someone gets stuck for ideas is too
inhibited to enter into the game I give that person the option of simply
saying their name and the group creates their background for them.
From Nick Smith:
Oddly enough, I just used JB’s technique on someone. I am MC’ing our
Tellabration this coming Saturday, and one of the tellers hates giving info
for introductions, so I nudged her by making up an outrageous background for
her and threatening to use it…We began bouncing ideas back and forth, and she
started participating in the crazy bio.
From Richard Martin:
Alliterations is another good one for groups up to 20 or so, combined with
name-learning. Stand in a circle, I state my name and an imaginary
occupation or animal - using the same initial letter: “I am Richard the
Person to my left says: "He's Richard the rat-catcher, and I am Karin
Next person: "He's Richard the rat-catcher, she's Karin the canary, and
I am Boris the butcher."
From Karen Chace:
As an icebreaker with both students and adults one of the things I use is
Storytelling Bingo. Of course the questions are different for the children
vs. adults but they all include some fun things such as,
* Name the seven dwarfs
* Find someone who can sing the first verse of Jingle Bells and sings it for
* What were the first words spoken on the moon.
* Pat their head and rub their stomach at the same time.
Once, when I did this with teachers I told a story at the beginning of the
session and named the culture/country where the story came from. That became
one of the questions, "From what culture was Karen's story?"
Find someone who plays a sport.
Find someone who has been to a foreign country.
Find someone who has met a famous person.
Each person can only ask another one question. When someone completes one set
of squares (up, down, diagonal) they yell out Storytelling! Of course
the winner gets a prize. The beauty is that it get everyone moving around,
meeting everyone, getting to know a bit about each other. Works like a charm!
From Lynn Ruehlmann:
Here's an activity for helping participants flesh out a made-up story:
The participant states basic information about a character. Then the
other people in the workshop get to ask 5 or 6 questions. The
participant "wins" if he or she can answer those questions.
From Brian Fox:
"Face Dances." The game begins with one partner silently expressing
a clear emotion with his or her entire body, but with an emphasis on facial
expression. The partner then responds silently with a different but related
expression. This is passed back and forth a couple of times. As time and
interest allow, partners could trade and try other expressions.
For details, please see
From Eric Miller:
These days I am inviting Workshop participants to
develop tellings of five types of stories --
1) Episode of an Epic (from the Ramayana and
2) Fable (a talking-animal story, from Panchatantra
Tales, Jataka Tales, Aesop's Fables, etc).
3) Fairy Tale (European, Indian, or other).
4) One's Life Story (or a section of it).
5) Made-up Story.
My webpage of links to collections of traditional
For making-up stories, I am emphasizing that one could
start with any of these --
Twelve Elements of Story
1) The title of the story.
2) Characters (their histories, thoughts, decisions,
abilities to follow-through on decisions, actions, etc).
3) Characters' ways of speaking.
4) Characters' ways of moving.
6) Time (continuous, or jumps, flashbacks?).
7) The storyline (also known as, plot) -- in one sentence.
8) Objects in the story.
9) Sensory Elements in the story: Smells, Flavours, Colours,
10) Emotions in the story (for the characters, the teller,
and the listeners).
11) If the story is being told by a character in the story:
Who is the Narrator, and what is his/her Point of View,
Tone of Voice, Attitude, and Style?
12) Point (theme, meaning, moral, message).
As a way to get participants thinking and journaling,
I am liking this "end-the-sentence" exercise,
When I was young, a person who encouraged me was ...
When I was young, a food-cooking process I enjoyed was ...
If I could wish for any one thing, it would be ...
In the Warm-up process, I am inviting participants to
(as we stand in a circle) lead the group in repeatedly-
and-rhythmically enacting gestures-and-sounds representing
emotions, animals, and characters of the stories with which
participants are working.
I am still feeling a need for additional thinking/imagining/
writing exercises that somehow approach story-making and
storytelling sideways, tangentially, or in parts. Activities
that give practice in aspects of telling, that utilise various
story-making and storytelling "muscles."
From Mary Grace Ketner:
This is something I've done several times, and perhaps it could become a
story-making activity in a workshop for telling fairy tales and other
traditional types of tales; that is, where the tale is known but you are
grappling for a way to make it your own:
Find a song or poem that reflects the story in some way.
For example, maybe "hair--long as I can grow it, my hair" might
reflect Rapunzel. Maybe "Got along without you before I met you
gonna get along without you now," or "I can do without you/better
off without you" could pass through the mind of Ivan before he thinks
better of it and goes to Koschei's castle to rescue Marya Moryevna.
Maybe a nursery rhyme even reflects the facts of a story: All the kings
horses and all the king's men couldn't put Mr. Fox together again.
Those are silly, quick examples, but it wouldn't have to be. One might
even end up not using the poem or song they thought of (I have), but it helps
change the tone of a story so that you can approach it differently.
From Marion Leeper:
This is my all-time favourite storytelling workshop activity, which
I've been doing for years having learnt it, as you do, from a passing
cello teacher; only last week I discovered that it was invented by
Augusto Boal as part of his Theatre of the Oppressed exercises.
I know it as 'the Clay Game'. Work in partners. One person is the
sculptor, the other person is the clay. Sculptor has the idea of a
character in his head. He sculpts the clay (you need rules for moving
people gently without hurting them) into the posture of the character.
Possible outcomes: the clay/the spectators have to guess what the
character is like/who they are. The clay model has to talk, using an
appropriate voice for the body shape they are in. Or you can have
groups of sculptors, putting a group of clay models into a tableau.
It's a really good game for learning to inhabit the body of a
character, and it generally involves lots of laughter.
Very little children just enjoy putting their partner into absurd
positions (or, in teacher-speak, developing proprioception).
From Eric Miller:
In "Storytelling in Business" Workshops:
Participants could go into pairs, and tell four-minute
versions of each/any of the below to their partners:
"Tell about something that happened in your experience
in the last 24 hours."
"Tell the story of your life."
"Tell the story of your industry."
"Tell the story of your company."
"Tell the story of your department."
Now participants have the chance to get creative:
"Tell a fantasy/hope/dream about what you -- or what a
fictional character inspired by your character (and perhaps
also inspired by other characters) -- might do in the company
in the future. In other words, make up a possible character
and/or project that might occur in the future in the company
in which you work."
If this last story-making and storytelling is done in teams,
the leading characters of the stories will tend to be
Last updated: May 2015.
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