Storytelling Workshop

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 on Facebook.

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 each character. 

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 with.
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 started.
Topics work best if they are essentially comic or paradoxical. My standards include:
- 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 lottery.
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 unleash!

Whenever I'm doing my workshops on finding personal histories, I have the group create lists of things I know will spark their memories:

favorite toys
new inventions during their childhoods
what the grownups cooked for holidays
pop culture icons
pop music
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 blackboard.

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 treasure.
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.


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 --

8a)  Story Snapshot
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.

8b)  Alphabet-Soup Story Relay
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 Visual-Spatial.
    •    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 basket."
    •    G they might say "green grass."
    •    W they might say "wicked wolf."
    •    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.

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 their face.
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 the list.
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
working with.

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 rat-catcher.” 

Person to my left says: "He's Richard the rat-catcher, and I am Karin the canary."

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 you.
* 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?"
Other questions:
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
Mahabharata, mostly).
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
stories is .

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.
5) Place.
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,
Textures, etc.
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
composite creations.





Last updated: May 2015.


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