How to Tell a Fairy Tale

How to Tell a Fairy Tale in 5 Steps (Oral Storytelling)

Have you ever wondered how to tell a fairy tale? In a classroom for children? At a special occasion for adults? I teach courses in storytelling and in this article I share with you how you can start telling the fairy tales you love.

Step 1: Find a fairy tale you would love to tell

A fairy tale you love
I love telling coastal tales from where I grew up

Disclaimer: In this article I use the word ‘fairy tale’ loosely, meaning any story that has been a part of the oral tradition.

It all starts with a fairy tale you love. 🥰

Obvious, yes?

Now, it might be that you find it funny, touching, inspiring or infuriating. That’s ok, as long as the fairy tale does something to you.

In normal life you tell stories because you want to tell them. The same is true of telling fairy tales.

Where to find fairy tales for telling?

You can find fairy tales for telling in three places. First, in yourself, the stories you already know. Second, in other people, the stories you hear them tell. And third, in the ‘story world’, think books, movies and even old cassette tapes.

The fairy tales you already know

Think back to your childhood. What are the old stories you remember? Maybe they were fairy tales, folk tales, religious stories?

And right now, what are the stories that have stayed with you? What are the fairy tales that light a spark in you?

There is a reason that you remember those fairy tales.

💡 Start making a list with the fairy tales you know. During the week you will remember more and more of them that you can add to this list.

The fairy tales you hear from other people

The best way to find a story you love is by listening to somebody telling it. Live, with real people.

I want to give you two ideas:

  1. Do you personally know any older people who are good storytellers? Ask them to tell you old fairy tales and folk tales.
  2. Find out all about storytellers and storytelling organizations in your area. Start visiting, start listening.

❗ Always ask permission to tell a story you have heard somebody telling you.

The fairy tales in the big wide story world

Dive into the fairy tales on this website. Or check the YouTube videos on my channel where I tell fairy tales in 2 minutes.

Recommended!

💡 The local library is your BIGGEST friend.

There are a lot of tales to find online, but don’t underestimate the libraries. They often have an extended section with folktales and fairy tales collections.

If you ask me with which book to start, I will tell you: Favorite Folktales from Around the World by Jane Yolen. It gives a good overview of folktales and fairy tales. Almost all fairy tales and folktales in this book are excellent for telling.

Looking for something more specific? Check the Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library [link to Penguinbooks]

Good news and bad news about finding fairy tales

The bad news… You will need to read and get to know a lot of stories to find the stories you want to tell.

Most storytellers estimate that they read 100 stories to find 1 they really like.

Don’t give up hope though!

There is also good news. It sounds a bit strange, but you will realize it when it happens:

💡 Storytellers will tell you that often you don’t find the story, but the story finds you.

Step 2: Get to know the fairy tale inside out

So now you have found a fairy tale you like to tell.

But how to remember it? Your biggest fear might be that you forget half of the story when standing in front of your listeners.

The secret is knowing the fairy tale inside out.

Let me take you from images to structure to characters.

What are the images in the fairy tale?

We tend to think that fairy tales are pages of words and sentences. And that we need to memorize the story word for word. But no!

In oral storytelling we look at stories not as words, but as a string of multi-sensory images, connected by a red thread.

So what do I mean with a multi-sensory image? Think about it like scenes from a movie. But with all the senses involved: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Let me describe such a scene for you:

The little girl stepped inside the cottage. It smelled dirty, not like grandmother at all. The curtains were closed. She could see someone lying in the bed in the next room, but heard no sounds. She shivered and the hairs on her arms stood up.

it could be a scene from your retelling of Little Red Riding Hood

Can you see this image when you close your eyes?

Now every time when I tell this story, I use different words to describe this same image. I don’t memorize the words, but in preparation I worked with the images.

💡 What are the images in the fairy tale that you want to tell that speak the most to you?

If you find it difficult to see the images in your imagination, it might help to draw them. Make a cartoon or a mural of your fairy tale.

What is the structure of the fairy tale?

Typical structure of a simple fairy tale

Can you see that your fairy tale is a series of images?

Now these images are connected by a red thread. It is the red thread of tension in the story.

Simple stories often have these five phases:

  1. stepping into the story and introduction
  2. introducing the central plan or problem, the moment when we start to wonder how this will end (?)
  3. development of the story
  4. answering our questions on the central plan or problem (!)
  5. ending and stepping out of the story
The Three Spinners in 2 Minutes

Let me give an example with the story ‘The Three Spinners‘:

  1. Once upon a time, there was a girl who lived with her mother.
  2. To be a good girl she needed to spin, but she hated spinning and refused to.
  3. The queen ordered her to spin an enormous amount to save her life. The three spinners came to the rescue, the prince married the ‘industrious girl’.
  4. The prince was so shocked by seeing the three ugly spinners that he decided that his newly wed wife did not need to spin anymore in her life.
  5. They lived happily ever after. She did not spin anymore, and we chuckle together about how the women outsmarted their fate.

💡 Can you see at what moment in your fairy tale we start wondering how it will end? What is the central problem or plan? Where in the fairy tale do we get our answers?

Not every fairy tale has a simple structure like this, but is useful to start thinking about the red thread that connects the images in your fairy tale.

What are the characters in the fairy tale?

By now you have already done a lot of work on your fairy tale. Well done!

A last thing that can help you get inside the fairy tale is to look at it from the different characters in the fairy tale. The people and animals and things who act and have feelings in the story. Look at the characters and ask yourself some questions.

  • What do you feel about each character?
  • Do you understand their choices?
  • How do they look?
  • How old are they?
  • What character would you like to be different?

💡 You do not need to tell the fairy tale ‘as it is’, unless your audience really expects that. There are no final versions of fairy tales. You are free to change characters or endings or… and make the fairy tale your own.

When you tell the tale, you are responsible for your telling. You can’t hide behind a piece of paper! So pay attention to the feelings and thoughts you have about what happens in the fairy tale.

Let the fairy tale grow like a seed

Let your fairy tale take root and grow inside

Choosing a fairy tale is like putting a seed in the ground. Discovering more about the fairy tale and its connection to you gives this seed time to sprout and grow.

The longer you spend time with a fairy tale, the more you will know about it. Most of these things you will never tell to your listeners, but they will shine through!

💡 Tell your fairy tale to your partner or a good friend. Telling it to a real listener is the best way to learn the fairy tale.

Step 3: Prepare the setting and the listeners

Storytelling needs a place where you can listen

Where are you going to tell this fairy tale? It needs to be a place where it is possible to listen.

Listening to a fairy tale requires focused attention, so it’s important that you eliminate distractions.

Think about what your listeners will hear and what they will see. The less distracting sounds and visuals / movements behind you, the better.

Telling the fairy tale to children, teens or adults

Without listeners, there is no storytelling.

What do you know about the listeners that will be there? Their ages, the reason they are there, what they care about?

Where do the listeners connect to the fairy tale that you want to tell?

Something I want you to consider: Nobody complains when something is too short…

Step 4: Tell your fairy tale in the moment

So, you have done the preparations. You have told the fairy tale to a close friend or partner.

Now you will tell it to a bigger group of listeners.

❗ The most important thing I can tell you is to follow the red thread.

There are many things that you can forget and change while telling, as long as the problem/plan in the fairy tale and the solution are clear.

How do you start off a fairy tale?

Follow the red thread of your fairy tale

Don’t start too quick. People need to get used to you. Take some time to look some of your listeners in the eye. Breathe in and out.

Maybe you even want say a few words before beginning, especially if nobody introduced you.

It’s important to remember that your listeners want you to succeed. They love you to be there and to shine. 🙂

How do you tell the fairy tale?

Follow the red thread. And remember: the story consists of images.

You don’t necessarily need to see them yourself during the telling, but by telling what there is to see, hear, feel, taste and touch, your audience will make their own images.

💡 While preparing the fairy tale you might have had many thoughts and ideas about it. Now it is time to *not* think about your telling, but to enjoy your fairy tale with the audience.

How do you end your telling?

Have a clear ending. It can help to decide beforehand with what sentence you will end.

Pause. And wait for the applause.

If it’s not coming, make a little bow.

And only leave when your listeners have stopped clapping. It’s a moment where they say ‘thank you’ to you!

Step 5: Reflect on your telling afterwards

After your telling, take some time to be nice to yourself. To enjoy the courageous thing you did. Even when you know what could have been better!

Be careful with talking with people about the telling immediately afterwards. It makes a bigger emotional impact.

When people come to you to give you their opinions about your telling, remember that feedback is like a present. Some presents get a special place in your house. Other presents you throw away as soon as the givers have left.

If it’s the first or the second time you told this fairy tale, it’s very normal to have many ideas on how it could be better.

💡 As storytellers we say that you need to tell a story at least seven times. It will start to fit you like a well worn shoe. So try to tell this fairy tale often.

Storyteller Rudolf Roos

I hope this article helped you in how to tell a fairy tale. Fee free to contact me here or on my YouTube channel if you have some more questions.

Storyteller Rudolf Roos 🙂


I have two articles I can recommend when you want to learn more about telling stories:

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