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Cross-curricular ideas: Storytelling

Why ancient Greek and Roman myths are a great resource for storytelling.

Ben Haggarty, International Storyteller, explains why ancient Greek and Roman myths are a great resource for storytelling.

Mythical stories, as seen in Titian's Diana and Actaeon, are prime candidates for spoken word performances as they were retold orally for centuries before there was a written version.

The history of the myth

Classical Greek and Roman mythology was written down during a period of more than 1,000 years. The earliest Greek myths are thought to date from at least the 8th century BC.

These stories were evidently in oral circulation for many hundreds of years before being recorded, and aspects of some tales are possibly even thousands of years older.

During these periods of early civilisation, only a minority of any population were literate and stories continued to circulate, change, adapt and evolve, both in written and oral form, well into the early Christian era.

No 'correct' version

It was not unusual to have more than one version of a story in circulation, each with contradictory events or storylines. And fragments of one myth could be woven into several stories. So there is ultimately no 'original' or 'correct' version of the story.

We cannot even assume that an older version of a particular narrative has greater status as a primary source than a later text, because of the continued, concurrent, oral circulation of the story.

Focus on emotions

The aim of a contemporary storyteller is to be clear and entertaining, so that the ancient story still has an impact on contemporary audiences. This is best achieved by focusing on the emotional truth of a story.

Human beings at all stages of their history and on all continents share basic human experiences such as desire, love, loss, betrayal, transgression, separation, jealousy, grief, anger, revenge, fear, laughter, joy, reunion and triumph.

Focusing on the emotional drama of a tale offers an audience something they can recognise.

Storytelling uses the spoken word – the improvised words of our daily speech – rather than the recited writing of poets and actors.

The plot

The essence of the story is not the words, it is the action, the 'what happens', the plot.

In composing a clear story from a mass of separate fragments, each teller has to make a series of creative choices and then abide by them. For example, deciding to follow one version of a character's story rather than another, will have consequences.

The back story

The first thing to do is to assemble the source materials and find out what happens in the story. Then, by digging into the 'back stories' of various characters, you can discover more about why they respond as they do.

This leads to searching questions, such as what previous critical events have moulded their characters.

Next, the storyteller has to deconstruct the material, separating it into its various strands.

What to include?

Then the storyteller has to recombine the elements, and decide what version of the story he or she is going to tell.

At this point it is necessary to start making choices, what to include, what to omit, which names to include, which to leave out.

After you have made your decisions, all the material has to be harmonised and synchronised. Where does the story really start? Who is it about? What is it about? What am I trying to say when I tell it? This preparation can be called 'deep structural composition'.

It is always worth chatting the story through with others (several different audiences, several different times), letting them act as your ears.

They will help you enter into the world of the story and, observing their expressions of puzzlement, delight and interest, you will discover where the drama lies.

By using direct speech for a character, you can explore the story through that person. However, too much direct speech can lead to bad acting and slow down the overall pacing, as direct speech takes place in real time.


Storytelling is essentially improvised – there's no 'text' to remember, just 'what happens. Enter the world of the story… and play. It may become 'real' – infused with energy.

The entertainment lies in where you place dramatic emphasis: for example, with which protagonist does the storyteller want the audience to sympathise?

The very last thing to find is the language – nothing contrived or alienating. Rather, an engaging vernacular that can nevertheless stray into something more formal, heightened or poetic when such expression is warranted by the tale.

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