Narratives - English Oral Literature Notes

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  • A narrative is a story or prose account of people events and places that may be fictional or factual. A narrative is also called a tale or a folk tale.

Classification of Narratives

  • Classifying refers to grouping of stories basing on the shared features like the manner of action of main characters and setting.
  • Narratives are classified into myths, legends, dilemma, explanatory, ogre and trickster.


  • Myths are stories of creation and always involve a supernatural character. Myths deal with supernatural phenomena and origin of people.

Characteristics of myths

  1. Myths always seek to explain origin of mysterious things like life and death.
  2. They don’t have opening and closing formulae.
  3. Myths are always regarded as facts by their community of origin.
  4. Myths refer to things that happened at the beginning of time.
  5. Myths involve a supernatural character like God or gods and spirits.
  6. They are always set in the early mysterious or magical world.
  7. People take myths as sacred or religious stories.


  • These are stories about memorable historical events and people.

Characteristics of legends

  1. Legends are understood to be stories of true historical events and people.
  2. The characters in legends are always given imaginary details or a bit of exaggeration.
  3. Legendary stories are not treated as holy but secular. That is, they talk about heroes and heroines who inhabited earth and such events deemed to have taken place.


  • These are stories which have a character or characters burdened with two moral choices which they must choose but such a decision is usually difficult to make. Sometimes the story ends with a debating question which the audience can debate on.

Explanatory or Etiological

  • These are stories that try to trace or explain the origin of behaviour, both physical and cultural in people and animals.


  1. They seek to explain behaviour of people and animals.
  2. These stories link past decisions or mistakes to present traits in animals and people.
  3. The stories are based on observable features in people and animals but that cannot be explained clearly by the human reason.

Ogre or Monster

  • These are stories that feature a non-human character that is usually grotesque, frightening and evil.


  1. The character in the story is usually a monster that is imagined as an evil creature.
  2. The monster usually interacts with human beings in a destructive way: eating children, swallowing people etc.


  • These are stories that feature a character that plays tricks on others.


  1. There is usually a smaller or weaker animal that uses its intelligence to trick a foolish, bigger and stronger animal.
  2. In these stories, the animal may simply exploit the opportunity that comes its way that others have failed to see or take advantage of.
  3. In other occasions, the animal may be tricked first but later it uses the same tricks or better ones to outwit the other.

Qualities of a Good Storyteller

  1. She should be audible and fluent.
  2. Should be able to use gestures and tonal variations.
  3. He should be creative and imaginative.
  4. She should be proud of her culture.
  5. He should be pleasant and entertaining.
  6. She should have a good memory.
  7. She should be confident.
  8. He should be able to connect the past with the present.

Analysis of Oral Narratives


  • This is the order events in a story. Oral narratives often have simple straightforward plots. Events in a narrative would constitute three parts: a beginning, middle and an ending.
  • Beginning presents the audience with problems facing the main characters.
  • The middle shows the attempts by the characters to solve the problems.
  • The ending shows how the problems are finally solved.
  • Some stories have complex plots and therefore would not follow this order.
  • Consider the following questions when analyzing the plot:
    1. How many major characters are introduced at the beginning of the story?
    2. Are there problems or a problem facing major characters in the story?
    3. Through which actions do the characters try to solve the problems?
    4. What kind of resolution is offered?
    5.  Do the characters emerge triumphant or they are defeated?


  • Classify a narrative and give reasons for your classification. E.g. it is a trickster narrative since the story has or involves tricks; the hare tricks they hyena into killing his own mother.



  • Characters are people or animals involved in a story. In oral narratives, characters include
    • human beings
    • Animals
    • Birds
    • Trees
    • Mountains
    • Spirits
    • gods
    • monsters
  • No distinction is made between animals, plants and man in oral literature. They can interact freely. This style of representation is known as personification.
  • Hence, narratives use symbolic characters as fictional masks so that narratives can actually mimic us, describe us and correct us without causing offence.
  • Character traits are used to refer to the uniqueness of characters in their speech, behaviour, actions and interactions with other beings.
  • We can tell the character trait of a character by
    1. What the character does.
    2. What the character says.
    3. What other characters say about her
  • Character traits do not include the physical appearance of a person e.g. beautiful, fat deformed etc.
  • We use adjectives to describe character traits e.g. greedy, loving, grateful etc.
  • In identifying character traits
    1.  Identify the trait.
    2. Give illustrations or an explanation to justify your identification.
  • Do not use general adjectives like good or bad to describe characters. Use specific traits only like cruel. It is sometimes useful o identify the role each character has in the story in relation to their character traits. The role can provide context and limit your choice of character traits you can assign e.g. if someone who has been mistreated for a long time decides to kill the oppressor, the trait might be vengeful, cruel, brave or inhuman depending on the role and context.

Common roles are

  • Villain/ Antagonist — the evil character, or the anti-hero in a story.
  • Protagonist —the good character, or the hero in a story.
  • Symbolic character—characters that represent other people of concepts in real world.
  • Caricatures—exaggerated characters.

Paralinguistic Features in Oral Performance

  • These are features that the narrator employs to effectively deliver the message in a specific piece of oral narration. These paralinguistic features add entertainment value to the performance.
  • These features are


  • The narrator imitates the action and speech manners of the characters.



  • This is the ability of the narrator to incorporate in his narration, objects on sight, people and other things and involve them in the narration by pointing at them, inviting some on stage or putting available objects in use as musical instruments.

Facial Expression

  • They involve moment of face muscles to show contortion, frowning, grimacing, smiling, sneering and flinching. Facial expressions mainly show appropriate emotions at different stages of narration.

Tonal Variation or Intonation

  • This is the use of a rising and falling pitch in the voice of the narrator appropriately, when asking questions, making statements and for other dramatic purposes.

Pace of Delivery

  • This is how fast the narrator speaks while narrating the story. The pace of delivery can vary depending on the nature of the story and the emotions to be impacted in the audience. For instance, to make the audience sad a slow torturous pace is appropriate.

Onomatopoeia and Idiophones

  • Onomatopoeia is use of English words in a story that imitates sounds. Words like scratch, screech, whisper, hiss etc. are English words that imitate sound and if used in a story would constitute onomatopoeia. The effectiveness of Onomatopoeia is to create the originality of events.
  • Idiophones involve use of local or non-English words to imitate sounds in a story. Words such as Puff! Ndo ndo ndo, or Chubwi can be used to capture the sounds heard by a character in the story and would constitute use of idiophones as a style.


  • Gestures can be used to illustrate movements and mimic action.

Body Movements

  • To show the movement of characters in terms of leaning, running, walking, jumping and sitting.

Accompanying Instruments and Costumes

  • Costumes can be used to make the narration more colourful and entertaining, while accompanying instruments like drums, arrows, placards etc help dramatize and mimic events in a story.


  • It is important to cultural dances in the narrative, that is, by use of songs to break the monotony of narration.

Dramatic Pauses

  • Pausing dramatically can be useful to let the point sink, draw attention to a major development in a story, create suspense or invite a reaction from the audience or applause.

Rhetorical Questions

  • Rhetorical questions are used to provoke the audience to think critically about something.


  • Repetition of some words or segments to emphasis certain points or drum in more entertainment

Style Identification in Oral Narratives

Opening Formula

  • Common opening formulae include …long agoonce upon a timelong ago etc.
  • The opening formula has the following uses
    • Announces the beginning of a narrative.
    • Attracts the audience’s attention to the narrative.
    • Separates the world of reality from the world of fiction.
    • Identifies the narrator.

Closing Formula

  • Common closing formulae are …since that dayand there ends my story.
  • Closing formula has the following uses
    • Announces the end of a narrative.
    • Momentarily releases the audience concentration.
    • Clears the way for the next activity.


  • This is where the narrator makes reference to familiar objects or historical figures known to the audience.


  • Non-human characters like animals or trees are given human qualities like talking, laughing, gossiping etc.


  • Events within the story are exaggerated, for example, a stone shedding tears, a man changing into a snake etc. to make the story interesting.


  • Time is not defined in a tale by use of vague phrases such as once upon a time, one day, later etc. usually to create a mysterious past.

Direct Translation

  • The story as narrated doesn’t pay attention to the grammatical rules. E.g. He gave her a stomach.

Use of Vernacular

  • Non English words from a specific language, that often cannot be translated successfully, are used in a narrative.


  • The narrator withholds information from the audience until the end to increase curiosity or interest.


  • Events in the story turn out contrary to our expectations. What happens at the end or within a given context is not what the audience would by and large expect to happen.

Social Economic Activities in Oral Narratives

  • Oral narratives reflect social economic activities of communities that tell them
  • Social activities include circumcision, courtship, marriage monogamy and polygamy, worship and wars.
  • Economic activities include crop farming, livestock keeping, bee-keeping, fishing, pottery, hunting, trading, blacksmithing/iron smelting and weaving.

Moral Lessons

  • The lessons we learn from oral narratives should be universal. If the question asks for a moral lesson, the lesson stated must be positive e.g. we should respect other people’s property.
  • All lessons identified must be illustrated to show the action of a character in the story and the consequences of that action.
  • Generally, oral narratives encourage virtues such as hard work, co-operation, bravery, honesty, wisdom etc.

Functions of Oral Narratives

  1. Entertainment—stories amuse and relax the audiences.
  2. Education—stories educate the audience and teach moral lessons.
  3. Socialization—story telling sessions bring together people to share in artistic and creative affair.
  4. Cultural conservation—stories reveal the way of life of a people, their social economic activities; helping future generation adapt and preserve them.
  5. Oral narratives help in sharpening language skills such as listening, good memory and creativity.
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