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Oral Narratives | English Notes - High School English

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Last Updated: 19th Feb, 2021

Introduction To Oral Narratives

- An oral narrative is one of the genres of oral literature.
- A narrative is a prose that recounts events, people, and places.
- A narrative can either be fictional (non factual) or non-fictional (factual).
- The terms used to mean the same as a narrative are tale, folk tale, or a story.
- At its essence, an oral narrative is a story spoken to an audience.
- An oral narrative is handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth.

Classification of Oral Narratives

(a) Myths
(b) Legends
(c) Ogre or monster stories
(d) Trickster stories
(e) Etiological Narratives
(f) Dilemma stories
(g) Fables
(h) Spirit tales
(i) Allegory


- Deal with origins.
- There is a supernatural being involved.
- They explain the origin of death, origin of a group of people, etc.
Characteristics of Myths
i. A story that is or was considered a true explanation of the natural world (and how it came to be).
ii. Characters are often non-human – e.g. gods, goddesses, supernatural beings, first people.
iii. Setting is a previous proto-world (somewhat like this one but also different).
iv. Plot may involve interplay between worlds (this world and previous or original world).
v. Depict events that bend or break natural laws (reflective of connection to previous world).


- A legend is a story about an outstanding person who has participated in the historical events of a community. and known to the people.
- Usually based on fact but also includes imagination material and an element of exaggeration.
- Some well known legends are: Luanda Magere, Wangu wa Makeri, Mugo wa Kibiru, Mekatilili wa Menza, Fumo Liyongo
- Youth are usually the target audience of legends so that they can emulate the hero or heroine.
Characteristics of Myths
- There are extraordinary actions done by the hero.
- Facts in such stories are historical.
- Features mentioned are actual ones.
- In some, there is an aspect of betrayal.
- Element of exaggeration is common.
- Birth or death is associated with some mystery.
- Events are in the present world; the one we live in.

Read more notes on Oral Literature:
Oral Poems and Songs
Tongue Twisters

Ogre / Monster Stories

- An ogre usually represents an evil that is usually destroyed at the end. They always have happy ending.
Functions of Ogre Stories
1. They warn against strangers.
2. They caution youth against marrying the people they don’t know.

Trickster Stories

A character makes up for a physical weakness with cunning and subversive humour.
The trickster alternatives between:
i. Cleverness and stupidity;
ii. Kindness and cruelty;
iii. Deceiver and deceived; and
iv. Breaker of taboos and creator of culture.

Etiological Narratives

- They explain the origin of a certain phenomenon.
- An etiological narrative is an imaginative story triggered by question "how or why" something came to be in the world.
- Examples are:
i) Why the hyena has shorter back legs
ii. Why rainbow appears in the sky after it rains.
iii. Why hare has a short tail.

Dilemma Stories

- A dilemma story shows a character or a group of characters faced with two or more alternatives, none of which is easy to make.
- A dilemma story is a morally ambiguous story, thus allows the audience to comment or speculate upon the correct solution to the problem posed in the story.
- A dilemma story has a perplexing situation, which presents different possibilities, and both of them seem practically acceptable.
Functions of Dilemma
1. Dilemma gives the audience an insight into characters' lives.
2. It also creates suspense. This is because the audience will be left wondering which choice the character will make.


- Feature animal characters which speak as human beings.
Have you read a story about a rabbit and a hyena?

Spirit Tales

Ghosts or spirits feature in such stories.


- Real life is represented by characters and events.
- Though embodies real life, it is presented as if it is fictional.

Setting in Oral Narratives

- An oral narrative give information on the following: a) The physical environment. Features like lakes, mountains, forests, etc. are mentioned.
b) Economic activities such as Hunting, Livestock Keeping, Crop Farming, Fishing etc.
c) Social Activities such as ceremonies, religious practices, and other forms of entertainment.
d) Political activities including the the power structure and war activities

Features of Oral Narratives

i) Opening formula

This is used to indicate the beginning of a story. It also removes the audience from the world of reality and take them to the world of fantasy. A world of fantasy is where bones speak, a king is the lion, etc. some commonly used opening formula phrases are 'A long time ago...', 'Once upon a time,...', 'There once was .....', and 'Long, long ago, .....'
The opening Formula serves the following functions
a. Announces the coming of a narrative.
b. Gets the attention of the audience.
c. Removes the audience from the world of reality.
d. Identifies the narrator.

ii) Closing formula

It makes the end of a story. It also removes the audience from the world of fantasy and take them back to the world of reality. Some examples are: 'And that is why...', 'And there ends my story. 'From then onwards ...', 'To come to the end of my story ...'
A closing formula serves such functions as:
a. Announcing the end of the narrative.
b. Momentarily releases the audience from concentration.
c. Brings back the audience to the world of reality.
d. Clears the way for the next narrative or activity.

iii) Use of idiophones

Use of words that imitate the movement or sounds made by characters in the story. For example,
- The bees flew buzz buzzbuzz. - The woman laughed hahahahaha. - The branch was cut kacha.

iv) Repetition

A word, phrase, a song, or even a sentence can occur more than once in a story. The repetition is meant to:
a. Bring out the meaning.
b. Emphasize a point.
c. Maintain the rhythm.
d. Sustain the mood in the story.

v) Use of songs

The songs perform the following functions:
(i) Brings out the character traits.
(ii) Brings out the theme.
(iii) To entertain.

vi) Allusions

Complex problems are explained and clarified by referring to something the audience is familiar with, eg.The bible, History, Famous people

vii) Suspense

Here, the audience is left wondering what will happen next since the climax is delayed.

viii) Dialogue

A character speaks directly to the other. Dialogue is used to bring out the theme, character traits as well as to develop the plot of the story.

ix) Fantasy

Imaginary and factually impossible things are created in the story.

Techniques of Story Telling

- Use of gestures. Gestures are meant to reinforce the idea. For example when talking about a character going, you can stretch your arm to show that.
- Altering your facial expressions according to the emotion and feelings in the story. Do not frown when the emotion happy.
- Varying the tone of your voice depending on what you are saying and who is saying it. The tone should be low when for example a small animal talks, and high when a big one speaks.
- Changing the pace of narration. There are those unimportant details that can be said faster.
- Involving the audience in the narration. Asking them to join you when singing will be okay.
- Use of mimicry. Here a narrator imitates the speech, action or other mannerisms of the character, for example, the walking style of a character, etc.

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