The Art of Story-Telling

Once Upon a Campfire

BLPic497One of the first Scout camping trips that sticks out in mind was not noteworthy because of where we went or what we did. As a matter of fact, I can’t even remember where it was. What sticks out in my head was what took place around the campfire one night.

We were all sitting around (kind of bored) when someone suggested a story. The problem was that no one had brought along any books with them. The idea was almost dropped when one of the older Scouts spoke up and said that he could tell a story he had come up with on his own. Everyone quickly warmed to the idea. As they pulled their chairs closer up to the campfire, silence and expectant listening took the place of random chattering.

The older Scout stared into the embers for a few seconds… then cleared his throat and began.

The parts I remember from the story weren’t all that well done. It centered around a Rambo-esque character who went through a variety of exaggerated escapades.

But I remember something else too: the engagement and intense excitement of the Scout who was telling the story. It drew all of us in. Even though I thought some of it was pretty silly, I was still always eager to find out what would happen next. For the next 45 minutes, no Scout around that campfire was bored or interrupted the steady stream of narrative.

I don’t know why, but after that, campfire stories disappeared for quite a while in my Troop. I always remembered it, though, and how it so completely captured everyone’s attention.

An Epic Experiment

BLpngPIC334Fast-forward to another camping trip that took place in one of the last few months before I turned 18. For some reason or another, the topic of conversation turned to scary stories and how we should uphold that campfire tradition. No one was really willing to give a shot, though.

That’s when I spoke up and volunteered to try it. Frankly, I had no idea what story I would tell. I ended up making it a fictional first-person story of strange and scary events that happened to me and a friend at a camping trip.

Perhaps it was the atmosphere of the campfire that excited me; I really let my imagination go crazy! Most of the stuff I said happened was probably completely ludicrous, but I told it with the intensity of one completely absorbed in a story.

I was really quite surprised to see that everyone else was spellbound too. There were a few that weren’t so interested at first, but as soon as it really got started, all conversation stopped. Everyone was either staring at me or at the campfire as I drew crazy pictures of a seemingly supernatural camping trip.

Before I knew it, over an hour had gone by, and I was only just getting into the larger narrative that I had started to form in my mind. I had run out of time – it was lights-out, but everyone insisted that I continue the story the next night!

The Scouting Story

Story-telling goes all the way back to the beginning of Scouting. William Hillcourt, in his biography of Baden-Powell, described the campfires of the Brownsea Island camp – the first ever Scout camp:

As darkness fell on 31 July, the boys gathered round their first camp fire. B-P was the camp fire leader, the song leader, the story-teller. He told them tales of India and Africa and explained some of the details of the program for the days ahead. He was at his very best. …

In spite of all the other excitement in camp, the evening camp fires with Baden-Powell as camp fire leader proved the high spots of the experience. The flickering flames lit up the circle of boys gathered around them – and carried B-P back in his memory to the camp fires on the open veld of Africa. He had never told his stories to a more appreciative audience.”

BLPic7It can be said in a very real way that the reason Scouting became successful was because of Baden-Powell’s story. He was a real-life adventure novel! When boys dreamed of Scouting, they imagined his daring adventures in South Africa and India. Scouting captured the imagination of hundreds of thousands of boys in a way only a story can.

Started in this way, you will find throughout the paper-trail of Scouting’s history many examples of campfire story books for Scouts and advice about telling campfire stories in articles and handbooks.

When Scouting took hold in America, it was the stories of men like Daniel Carter Beard that fanned it into a roaring blaze. These stories kept alive the memory of the backwoodsmen, the pioneers, the Indians, the wilderness. When Scouts saw Scouting, these adventures were what they saw!

Act II

Today, far removed from that story boom of the past, you will find many stories still echoing deep under piney woods, off the walls of polyester tents, mixing with the crackling firewood, and into the imaginations of many Scouts.

But sadly, my Troop (with it’s stories few-and-far between) was more of a norm, rather than an exception. And when stories are told, they are more-often-than-not the stereotypical kind of ‘scary’ campfire stories like the one I told.

What is this? Are Scouts bored of hearing stories today? Quite the opposite! The most exciting and popular video and computer games today are really just elaborate, interactive stories. When a good story-teller tells an exciting story, you see the same enthralled faces on boys today as you did in 1911.

Many camping trips after I told my first story I was still bombarded by younger Scouts who wanted me to either continue it or start a new one.

BLpngPIC204That proved to me that (once again) boys haven’t fundamentally changed over the last hundred years. The boys of 1911 didn’t have computers, TV’s, or smartphones. Entertainment has completely saturated our current culture. Nonetheless, the young men of today are still thoroughly enthralled by an exciting and well-told verbal story similar to one that might have been told decades ago.

Technology is created to make things better, and it does! With our huge media infrastructure, great stories reach more people than ever before. But once again, we’ve fallen into the habit of doing less with technology rather than using it to accomplish more. Movies are fantastic, but when we use those to replace the art of story-telling, we’re settling for something less.

For, indeed, movies are far less powerful than the infinitely-supple, intensely-personal verbal story. It has built empires and torn them down… more importantly – it has changed individual lives. When Baden-Powell taught this art, he was equipping Scouts with an extremely powerful tool they could use throughout their lives.

Nothing has changed. Scouting still prepares boys to become men, and men still change lives by the stories they tell.

We need to rediscover the art of Scout story-telling!


  • What, then, should these stories look like?
  • How can one become a good story-teller?
  • What are some ways they can be put into practice during Scout events?

These are the logical next questions.

Stay tuned for the next post where I hope to talk more about this!

If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to put your email in the little box in the sidebar. That way you won’t miss the sequel which will be coming soon!

If you think story-telling should be brought back into prominence in Scouting, help me spread this discussion as far as possible. You can share on social media using the buttons below, email it to friends, print this article out, discuss it on forums, and (most importantly) talk about story-telling with Scouts and Scouters in your Troop!

Thank you for reading!

Scout On!

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