Story memorisation – to learn or not to learn word-for-word
Although I rarely work with pre-school children, I have been hugely influenced by the early childhood expert, Vivian Gussin Paley, who has described storytelling as ‘the social art of language’ (1990: 23). For me, this phrase is a reminder that storytelling is something that is we created between teller and audience. Jane Yolen says:
'Told and retold or read and reread, the story exists neither in the mouth nor on the page, neither in the ear nor the eye. It is created between. No two listeners hear exactly the same tale. Each brings something of himself to the story, and the story is then re-created between the teller and the listener, between the writer and the reader' (1986: 4).
So, the relationship between the teller and the audience, and between the way that the story as told and the audience responds. And fundamental to the way the story is told is how it is learnt.
The way that storytellers approach the memorisation of stories varies, and it depends a lot on their personal style (or the particular demands of the telling that they are preparing). My own style of storytelling is normally interactive; it is one in which I invite the audience to contribute to the telling, predicting outcomes, reminding me of details that I have ‘forgotten’, commenting on the action, and often acting out stories with me. This, of course, means that every performance is different and any ‘script’ has to be flexible enough to accommodate interactions with the audience.
This style doesn’t suit everyone, or indeed, every story. Some storytellers present a more ‘bardic’ approach which is poetic, with every word carefully crafted. For example, in Michael Harvey’s (2017) poetic set ‘Branwen’ (performed with singer, Pauline Down) he stayed ‘on script’ for the performance, as any deviation from his pre-prepared text would have broken the poetic line and structure of the narrative. This means that he had to learn every part of the story word-for-word. Engaging with the audience through conversation or questioning would have necessitated responding in language that was not part of the poetic text.
But this isn’t to suggest that Michael Harvey (or anyone else who is performing a set text) does not respond to the audience. Any audience gives off micro-signals (and sometimes not-so-micro-signals) that let the performer know what they feel about the performance. Referring to theatre, Jon Whitmore discusses these signals (or ‘signifiers’) observing that:
‘Individually, they cough, rattle programs, wiggle in their seats, and get up during the performance. Collectively, they applaud, shout bravo or boo, and, on cases in which they are asked direct questions by the performers, talk back. During performances at which spectators can easily see one another, the audience becomes a major signifier. … there is a circular communication: a dynamic interchange takes place between the performance and the audience.’ (1994: 26)
Whitmore’s observations could, however, also be made of the relationship between storyteller and audience. The problem with relying on this level of communication, however, is (I would suggest) that the storyteller needs to be accomplished enough as a communicator to be able to make minute variations to their performance in order to react to the audience appropriately. They have to sense the group response of the audience and change their pace, tone, points of emphasis, etc. without losing the sense of the text, and reducing its impact as a poetic whole.
There is a difference, though, between choosing to perform a poetic text, in which the impact of each word and its placement has been weighed, and the learning of any story word-for-word. I have been uncomfortable with this latter practice for many years, and it’s one that I see a lot. It is usually very clear when someone has done this, and the performance often suffers because of it in two easily observable ways.
Firstly, when the teller has learnt the story word-for-word, in the absence of an audience, they are often unable to respond to the changing dynamics of working with a live audience; this creates a distance between performer and spectators, and demonstrates the fragility of the notion of a ‘social art of language’, a phrase which, which after all, suggests that storytelling is fundamentally about communication. Communication sounds a simple enough concept, and if a storyteller is telling and the audience is responding then we could surely argue that there is evidence of communication occurring. The contemporary theorist Gunther Kress says that ‘communication is always a response by one participant to a prompt by other participants in social events’ (2010: 35). The point is, that in a storytelling performance, the storyteller is not the only one prompting a response – the audience is prompting through its mesmerisation, laughter, fidgeting, sighs, frustration, etc. If the teller is unable to respond to such prompts, then the communication is incomplete as it is in one direction only.
Secondly, when you learn a story by learning it word-for-word, you are not working in the way that the brain holds narrative. Stories are sequences of events (in space and time) which trace the experiences of a person (or persons) who overcome difficulties in pursuit of a goal, and it is through connecting these events that the brain both stores and generates narratives; the language that is used is how these events are expressed, it is not the story itself. If a script is learned as a sequence of words, then the logic of that sequence is limited to the grammatical structures of phrase, clause and sentence. Consequently, it is very easy to see when a storyteller is struggling to recall a specific word in a story that has been learnt this way: you can see in their eyes the hunt for the specific word that will complete the phrase or sentence. Learning a story as a series of events, on the other hand, means that the storyteller can use language in a far more flexible way.
This is not to say that someone watching two videos of me telling a tale with different audiences will see and hear completely unique performances (one such video can be accessed here: https://youtu.be/kMxJAR6n-Uo .
There are elements of every story that I keep the same, whether they have been settled as the story has been performed over time, or they are set as a script in the rehearsal stage. For example, in the Grimms’ tale The Fisherman and his Wife, I have a set script for the fisherman, as he calls to the wish-granting fish:
Little Fishy in the Sea, From my net I set you free. Now, I want some help from thee, It’s for my wife, it’s not for me.
The rest of the tale, however, is open to interpretation and adaptation according to the specific context of the performance. Practice and experience has meant that the words have settled into familiar patterns, but the fact that I am telling the story, rather than reciting it, means I can respond to the behaviour of the audience, and include places for them to contribute to the storytelling.
Recently, Tim Ralphs performed his set ‘How to Spin Enchantment’ at Surrey Storytellers. He was able to invite the audience to contribute characteristics for one of the characters (in the style of the baptism gifts granted to ‘Sleeping Beauty’). He had no control over what people suggested and yet, the way that he held the story in his memory meant that he could weave the suggestions that people made into his telling, making reference to them throughout the narrative. His relationship with the audience was clearly one in which communication worked in both directions with the audience responding to prompts from Tim, and Tim responding to prompts from the audience. He couldn’t have done this had he relied solely on a word-for-word method of learning his story.
So, what do you learn of a story that you want to tell? That depends on the style of storytelling that you want to engage in. If you are aiming at a poetic, ‘bardic’, style, in which each word is carefully crafted, then you will need to learn the story word-for-word.– however, this should be after having memorised other aspects of the narrative (see the Four Levels of Storytelling presentation at https://thestorytent.wixsite.com/akdaniel/four-levels-storytelling). In this way, you will know the structure of the story and its themes, and it is more likely that you will be able to adapt the recitation (the non-verbal components) to the audience response, than if you only understand the story as a sequence of words.
If you are less concerned about the exact language that you use in a telling, then you can learn the story as a sequence of events and connected themes, and trust in your own verbal abilities to shape the language through rehearsal and retelling, giving space to react verbally to the audience and make the storytelling manifestly social.
 I have borrowed this term from Anne Pellowski (1977), in which she uses it to refer to poetic styles of storytelling, but not always ones that involve rote memorisation.
Grimm Brothers (1987) ‘The Fisherman and His Wife’. In The Complete Fairy Tales. Translated from the German by Jack Zipes. London: Vintage Books, pp89-97
Gussin Paley, V. (1990) The boy who would be a helicopter: the uses of storytelling in the classroom Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Kress, G. (2010) Multimodality: a social semiotic approach to contemporary communication. Abingdon: Routledge
Pellowski, A. (1977) The World of Storytelling, New York: R.R. Bowker
Yolen, J (ed.) (1986). Favourite Folktales from around the world. New York: Pantheon
Whitmore, J. (1994) Directing Postmodern Theater University of Michegan Press
Alastair K. Daniel (2014) The Fisherman and his Wife [Brighton: UKLA International Conference]. 4 July 2014. Available at: https://youtu.be/kMxJAR6n-Uo (Accessed 21/3/18)
Michael Harvey and Pauline Down (2017) Branwen. [Whitchurch: Festival at the Edge]. 28 July 2017
Tim Ralphs (2018) How to Spin Enchantment [Ewell: Three Heads in a Well Storytelling Club]. 23 February 2018