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Preparing Your Story

By Aaron Shepard

(Tell a Story! ~ Part 2)

Part of the booklet Tell a Story! first published by Simple Productions, Arcata, California, 1990

For more resources, visit Aaron Shepard’s Storytelling Page at www.aaronshep.com.

Copyright © 1990, 1996 by Aaron Shepard. May be freely copied and shared for any noncommercial purpose as long as no text is altered or omitted.

Storytellers learn their stories in many different ways. Some read or listen to a story over and over. Some meditate on it. Some type or write out the story. Some draw charts. Some begin telling the story at once.

However you do it, you must absorb the story until it becomes second nature. Find the best way for you.

Some parts of the story can be memorized word for word—beautiful beginnings and endings, important dialog, colorful expressions, rhymes and repeated phrases. But don’t try to memorize an entire folktale that way. Strict reciting creates a distance from your listeners that is hard to bridge.

Instead, picture the story. See the scenes in your mind, as clearly as you can. Later, these pictures will help you recreate your story as you tell it—whether or not you consciously call them to mind.

It’s best to practice your story with a “mirror.” This can be a real mirror, or an audio or video recorder, or a friend—anything that helps you “see” how you’re doing.

First practice to get the storyline. Your version won’t convey everything from the story you found, but it must convey enough to make sense. Then, once the story is straight in your mind, focus on how you tell it.

Use repetition. In folktales, events often repeat themselves in threes—a magic number. Pay special attention to repeated rhymes and phrases. Repetition helps your listeners stick with the story by providing familiar landmarks.

Alongside repetition, use variety. Vary the tone, the pitch, and the volume of your voice, your speed, your rhythms, your articulation (smooth or sharp). Use silences. Remember, variety catches and holds attention.

Use gestures, but only ones that help the story. Use them to mime the action, or just for emphasis. Make them big! Gestures keep the eyes on you.

In your story, pay special attention to beginnings and endings. You may want to practice an introduction along with the story. This introduction can tell something about the story or about you. But don’t give away the plot!

Endings should be clear, so your listeners know that your story’s over without your telling them. You can do this by slowing down and adding emphasis. For example, many story endings use a “slow three”—“happily ever after,” “that’s the end of that,” “and they never saw him again.

Pay special attention also to how you portray your characters. Good characters bring a story to life—so put life into them, with face, voice, gesture, body posture. Try to make each of them different enough so they’re easily told apart.

When portraying two characters talking together, try a trick called “cross-focus": Make each one face a different 45‑degree angle.

You’ll tell stories at your best if you prepare not only your story but yourself. Your voice and body are your instrument, and it helps to use them well.

To project and sustain your voice, you must breathe deeply and correctly. To check this, place your hand on your stomach. As you inhale and your lungs expand, you should feel your stomach push out. Many people do the opposite, holding in their stomachs and breathing only with their upper chests. Also be sure to keep your back straight, so your lungs can expand fully.

Don’t push your voice too hard or use it unnaturally (except maybe when speaking as a character.) To avoid strain, relax your throat and jaw muscles, and the rest of your body as well. A big, loud sigh will help this. Also try the “lion’s yawn”—open your mouth wide and stick your tongue out as far as it goes.

Pronounce each sound of each word distinctly. Tongue twisters are good for making the tongue more nimble.

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