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How do you remember so many stories?

This is a question I am frequently asked and I suspect what prompts people to ask me is the widespread fear of forgetting what comes next.  Since I believe my memory is nothing unduly out of the ordinary, I want to share some tips on how I learn (and more importantly, remember!) the stories I tell.

The first thing is to read the story several (if not many!) times to get a sense of its essential structure.  Don’t be misled by all the padding - the descriptive detail which the author adds to flesh out his version!  The essential plot of Cinderella can be told in under 160 words.

Above all, don’t try to memorise the story word-for-word! Actors have to learn their scripts by heart, but storytellers don’t! If you try to memorise:

  1. You’ll put too much energy into remembering the script - the audience will see your eyes flicking up to one side as you try to recall the page!
  2. You’ll be learning someone else’s words, not your own. When you tell it’s vital you use your words, and make the story your own.

Focus on what you must remember. In some stories (eg The Gingerbread Man) several elements can be quite happily interchanged (it doesn’t matter what animals, or in what he order the Gingerbread Man meets them, as long as he ends up running into the fox!)

If the story involves a journey, then a map is a natural way to visualise it.  The map doesn’t have to be very elaborate.  It’s not a work of art, but a mnemonic device to help you remember (though of course, you can make it beautiful if you like!)  

I failed my Art O Level, so pretty and/or realistic drawing has never been my forte, but the map for The Fourth Question (left ) leads me through the farmer’s adventures en route to ask the Wise Old Man on the mountain (WOM!) as he comes to the cottage with the old woman, the village built around a large tree, and the dragon beside the river. (This map was drawn before I discovered that Chinese dragons, unlike their western counterparts, don’t have wings.)

Pictures can be very helpful when it comes to remembering the sequence. These felt cut-outs are for Jack and the Beanstalk.  Before telling the story, when my mind is clear, I stack them in the correct sequence (with the last one - the axe! - on the bottom). As I tell the story, I place them on the felt board. If ever I get lost, they provide a visual prompt of what comes next! For younger audiences, the pictures are a pretty visual aid (helping with sequencing and sometimes providing information - such as what a platypus looks like).  If you don’t want to buy these story felts, you can of course draw your own, or download clip art and create your own story resources. Teachers also note : after telling you can let the children re-tell using the pictures/cut-outs to help them sequence the story you’ve told.  Sometimes I “accidentally” (!) put the pictures  on the felt board in the wrong order . . . and the kids have to help me sort them out correctly!