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Learning the Plot of a Folktale

*Memory Techniques

The plot of a folktale is the raw material from which a storyteller artfully creates a story experience for a listener. Once a plot is remembered and can be accurately recounted, a teller can begin telling a tale by improvising language and sharing it as a "story." Artists in many artforms make use of plots as raw material. A plot can become a play, a book, a puppet show, a work of choreography, a musical theatre work, an opera, or a song. To a storyteller, the plot is the bare bones skeleton of the story, holding it together and allowing the teller to flesh it out with detailed description, innuendo, and dialogue.

There is an important distinction between "plot" and "story." One could listen to several different storytellers present various well-crafted stories expressing the same plot, because each storyteller has his or her own unique perspective and vocabulary.

A storyteller who knows the plot of a folktale "by heart" can uniquely use their power of description to express the sequence of events in many ways. The teller could simply "chat" the tale informally, remaining always the narrator. A more formal presentation could include dialogue between characters in the plot. The story also could be told in verse, song, or from the vantage point of one of the characters.

Most basically however, in order to retell a folktale as a story, a storyteller must be able to remember "what happened."


There are many ways, called mnemonic devices, to remember the plot or the sequence of events in a story. One great orator in ancient Greece remembered his speeches by picturing them as a place or building through which he traveled. As he came to each room in his mental journey he remembered sections of his oration. Modern storytellers could utilize a more contemporary image, the experience of cinema. Watching the plot like a movie in the mind allows for much creative freedom and encourages more intricate detail to emerge. If a teller truly "sees" the story inside their imagination, the next step is to generously describe "what happened." More meets the inner eye than is told by the tongue. It takes effort to translate complex interior images into language. One can picture a sunset and yet be speechless to describe it to another. Generosity of expression is at the heart of the storytelling process. One must be willing to share one's imaginary interior world with others. Improvising language in the beginning of developing a story allows the story to grow. Memorizing words that have been written is certainly one approach to telling a story, but it has the drawback of a teller losing their grip of the entire tale when a single line or word is forgotten. If one can improvise as well as memorize then, if a line or a word is forgotten, one can always remember the basic plot and devise new language on the spot.

Remembering the Plot
Memory Techniques

*Six Quick Steps to Tell a Folktale
*Mapping Stories to Remember Their Plots

Six Quick Steps to Retelling a Folktale

  1. Read several folktales from a folktale anthology.

  2. Select one you would like to retell.

  3. Close your eyes and try to see the story's plot as if it were a "movie" inside your head.

  4. If there are any parts that you were not able to clearly remember:
    Read the story again
    Watch the movie again
  5. When you know the story by heart, it is time to try to tell it!

  6. Ask a friend to be a good listener. Then have fun retelling the plot in your own words, picturing the story in your imagination while you tell it. Allow yourself to "become" the characters as well as the narrator.

Mapping Stories to Remember Their Plots

Keeping a storytelling journal of plots worth telling is a way to have an easily retrievable collection of folktales to share. Without writing out all the words, you can keep plot summaries in any form that works to help you remember them. The following are a few story mapping suggestions.

Stepping Stones
If you have ever stepped across a brook by hopping from one stone to the next, you know how it feels to quickly travel a distance by leaping from one secure spot to another. One effective mapping technique is to draw the stepping stones of a plot. Major moments that lead one to the next would be the noted points in the plot. Graphically, the map could take the form of a flow chart or circles with text inside. The important stepping stones need contain only a few words, or even a small picture, to remind the teller of the sequence of events as the eye travels across the page.

Sunday Funnies
The colorful cartoon box design of the Sunday funnies could be the model for a folktale map. Draw the folktale as a sequence of boxes that read like a cartoon. The sequence of events could be illustrated with simple images that help the teller remember specific points in the plot, not the words or the story. Important dialogue summaries could be included as thought or speech "bubbles."

Time Line
A plot is like a timeline of events. Draw a timeline and put the action into chronological order. It is an interesting way to remind yourself of details that must be stated early in the tale.

Story Bag
Sometimes a smell or a souvenir will conjure up a memory of a past personal experience. Likewise, a storyteller could create a "bag of tales" by designating a small object such as a stone, a charm or a feather to remind them of the story. These objects become a repertoire list without words. Some tellers who use this technique enjoy spontaneously reaching into their bag and pulling out an object to determine which tale to tell or rehearse.

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