Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Memory Work 4

Thinking about how you present a story can really help your memory of it. Props, rhythms, sounds, actions – this blog has talked about all these before. On the right, for instance, is my sea-tray which I featured in The Magic of Objects. But thinking about memory gives a timely prompt for thinking about such things again. Also useful is beginning to think about how different stories relate to each other. All over this earth, in every culture past and present,  are stories with similar themes. Developing an awareness of the relationships between them – what’s similar, what’s different – helps with an awareness of story in general. It develops the memory muscles. And that’s what storytelling is all about – developing your muscles as a storyteller so as to feel confident about sharing your stories and giving your listeners the pleasure of them too. It’s not work that ever ends. But as you go on, the process becomes part of the way that you think.

1. Developing effective presentation

Developing your thoughts about how to present your story can really help you as the storyteller. Decisions about presentation help embed your memory of what you are going to tell. For instance,  it’s important to pay attention to how your story will sound and where you may add good sound-effects. This applies whether your story is destined for adults or children. Refrains where appropriate can also add texture and help your audience to follow the direction the story is taking.

Another possibility if you’re telling to children is to introduce the story with some kind of game that not only relates to the story but encourages visualisation.

For instance, I often precede the Sun and Moon story that I’ve been considering in this blog over the last couple of weeks with an introductory refrain that gets children involved. It’s a rhyme of a type that I use a great deal – one where listeners gradually add their own contributions. As you can imagine (you may be getting to know my style!) there are plenty of hand actions too. You can probably work these out for yourself.

The Water Chant:

The water is deep and the water is wide

The water’s got lots of things inside.

It’s got ….(and at this point if I get no suggestions from anyone else, I’ll volunteer one of my own)



Then the rhyme is repeated, and each time it’s repeated, another suggestion is asked for and added:

The water is deep and the water is wide

The water’s got lots of things inside,

It’s got fish and …(what’s that?) ….a dolphin?

Every contributor is asked if they’ve got a hand-action or sound to accompany their word. Then all of us copy that action or sound.

The game never fails to succeed – and another thing I like about it is that, through repetition,it’s developing the children’s memories too.

2. Getting a bigger picture

It’s like London taxi-drivers when they’re learning The Knowledge – and those taxi-drivers apparently develop bigger brains in the process. For the wider you go, the bigger the picture and the better it all hangs together. I don’t know if storytellers enlarge their physical brains as they increase their knowledge of stories. But I do feel sure from my own experience that the more stories you get to know, the more you can make links between them and the easier it becomes to retain them. As you develop your understanding of how they match and where they differ, that helps your memory work.

Stith Thompson’s Index:

When you link stories together by theme, you’re doing exactly what Stith Thompson, the American scholar of folklore, did in putting together his vast and fascinating opus, his Motif-Index of Folk Literature. His was a pioneering work constructed out of the realisation that when you identify the central ideas of your stories, it allows you to group them and cross-relate their motifs. It then becomes possible to list them by category, if that’s what you want to do. Following Stith Thompson’s basic idea, you can create your own card-index of stories with appropriate doodles or notes of things to remember. Or you can simply write yourself a reference list of the stories you tell: it can come in very handy as an aide memoire when you’re trying to think of a story for a particular occasion or when you’re putting a programme together.

Making Links ~ The Crystal Pool

For instance, that same West African story about the Sun and Moon is closely related in my mind to a story which Geraldine McCaughrean retells in her inspired collection, The Crystal Pool.  The story – it’s given the same title – is also a good one for telling. It comes from Melanesia. 

The story relates how, a long time ago, the sea was all in one small place. A mother of two boys would go to it daily, lift off the cover she kept there and take out enough water to do her cooking.

One day, however, her two boys followed and closely spied on what she did. Afterwards, they went to the water themselves and removed the cloth that covered the place. One of them took a sip of the water – he pulled a face. The water did not taste good. But then the water began bubbling up and spilling out of the pool where it had always been.

It went on and on coming out. Had the mother not saved the situation by staking out some magic sticks to stop it flooding her house, water would now be everywhere, leaving no room for land.


Making Links ~ Tiddalik the Frog

I also link the Sun and Moon story with the Australian Aboriginal story about Tiddalik the frog. Joanna Troughton has a good version of this. It has the very same idea about water spilling out and it, too, is a brilliant story for children. (For younger children, it gives a great opportunity for drawing frog-shapes in ever-increasing size and fatness.)

In the story, thirsty Tiddalik gradually swallows up the water from the places such as puddles, ponds, streams and lakes where it usually is. As the water disappears and the land dries up, it becomes more and more like it looks in the dry times of Australia’s seasonal cycle. The other animals feel very aggrieved and conceive various plans to try and retrieve the water, including their final idea of making Tiddalik laugh so that he’ll spew it back out. (Ways of making Tiddalik laugh provide a marvellous opportunity for listeners to suggest what these could be – and also, of course, to demonstrate.) The point where Tiddalik finally laughs in the story is when Platypus appears: he’s never seen such a strange creature before. And when Tiddalik laughs, all the water he’s swallowed spills back out of his mouth. Everyone is happy. The drought is over.

Come back next week for the start of a new series: Four Stories for Younger Children


You can also read occasional blogs by me on the Early Learning HQ website.  Early Learning HQ offers hundreds of free downloadable foundation stage and key stage one teaching resources. It also has an extensive blog section with contributions from a wide range of early years professionals, consultants and storytellers. For details of the Society for Storytelling, click here.


























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One Response to “Storytelling Starters ~ Memory Work 4”

  1. Paul Medlicott Says:

    This has been a very fascinating series on Memory Work and I’m looking forward to the new series next week. I’m also intrigued to work out how the RSS feed works.

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