Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Ask the storyteller: Scripted vs. improv storytelling

I am delighted by the responses you've sent me; I'm looking forward to answering your questions. Please keep them coming, they are helping me think about storytelling again. I can't promise I'll get to every single one but I will do my best.

TBinKC asked, How much of your storytelling is planned and scripted, vs. improvised in the moment based on how the audience responds? Is there a process of writing or improvising and then 'locking down' a story?

Great question, TB, thanks! Please keep in mind that I can only answer from my own experience. Every storyteller has their own methods and preferences; what follows is what works best for me and what I teach my students.

I do not memorize my stories. I want to remain flexible in the language I use and in my response to the audience.

I learn the structure, what I call the bones of the story. I will often write an outline that includes basic plot points and narrative flow as well as any key phrases I want to make sure remain consistent from telling to telling. When I practice the story I keep the bones in mind and take note of any particular gestures or physical feelings I may experience in the course of telling the story; a great deal of my understanding of a performance piece lies in my body and how I feel as I tell. I don't write out bones for every story I tell, but I never learn a story directly from the text. I don't want to be bound to specific words. I may have a mental outline or a written one, but I deliberately move away any long-form written narrative, so there is room for me to improvise language, respond to events and pay attention to the audience.

By not tying myself to specific, memorized narrative I can more effectively dance with the audience. The dance is the give and take between audience and teller, the way the listeners shape the tale. Let me give you an example.

If I were working on Little Red Riding Hood the bones for telling might look like this:
  • little girl lives with mother in house at the edge of the wood
  • mother gives a basket of goodies, tells her to take it to grandmother
  • stay on path, don't talk to strangers, wear red cloak
  • sets off, wanders off path for flowers. woods, path, shadows
  • wolf appears, queries, girl replies to grandmother's
  • "I'll take the road of needles, you take the road of pins"
  • etc.
The bones may be more or less detailed than this. Please note that anything in quotation marks indicates a specific phrase I want to remember. As I practice the story I will make mental notes about the gestures I use, such as raising my arm to represent the trees. I will take note of my emotions at specific points in the story. Oh, the woods are friendly at first but become scary. Good to know. This will inform my inflections.

When I perform the story I pay a great deal of attention to the audience. The audience's reaction and needs may over ride the bones. If the audience is particularly enjoying the dialogue between the wolf and the girl I may spend more time there, improvise more conversation. If they seem bored by it I will move along quickly. The audience drives much of the story, even as I stick to the general plot and structure. It's a dance. We all know the steps but we pay attention to each other and respond to one another.

You asked how I "lock down" a telling. To be honest, that happens by telling it over and over, seeing what works and dropping what doesn't. I deliberately try to keep my telling as flexible as possible. Even with that flexibility the stories remain basically the same in both narrative and duration. This allows me to do what I love most in storytelling: play with language and play with the audience. It is an art of the moment and that is a big part of what I love about performance storytelling.

I hope this is a useful answer. I'm sorry I can't give you a magic formula but, like anything worth doing, it's worth doing again and again, learning each time, honing our art and craft as we go. There are some amazing performers who memorize their pieces word-for-word and you would never know. Play around with it and see what works for you.

All that being said, wanna dance? Let's tell each other some stories and see what happens.

Please keep your questions coming. You can post them below or email me. I'll be back next week with another installment of Ask the Storyteller.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. Laura,
    Excellent article !!! I've been tellig for more than 20 years and I have found that the method you describe is the best for me. I'm now going to go 1 step furthuer with more improve and have the audience provide key elements of the story and spin-off from there. Basically allowing them to lead the dance. Again great article !
    "Storyteller Indiana Bones" - Mike McCartney

    1. Thank you!
      I do the same thing. I have several improv games I play with the audience which are all hugely fun. I'd love to hear how it goes for you!

  2. I learn biblical stories by heart and personal stories I tell with just an outline in mind. Practicing out loud serves me better than writing prose. Thanks for your sharing your wisdom, Laura.

    1. Hi Cindy, That makes a lot of sense to me, since the precise, familiar language is so important in biblical stories. Kind of like Shakespeare, the language is part of what makes it what it is.
      As I said, my answer was just from my experience.
      Like you, I practice out loud, but that's a different question. Maybe I'll address that in another post!

  3. Great article Laura. Thanks. I would definitely love to hear your thoughts on practicing out loud. I hate it! But I know it is essential. Is there a way to make practicing more "authentic" to how it will really be during a performance. I find it hard to "dance" without the partner in the room when I'm trying to get a story down.


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