Improvising Language

People improvise language daily when they make excuses, answer questions, give directions, or engage in conversation. Storytellers improvise language while describing the events in a story in order to help the listener picture the tale clearly. Unlike forgetting the words to a poem or a song, you can never forget the words to a story if you confidently know the sequence of events (plot) and can improvise the language to describe how one event leads to the next. After many tellings of the same tale, the words you use may become familiar. There eventually may be a scripted text built out of your own vocabulary for the telling. Yet, as new flourishes and details are added, the story can continue to change and grow. Audience reaction can help shape the telling, too. Storytelling is a community event. Listeners can offer constructive direction by their immediate response to the tale. The teller must be open to how the tale is being received, so that its presentation can evolve.

Telling a Tale Into Shape

Eventually a finely crafted story may emerge using this development technique of improvisation. Yet, at any point in the development process, listeners can enjoy the tale. It is in the process of telling and retelling that the story becomes a work of art.
Using Descriptive Language: Words Paint Pictures

The storyteller's words are like a painter's colors. Changing just one word in a sentence can alter the picture or detail that a listener is imagining. For example, construct a sentence without any adjectives. Then more generous. Add some descriptive words and see how the picture evoked by the words changes. The more the storyteller says, the more the listener will "see" in their imagination.

No adjectives:
A man walked down the road.

Adjectives added:
A tattered old man walked down the hot dusty road.
A young man walked down a crowded city road.

Adding Dialogue: Letting the Characters Speak too!

The storyteller is the narrator of the tale, but for variation and to keep listeners' attention, it is interesting to allow yourself to pretend to be a character in the tale and express the plot in dialogue. For example, instead of saying, "They had a loud argument," the storyteller could create lines for each character to say as if, for a moment, the tale were a play. As in a literary form, phrases such as "he shouted," or "they moaned," help to identify which character is speaking.

Character voices can be as exaggerated or as dramatic as the teller is willing to make them. However, to maintain the informality and audience contact of storytelling vs. dramatic acting, it is important for the teller to regain composure as the narrator when the narrator speaks. Different sounds and textures are interesting to the listener and will help hold the listener's attention. Variation in volume and tempo also help hold attention. Silence, in the form of a pause, can also be effective.
Improvising with Folktale Skeletons

Story Skeletons are the bare bones of the tale, or the plot. Additional detail, setting and characterization can be added to flesh out the story. Be generous and the reader or listener will see the tale in their mind's eye. Everyone's imagination is different, so retellings will differ from teller to teller. Students could retell one of the following tales in their own words, improvising language and adding dialogue between characters.

For example: Here is a simple skeleton of an Aesop's fable "The Sun and the Wind." Following it is an example of how just a small amount of dialogue can further elaborate the plot.

A Skeleton:
The Sun and The Wind ... an Aesop's Fable

The wind and the sun argued about which of them was the strongest. They decided to hold a contest. The sun suggested that they see who could take the coat off of a man walking along the road below them. The wind blew hard, but the man, feeling chilly, held his coat tightly around him. The sun then became gently warmer and warmer. The man felt so hot, he took off his coat. Sometimes, they say, you can get your way more easily with gentleness than by force.

With Additional Dialogue:

The Sun and The Wind... An Aesop's Fable

The North Wind boasted of great strength. The Sun argued that there was great power in gentleness.

"We shall have a contest," said the Sun.

Far below, a man traveled a winding road. He was wearing a warm winter coat.

"As a test of strength," said the Sun, "let us see which of us can take the coat off that man."

"It will be quite simple for me to force him to remove his coat," bragged the Wind.

The Wind blew so hard, the birds clung to the trees. The world was filled with dust and leaves. But the harder the wind blew, the tighter the shivering man clung to his coat.

Then, the Sun came out from behind a cloud. The sun warmed the air and the frosty ground. The man on the road unbuttoned his coat.

The Sun grew slowly brighter and brighter.
Soon the man felt so hot, he took off his coat and sat down in a shady spot.

"How did you do that?" said the Wind.

"It was easy," said the Sun. "I lit the day. Through gentleness I got my way."

Have Students Create Dialogue to Elaborate the Opening Scene:

The North Wind boasted of great strength. The Sun argued that there was great power in gentleness.

More Skeletons for Students to Explore:

The Tortoise and The Hare ... an Aesop's Fable

There was once a rabbit who bragged that he could run faster than anyone. Slow and Steady, the turtle, challenged him to a race. Rabbit, thinking he would win, stopped alongside the road to rest and fell asleep. Slow and Steady kept on walking, step by step, and passing the sleeping rabbit, he crossed the finish line first.

A Flock Of Birds ... a fable from India

There was once a flock of birds that were peacefully pecking seeds under a tree. A hunter came along and threw a heavy net over them. He said, "Aha! Now I have my dinner!" All at once the birds began to flap their wings...together! Up, up, up they rose, taking the net with them. They came down on a tree and as the net snagged in the tree's branches, the birds flew out from under it to freedom. The hunter looked on in amazement, scratched his head and muttered, "As long as those birds cooperate like that with one another, I'll never be able to capture them! Each one of those birds is so small and yet, together they could lift the net!"

The Honest Woodcutter ... an Aesop's Fable

"Woe is me!" a poor woodcutter cried when he dropped his ax into a deep pond. A friendly spirit appeared before him with a silver ax and asked, "Is this yours?" "No," said the woodcutter. The spirit returned with a golden ax and asked, "Is this yours?" "No," the woodcutter said. Then the spirit appeared with his plain wooden ax. "That one is mine!" said the woodcutter happily. "You've been so honest," said the spirit, "take the silver and golden ax too." On the way home the woodcutter met a rich merchant. When the rich merchant heard the woodcutter's tale, he ran to the pond and dropped his own wooden ax in. "Woe is me!" he cried. The spirit appeared with a silver ax. "That one is mine!" the man said quickly. "You KNOW it is not," said the spirit and disappeared. The rich man's wooden ax stayed on the bottom of the pond.

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