Four ways to prepare literary stories for oral telling

By Limor Shiponi


I don’t tell literary stories; as a storyteller, I find no reason to. Nevertheless, many storytellers do, and as an instructor, I want to help them do their best. This means I need to have an opinion about the issue placed in such a way I can help, although I don’t approve. The next anecdote took place a couple of years ago. For me, it was a founding event concerning the telling of literary material.

An interviewer and a well-known author sat on stage. The organizers thought it might be a nice surprise for her if a bunch of tellers told some of her usually rather short texts. One of the tellers did an artistic reading, the rest edited the stories – mainly shortening them and changing the language to mundane.

The author was outraged. She pointed at the reading as appropriate but the rest she found disregarding, ignorant, and arrogant. I couldn’t agree more, although most of the audience found her behavior exaggerated. “Those are my thoughts in my words. Where on earth did you get the permission to step on my work with your preferences?” was her angry question. No real answer arrived. Some people came up with the ridiculous idea they were helping promote her work; failing to remember she is a bestselling author to start with and that they never asked for permission.


Some storytellers think they can disregard others’ intellectual property and copyrights. Those are usually the same people rushing to copyright an oral performance. It’s ridiculous and stands in complete contradiction with the nature of the art. People argue with me endlessly about this, “but everybody does it” (not true), “but they don’t mind” (did you ask?), “but who will notice?” (You’d be surprised, keep reading). To all the darlings who don’t consider ethics and like playing catch-me-if-you-can, maybe you’d like to know at least one storyteller I’m aware of has had it already. She was sued by the publisher, lost everything she earned telling the stolen story and much more.

There are better ways to do it and the real point isn’t about permission – it can be given, or not. The real point is about how to tell a literary story – orally – and do it well.

Learn the story word by word by heart

That will make sure you have the text but is it enough? No. You’ll need to go through research and check every detail until you fully understand where the story is coming from, why the author wrote it, why in those specific words and style. In a way, it’s like learning a piece of music – being able to play it technically is only the beginning. Storytellers who lean on the fact they have a great text but know nothing about it sound like the setting in a TV studio – cardboard.

Edit the story together with the author

If the author is alive and approachable, this can be a great experience for both of you. Eventually, you’ll have a lovely oral version and the author gets an interesting peek into her own work from a different angle. In this case, you will have to learn the story by heart and keep your promise – to tell the oral version written by the author. They expect you to.

Learn the author’s language

This path I’d recommend to storytellers who want to tell several stories by an author known for unique language and style. What you want to do is learn the author’s language. The way to do it is through reading everything that author has ever written – all the stories, collections, letters, masses – anything available. Read aloud as much as you can, treat the language, syntax, and style as if learning a new language – until you can speak in that language fluently. It takes time, but the outcome shines.

Fusion – back to G for another solution to telling literary stories, orally

“So,” said G, “if I get it right, I have no problem with Gorky – his work is in public domain. I can’t ask him for an edit because he no longer lives. I can’t learn the text by heart either – I just know I can’t. It’s not a nine-phrase text like the lament. So what do we do?”

“First, you read me the story”, which he did. It was flat except from where the action was very dramatic. After G read the entire story, I took the pages away. “Now tell me the story from the beginning,” I requested. G hinged on the first few words, trying to remember the written opening. It didn’t come easy so I added, “tell me what’s going on in the story, not the text”. G was striving but eventually broke through that barrier and started unraveling the story as he saw it, which was good. “So, what do you think?” I wanted to know. “It felt like telling to children, very earnest. But it didn’t feel like telling the author’s story.”

“Ok, so now you get the author’s story back,” I said, “but read it to me like you told it just now”. G looked a little suspicious but he did exactly what I asked him to do. After the first paragraph I snatched the papers again, “from the top, tell me the story”. This time he immediately gave up when he noticed the hinging, and continued on track, although not in the author’s words, until the end of the paragraph. I gave him the papers back and we went back and forth – reading the text as telling, telling the story without the text – paragraph after paragraph. This helped find a couple of additional sentences we uprooted with no harm to the story, until the flow was excellent for an oral telling.

“Now I want to hear the entire story again, and I want a STORY, not a TEXT”. G decided to stand up and jumped into “there was a time…”. It was the best I’ve heard from G. Actually, it was excellent. At the same time, something was building up inside G and at some point; he burst “I can’t do it! It’s all wrong!” “What’s wrong?” I asked, most probably sounding like a little girl who really wanted the story to continue. “I don’t know,” added G. “So just continue and let’s see what happens” said the curious listener…

After he finished telling the story with great care, imagination, power and devotion, I told him it was excellent. He found it hard to believe, “but it’s not in the author’s language,” he insisted. “It never intended to be, you said so yourself – I can’t learn such a story by heart”. “But there are places in the story I really want to keep,” he added. We set off to find those places and after going through the entire story again ended up with three phrases from the author, G wants to use as is. Three phrases that created such a conflict; the written word has great powers over us…

Through the next week, G will read those phrases aloud as many times as possible, with full intention, until he ‘owns’ the text fully, word by word. The rest of the text he’ll read loud once a day. BUT – if he decides to tell the story to someone, he is requested to put aside any written material and just tell it.

Through this technique, the storyteller goes back and forth between the written text and his own telling until both versions fuse. What you get is something very vibrant, which carries the core story and part of the author’s style, but not the exact text. For people like G, having to keep the exact text is weakening, which is a pity if he really loves the story and can do it great service.


Every storyteller has texts he prefers and G is no exception. It’s time for a text-challenge and I told him I want him to try Rapunzel. Since he’s never read or heard the story, I read it to him. He was surprised by the “sharp curve” as he named it but was interested in the challenge. Grab your Rapunzels, preferably a scholarly translation from the Grimm texts, we’ll be back.

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