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Learning Stories with BRIO

Stories are made of images, not words. Therefore, I recommend against learning a story by memorizing the words.

But if you don’t start with the words, how will you practice your story? I recommend you practice by telling to live listeners.

But suppose you have a willing helper to listen to you. How do you do a practice-telling of a story you don’t know at all?

This is when you need a key tool that I have never before mentioned in an eTips.

What’s a BRIO?

A BRIO is my name for a Brief Reminder of Image Order. It’s a way to remember not the words, but the order of the images.

Suppose you are about to begin learning the Grimm’s version of “Little Red Riding Hood” ( I have posted a translation at )

First, you’ll read the story or listen to someone tell it. Then you’ll think, “What’s the first image of the story?”

You may say it’s the grandmother giving Little Red Riding Hood a cap made of red velvet.

Or maybe, for you, the first real image is the mother giving her a piece of cake and a bottle of wine to take to her grandmother in the woods.

Now you need some way to represent the image you chose. You could simply write down “red velvet cap”, or “mother gives cake and wine.”

You have just created something that can remind you of your first image. Continue listing all the images of the story, one to a line. Your list is a form of BRIO.

More Than an Outline

Years ago, I used to talk about creating an outline of your story. But I realized that “outline” was limiting. You CAN use an outline, of course; it can even be the kind of outline I learned to make in 7th grade, with Roman numerals, indentations, etc.

But that is only one form of BRIO. Instead of writing a list that begins with “red velvet cap” you could draw a simple shape to represent a cap, or even sketch stick figures of a grandmother handing a cap to a girl.

Or you could start a diagram, perhaps a “word web” with individual words inside circles and connected by lines between the circles. Or make the first of a vertical series of boxes, each to contain words or stick figures or cutouts from magazines. Or begin a “story board,” which is a series of small pictures with explanations below them.

Mark Twain’s Reminder

One day, Mark Twain’s daughter said, “Daddy, tell me a story.”

He said, “About what?”

His daughter looked around the room. On their mantel she saw five objects lined up. She said, “About those five things, in that order!”

Twain made up a story and told it.

The next day, his daughter said, “Let’s do that again!”

Twain said, “The same story?”

His daughter said, “No!” She rearranged the objects in a different order. “Tell a new story about them!”

Every night after that, she’d rearrange the objects or put different objects in their places. It became her favorite game.

When Mark Twain played that game with his daughter, the objects on the mantelpiece were his BRIO!

B is for…

But it needs to be brief. Why? Well, in your early tellings, you want to be able to glance down when you can’t remember what comes next – and be reminded of the next image.

If you have to page through a 12-page BRIO, it’s difficult to find where you are!

To be sure, I have created BRIOs for 2-hour stories that have been as long as 8 or 10 pages. But in most cases, it’s better to fit your BRIO on something handy, like a file card.

If your first BRIO is too long, don’t despair. Ask yourself, “What images that I’ve listed might I remember spontaneously once I’ve imagined another one? What items in my BRIO aren’t really images at all? Can I do without them?”

For example, suppose I listed:

– Red Riding Hood sees cottage door open – enters room – has strange feeling

Could I simply replace all three of those lines with “Red Riding Hood sees open door”? Or even leave all three out and jump to “What big ears you have!”?

With a challenging new story, I usually have to make several increasingly shorter BRIOs before I come up with a usable one.

A Magic Tool with Three Uses

The primary advantage of a BRIO is to help you tell a story you don’t know well yet. But there are other uses.

Suppose you’ve just changed a story. You have your original sequence of images firmly in your mind, but now you’ve decided that it makes more sense to change that sequence or to add an additional image. In this case, the BRIO can remind you of the new version.

Finally, the act of creating a BRIO prompts you to decide which images are important. It can even help you understand the reason for the exact sequence you prefer. (“Oh, if I don’t have the wolf lie back down in the grandmother’s bed after eating Red Riding Hood, the Huntsman won’t be able to discover the wolf there.”) This very process sets the images in your mind and therefore makes you less likely to need to use your BRIO while telling.

The BRIO is a simple, essential, easy tool. I consider it one of the four basic tools available to every storyteller!

This is issue #80 of “eTips from the Storytelling Coach” You can sign up for your free monthly subscription (complete with money-saving subscriber specials and announcements) in the upper right corner of this page.

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