The Whole Story Handbook: Using Imagery to Complete the Story Experience

by Carol Birch. August House, 2000.

Awards: Anne Izard Storytellers’ Choice Award, 2003.
Storytelling World Gold Award, 2000.


How does one become a storyteller? It is a question that usually stops me in my tracks.There is no easy answer, of course. Read how-to books? Take storytelling courses? Often the questioner is looking for a series of steps, which, if followed diligently, will result in a transformation into that most magical of all creatures, a storyteller. The truth is, becoming a storyteller is an ongoing process – a journey which is begun anew, although not from the same starting place, each time work on a new story is begun… The material we carry and share as tellers is precious, and powerful, and we do need to be solid enough to be trusted with it. “Caution Flammable Material” signs should be required on storytellers.The material we share can, indeed, ignite imaginations, send sparks of humour, create images which may smoulder for who knows how long until they burst into flames of enlightenment. The kinds of tellings that transmit material which is that potent are based on hours of hard work and effort by the teller to discover his own authentic voice and personal knowledge of the story. It is not enough to take the words from a page and repeat them with expression. It is not enough, nor is it ethical, to copy another teller’s performance of a story. A true teller must do the necessary work on a story to make the story her own. But what is that necessary work, and how is it done?

Most storytelling instructors speak of the importance of visualization in knowing a story. Ruth Sawyer, in The Way of the Storyteller said, “I think stories must be acquired by long contemplation, by bringing the imagination to work, constantly, intelligently upon them. And finally by that power to blow the breath of life into them. And the method? That of learning incident by incident, or picture by picture. Never word by word.”

In 1991 Carol Birch produced an audio-cassette called IMAGE-ination: The Heart (and True Art) of Storytelling. It was a series of guided imagery prompts which enabled the users to visualize more fully the characters and setting of the story they were working on. Carol’s voice would ask the listener to see the character or an aspect of the setting, and to note specific details. After each prompt there would be silence on the tape to allow the listener time to create an image.

Her book, The Whole Story Handbook uses the same type of prompts but is enlarged by chapters which discuss character, and setting, and the process of working with texts. Her commentary adds immeasurably to the prompts and calls forth questions which stimulate thought and discussion.

One of the first observations Birch makes is that the ability to imagine is more than just the ability to visualize a story. How relieved I would have been twenty years ago to read that. I struggled, then, with the accepted approach to learning stories which instructed tellers to visualize place and person, even to make sketches to help reach the story’s heart. Although I can now visualize more readily, my natural way of connecting with stories and exploring them has always been through the emotions, the feelings, the sensations and tensions of the story.

Birch discusses emotions, sensory explorations, and visual acuity as all part of the re-imaging of a story. What matters most in telling a story, she says, is that the teller be fully present at the time of the telling. Seeing the story, imaging it, is only the first step of making ourselves present. The next step is to assess and to clarify our attitudes toward the people, places and events. Those attitudes are communicated to the audience by tone and nuance with the result that the listener is able to know about both the character and teller. Images enable us to learn the story more easily, she says. Attitudes help us to tell them more effectively.

This book can help tellers ground their tellings in sensory perception. However, Birch cautions, the senses and imagination do not replace research; they are intended to complement it. “The imagination can humanize research – put a pulse to it and leave a footprint, a scent, a memory behind.”

I experimented with using the prompts provided in the book. Some of the more general ones worked for me. For instance, the one which asked how much literal time passed in the story, then, how much metaphorical time elapsed in terms of growth and change. Those which asked me to imagine specific details of a person’s appearance or a room did not. After twenty years of telling stories I still fight to see images. Emotions remain my key. However, I have read the chapters accompanying the prompts at least three times and will probably read them again.

I like the way Birch writes. I wish she were right here so that I could follow up on areas that interest me. The difference between an actor using sense memory and a storyteller using it, for instance, and the importance of sound dynamics in narrative lines as well as in lines of dialogue. I’d like to exclaim with her over what William Irwin Thompson wrote about the sexual life of the plant rampion and how it recapitulates the sexual drama of Rapunzel. Birch uses personal examples throughout and quotes the work of other tellers as she addresses the the levels of understanding and telling stories.

How does one become a storyteller? There is still no easy answer, and using Birch’s book to help prepare a story for telling will definitely mean more work, not less. But it is work that is well worth the effort for it will result in fuller knowledge of story and ultimately, self.

My daughter just came in and looked at the cover of The Whole Story Handbook. “Cool,” she said. “It’s two people and it’s a tree.”

“What do you mean?” I asked her.

Like the familiar optical illusion picture of a vase which can also be perceived as two people in profile, the cover of this book does indeed offer a tree which can be seen as two profiles. I saw only the tree; someone else might see only the people. My daughter saw it all. The Whole Story Handbook will help you to explore text and telling so that you and your listeners will be able to experience the story as fully as possible. See it all.

Appleseed Quarterly, The Canadian Journal of Storytelling, Fall, 2001 Review by Mary-Eileen McClear.

“Learn the shape of a story, where its tune is going. Research all you can, imagine all you need to know about the faces and hearts of the characters, the stresses and conflicts they encounter, and the possibilities for victory they can achieve. And tell that.” [from The Whole Story Handbook]

When Carol Birch was in library school, she decided on a whim to take a course in storytelling instead of one in organizing government documents. In that moment of serendipity, she became a storyteller, and what followed was a career in storytelling which has spanned the nation, lead to many and varied teaching and performing opportunities and now finds her in the position of storytelling performer, leader, mentor, author, and guru.

Here she shares some critical and important insights into the process for getting the most from a story, for learning about it, internalizing it, getting inside the story and getting it inside you. This imagining and imaging journey has a teller look at characters (their gait, their dress, their adornments, their age, the lilt of their voices, the embellishment of their dress and so on.) She next moves from characters to settings with the same meticulous attention to detail.

This is more than just a list of questions, however. The author guides and directs readers and tellers, warning them of missteps and pitfalls, encouraging searching and pondering and observing. Given this careful attention, stories surely can take on a life of their own, with power to move and motivate both tellers and listeners. Notes and bibliography included.

Story Bag: A National Storytelling Magazine, June/July 2001. Volume XXVI, no. 1 / 2. Review by Marilyn McPhie