AskDefine | Define storytelling

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. The act and skills of presenting stories and tales.

Extensive Definition

Storytelling is the ancient art of conveying events in words, images, and sounds often by improvisation or embellishment. Stories or narratives have been shared in every culture and in every land as a means of entertainment, education, preservation of culture and in order to instill moral values. Crucial elements of stories and storytelling include plot and characters, as well as the narrative point of view. Stories are frequently used to teach, explain, and/or entertain. Less frequently, but occasionally with major consequences, they have been used to mislead. There can be much truth in a story of fiction, and much falsehood in a story that uses facts.
Storytelling has existed as long as humanity has had language. It's the world of myth, of history, of the imagination... it explains life. Every culture has its stories and legends, just as every culture has its storytellers and often revered figures with the magic of the tale in their voices and minds.
The evolution of technology has changed the tools available to storytellers. The earliest forms of storytelling are thought to have been primarily oral combined with gestures and expressions. Rudimentary drawings scratched onto the walls of caves may also be forms of early storytelling. Ephemeral media such as sand, leaves, and the carved trunks of living trees have also been used to record stories in pictures or with writing. With the advent of writing, the use of actual digit symbols to represent language, and the use of stable, portable media stories were recorded, transcribed and shared over wide regions of the world. Stories have been carved, scratched, painted, printed, or inked onto wood or bamboo, ivory and other bones, pottery, clay tablets, stone, palm-leaf books, skins (parchment), bark cloth, paper, silk, canvas and other textiles, recorded on film and stored electronically in digital form. Complex forms of tattooing may also represent stories, with information about genealogy, affiliation and social status.
Traditionally, oral stories were passed from generation to generation, and survived solely by memory. With written media, this has become less important. Conversely, in modern times, the vast entertainment industry is built upon a foundation of sophisticated multimedia storytelling.

Oral traditions

People in all times and places have told stories. In the oral tradition, storytelling includes the teller and the audience. The storyteller creates the experience, while the audience perceives the message and creates personal mental images from the words heard and the gestures seen. In this experience, the audience becomes co-creator of the art. Storytellers sometimes dialogue with their audience, adjusting their words to respond to the listeners and to the moment.
Oral storytelling is an improvisational art form, one that is sometimes compared to music. Generally, a storyteller does not memorize a set text, but learns a series of script-like incidents that form a satisfying narrative arc (a plot) with a distinct beginning, middle and end. The teller visualizes the characters and settings, and then improvises the actual wording. Thus no two tellings of an oral story are exactly alike.
Albert Bates Lord examined oral narratives from field transcripts of Yugoslav oral bards collected by Milman Parry in the 1930s, and the texts of epics such as The Odyssey and Beowulf. Lord found that a surprisingly large part of the stories consisted of text improvised during the telling process. The words seemingly came from a mental storehouse of phrases and narrative devices accumulated over a lifetime.
Lord identified two types of story vocabulary. The first he called 'formulas': "rosy-fingered dawn," "the wine-dark sea," certain set phrases had long been known of in Homer and other oral epics. But no one realized before Lord how common these formulas were. He discovered that across many story traditions that fully 90% of an oral epic is assembled from lines repeated verbatim or with one-for-one word substitutions. Oral stories are built out of phrases stockpiled from a lifetime of hearing and telling stories. The other type of story vocabulary is theme. A theme is a set sequence of story actions that structure the tale. Just as the teller of tales proceeds line-by-line using formulas, so he proceeds event-to-event using themes. One almost universal theme is repetition, as evidenced in Western folklore with the 'rule of three': three brothers set out, three attempts are made, three riddles are asked. A theme can be as simple as a specific set sequence describing the arming of a hero, starting with shirt and trousers and ending with headdress and weapons. A theme can be large enough to be a plot component. For example: a hero proposes a journey to a dangerous place / he disguises himself / his disguise fools everybody / except for a common person of little account (a crone, a tavern maid or a woodcutter) / who immediately recognizes him / the commoner becomes the hero's ally, showing unexpected resources of skill or initiative. A theme does not belong to a specific story, but may be found with minor variation in many different stories. Themes may be no more than handy prefabricated parts for constructing a tale. Or they may represent universal truths - ritual-based, religious truths as James Frazer saw in The Golden Bough, or archetypal, psychological truths as Joseph Campbell describes in The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
The intrinsic nature of stories was described by Reynolds Price, when he wrote:
''"A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens--second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives, from the small accounts of our day's events to the vast incommunicable constructs of psychopaths."''
There are many kinds of stories, such as fables, parables, myths, legends. Stories are of many moods, such as humorous, inspirational, didactic or educative, frightening, tragic, romantic.
Folklorists sometimes divide oral tales into two main groups: "Märchen" and "Sagen". These are German terms for which there are no exact English equivalents; the first one is both singular and plural. (1) "Märchen," loosely translated as "fairy tale(s)" (though fairies are rare in them) take place in a kind of separate "once-upon-a-time" world of nowhere-in-particular. They are clearly not intended to be understood as true. The stories are full of clearly defined incidents, and peopled by rather flat characters with little or no interior life. When the supernatural occurs, it is presented matter-of-factly, without surprise. Indeed, there is very little affect, generally; bloodcurdling events may take place, but with little call for emotional response from the listener. (2) "Sagen," best translated as "legends," are supposed to have actually happened, very often at a particular time and place, and they draw much of their power from this fact. When the supernatural intrudes (as it often does), it does so in an emotionally fraught manner. Ghost and lover's leap stories belong in this category, as do many UFO-stories, and stories of supernatural beings and events.
Stories of wise men are well known, such as Solomon and Nasreddin.
Modern actors, singers, rappers and comedians can at times be storytellers. There is also a distinct kind of contemporary performer called "storyteller" who combines elements of these more mainstream professions together with several others, to create performances that are neither modern nor archaic. These performers may use traditional, original, or historical materials.
Organizational consultants and managers have also discovered the power of storytelling in organizations. A good story of organizational transformation in one organization might motivate similar organizations to change as well; also, the informal stories people tell to each other about organizational norms, policies and change initiatives permeate organizational culture and reflect the meaning people give to organizational interventions.

Storytelling as art form

Though nearly all humans tell stories, many individuals have brought this skill to the level of art. Storytelling Festivals feature the work of these individuals. Elements of the storytelling art form include visualization (the seeing of images in the mind's eye), and vocal and bodily gestures. In many ways, the art of storytelling draws upon other art forms such as acting, oral interpretation, and performance studies.
In the 1970s, a so called "Renaissance" of storytelling began in the U.S. and resulted in many performers becoming professional storytellers. Another result was the creation of the National Association for the Perpetuation and Preservation of Storytelling (NAPPS), now the National Storytelling Network. This professional organization helped to organize resources for tellers and festival planners. As of 2007, there are dozens of storytelling festivals and hundreds of professional storytellers around the world, and an international celebration of the art on World storytelling day.


Robert Begiebing et al (2004) summarize personal and professional experiences making successful modern films, novels, biographies, articles, museum displays, and poems. Even in these forms, storytellers try to create a sense of engagement or dialog with the audience. As a professor of English, Begiebing hypothesizes that the effective writer provides just enough clues to get the reader's imagination, intellect, and emotional responses involved in figuring out what is going on in the story. The stories that last through the ages "leave plenty up to the reader."

Use of perspectives

History museum expert Barbara Franco describes how good storytelling techniques can improve a museum exhibit. She illustrates the point when she says "good labels raise questions and get people thinking." The voice telling the story makes a great difference. First-person encourages the reader, audience, or visitor to the museum to listen and relate to a person, the speaker, not just to the recitation of facts.
An example of a first-person story is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. There is also a "third person" perspective in which the main character is seen from the outside and the inside at the same time, heightening the reader's involvement in the story.
Mixes of viewpoints and voices assist in telling extremely complex stories. Franco says it this way: "Audience research has shown that visitors are more willing to deal with difficult topics in exhibitions if they are given multiple viewpoints and are able to hear different sides."
"Addressing the unfamiliar is one way to foster critical engagement," says Joshua Brown, filmmaker and historian. A good storyteller gives the listener or reader a sense of making order out of chaos. So the good storyteller must give the reader a good dose of feeling the chaos, and there has to follow enough order made out of the chaos to give the reader the satisfaction of a good story.


However, the stories that appeal to generation after generation are the stories that are never resolvable - just as life is never resolvable; the complexity of life remains. Life is non-linear, says filmmaker David Grubin. If life were linear, we would always live in the present moment, but we don't. At any moment, we live in the past, partly in the present, and much in the future. Life is non-linear. And the best films convey that non-linearity of life in flashbacks and premonitions. Grubin tells his own experience of trying to capture on film what it was like to be Sigmund Freud. And Grubin's solution was to tell the childhood of Freud toward the end of the film when Freud is rehashing for himself the difficulties he had in creating psychoanalysis. And in that moment of complexity in his life, Freud reflects on the similar difficulties he had in his childhood in getting people to accept him.
In Grubin's estimation, Kurosawa similarly looked for non-linear storytelling techniques when he approached the problem of telling in Rashomon the very complex story of conflicting interests. Four different people are involved in a murder. They have different self-interests, and they have different stories of what happened. It is all one film, but it is four different stories with similar people and similar props in each of the four stories. Kurosawa does not give a clue to what really happened - as opposed to the four conflicting stories. The non-linearity of the storytelling adds to the popular appeal of this film.

Questioning the author's authority

Kurt Vonnegut, in the guise of his narrator Philboyd Studge (who is modelled closely on Vonnegut's own life, and whose name comes from a short story by the master storyteller Saki) went even so far as to argue not only against linearity, but to call for the abolition of traditional plot characteristics altogether. In his novel Breakfast of Champions he opts instead for a kaleidoscopic view on the past, present, and future of the novel's characters as well as on his thoughts on writing the novel itself. He claims to do so in order to be more true to life:
''"I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done. If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead."''
In Vonnegut's novel, this particular form of narration (or lack thereof) serves to create empathy on the readers' side with the narrator's and his main protagonist's experience of an existential crisis.

Emancipation of the story

In oral tradition, where stories were passed on by being told and re-told again and again, the material of any given story during this process naturally underwent several changes and adaptations. When and where oral tradition was pushed back in favour of print media, the literary idea of the author as originator of a story's authoritative version changed people's perception of stories themselves. In the following centuries, stories tended to be seen as the work of individuals rather than a collective. Only recently, when a significant number of influential authors began questioning their own role, the value of stories as such - independent of authorship - was again recognized. Literary critics such as Roland Barthes even proclaimed the Death of the Author. The growing tradition of fanfiction may be seen in this manner.


Further reading

  • Beyer, Jürgen, 'Prolegomena to a history of story-telling around the Baltic Sea, c. 1550-1800', Electronic Journal of Folklore, vol. 4 (1997), 43-60
  • Bruner, Jerome S. Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 1986. ISBN 0674003659
  • Bruner, Jerome S. Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2002. ISBN 0374200246
  • Gargiulo, Terrence L. Stories at Work: Using Stories to Improve Communication and Build Relationships. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers. 2006. ISBN 0275987310
  • Gargiulo, Terrence L. The Strategic Use of Stories in Organizational Communication and Learning. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe. 2005. ISBN 0765614138
  • Leitch, Thomas M. What Stories Are: Narrative Theory and Interpretation. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press. 1986. ISBN 0271004312
  • McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. New York: ReganBooks. 1997. ISBN 0060391685
  • Mitchoff, Kate Houston. "Ignite the story within: a librarian makes a case for using storytelling to increase literacy". School Library Journal. New York: R.R. Bowker Xerox. 1961. ISSN 0362-8930 OCLC 99656380 (REPRINT: 2005, February. ERIC Document EJ710440.)
  • Randall, W. "Restorying a Life: Adult Education and Transformative Learning." In Aging and Biography: Explorations in Adult Development. Edited by James E. Birren et al., pp. 224-247. New York: Springer Publishing, 1996. ISBN 0826189806
  • Reis, Pamela Tamarkin. "Genesis as Rashomon: The creation as told by God and man." Bible Review 17 (3). Washington, D.C.: Biblical Archaeology Society. 2001. ISSN 8755-6316
  • Shedlock, Marie L. The Art of the Story-teller. D. Appleton & Company, New York, 1917. ISBN 1406815225
  • Wiessner, C. A. Stories of Change: Narrative in Emancipatory Adult Education. Thesis Ed. D. dissertation, Teachers College, Columbia University. 2001. OCLC 80185345
storytelling in Polish: Storytelling
Privacy Policy, About Us, Terms and Conditions, Contact Us
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Material from Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Dict
Valid HTML 4.01 Strict, Valid CSS Level 2.1