From Academic Kids

For the Jim Henson production, see The Storyteller.

Storytelling is the art of portraying in words, images, and sounds what has happened in real or imagined events. The oldest forms of storytelling were oral. Later, stories could be conveyed by sculptures or writings on stone, wood, or parchment.

Modern technology adds to all of the previous techniques for storytelling the motion picture, together with oral dialog, images, sound effects, and musical accompaniment. But whether in olden times or in modern times, the challenge of storytelling was the same: How do you get across the complexity in the events of the story?

The Boyhood of Raleigh by , oil on canvas, 1870.A seafarer tells the young  and his brother the story of what happened out there at sea.  Young Raleigh's toy boat is in the lower left.
The Boyhood of Raleigh by Sir John Everett Millais, oil on canvas, 1870.
A seafarer tells the young Sir Walter Raleigh and his brother the story of what happened out there at sea. Young Raleigh's toy boat is in the lower left.

Oral traditions

People in all times and places have told stories. In the oral tradition, storytelling depends on an audience: the listeners create the images from the words told by the storyteller. In this, the audience is co-creator of the art. Storytellers dialogue with their audience-- adjusting their words to respond to the listeners and adjust to the moment.

In this manner, oral storytelling is an improvisational art form, in many ways akin to jazz. Generally, a storyteller does not memorize a set text, but learns a series of incidents that form a satisfying narrative arch (a plot) with a distinct beginning, middle and end, the teller visualizes the characters and settings, and then improvises the actual wording at the speed of speech. Thus no two tellings of an oral story are exactly alike.

The Harvard researcher Albert Bates Lord studied oral narratives from many traditions, including field recordings of Yugoslav oral bards collected by Milman Parry in the 1930's, and the texts of epics such as The Odyssey and Beowulf. His conclusions were that a surprisingly large part of these stories consist of text improvised in the telling from a mental storehouse of set 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 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 or 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 -- magical/religious truths as James Frazer saw in The Golden Bough, or mythic/psychological truths as Joseph Campbell describes in The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

The intrinsic nature of stories was recently described in A Palpable God, (1997) by Reynolds Price (Akkadine Press) 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, and legends. Stories are of many moods, such as humorous, inspirational, educative, frightening, tragic, romantic.

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.

Creating engagement with the reader or audience

Robert Begiebing et al (2004) summarize personal and professional experiences making successful modern films, novels, biographies, articles, museum displays, and poems. Even in modern times, the power of storytelling comes from creating an engagement or dialog with the audience. But if the storyteller is not right there in person, how can there be engagement? 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."

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. Novelist Robert Clark Young presents yet a different point-of-view in his novel One of the Guys--this is the "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."

 in Chains by , marble, 1737.
Prometheus in Chains by Nicolas-Sébastien Adam, marble, 1737.

"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 Rashômon 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. And Kurosawa does not give a clue to what really happened--as opposed to the four conflicting stories. And the non-linearity of the storytelling adds to the popular appeal of the film.

The appeal of non-linear storytelling

Main article: Creation according to Genesis

Biblical scholar Pamela Tamarkin Reis (2001) proposes that the non-linear approach to storytelling in Genesis provides an almost perfect balance between 1) giving enough clues to keep the reader engaged while 2) leaving most of the story to the reader. For example according to Ms. Reis, the beginning of Genesis has the appearance of being written by two different authors. Whether or not Genesis was written by two or more authors, Ms. Reis examines the centuries-long popularity of Genesis and attributes that popularity to the power and effectiveness of the non-linear storytelling in Genesis.

According to Ms. Reis, Genesis 1 and 2 can be seen as either one painting with two panels or as two separate paintings. Both are appropriate. She draws the parallel with the ancient story-telling technique that Kurosawa employed in the movie Rashomon. In that movie, the same series of events are told through the eyes of four different people, and of course realistically there are contradictions in the different narratives. And you could make sense out of that movie either as four different stories or as four people having four different realistic narratives of the same story.

Accordingly, Ms. Reis analyzes Genesis 1 as God's narrative and Genesis 2 as man's narrative. In Genesis 1, the style of narration is very orderly and logical, proceeding from basics like heaven and earth, through plants and animals to man and woman. And everything is "good" or "very good." Ms. Reis suggests that the story-teller has a bit of whimsy in noting how perfect everything is from God's view.

In contrast, in Genesis 2, man tells the story from his own self-centeredness. Man is created first, of course. And there are a few flaws. Man is alone, without a woman. Whereas, in Genesis 1, the phrase is "heaven and earth" repeated several times, in Genesis 2, God makes "earth and heaven." And another thing, in Genesis 2, there is that troubling notice that "there was no one to till the ground." That sounds like a lot of work, an unending task--very unlike the completeness of Genesis 1.

Even the words used in Genesis 1 suggest serenity, the godly plane of existence. For example, in Genesis 1, the word for God is Elohim, the generic and distant God, while God's name in Genesis 2 is the personal and very sacred YHWH Elohim, the Lord of God. Even the verb of making is different in the two narratives, in the first narrative the verb is the Hebrew "arb" which means "create from nothing," something that only God can do. In contrast, the verb in the second narrative means "make," God "made earth and heaven." Maybe man cannot make earth and heaven, but at least man can make many things from what is already lying about. And then there are those interesting details about where to find gold and lapis lazuli--only in the second narrative, of course. From God's view in the first narrative, gold is not even mentioned; gold is something only in man's narrative.

From all of these clues, Ms. Reis suggests that Genesis 1 and 2 make sense either way, just as for Kurosawa's Rashomon. They make sense as two different stories. Or they make sense as two narratives of the same story from different personal perspectives: that of God and that of man.

See also


  • Begiebing, R., J. Brown, B. Franco, D. Grubin, R. Rosen & N. Trethewey. (2004). Interchange: Genres of history. Journal of American History 91 (Sept. 2004), 572-593.
  • Brown, J. S., S. Denning, K. Groh & L. Prusak. "Storytelling in Organizations : Why Storytelling Is Transforming 21st Century Organizations and Management". Butterworth-Heinemann, 2004
  • Bruner, J. ACTUAL MINDS, POSSIBLE WORLDS. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.
  • Bruner, J. MAKING STORIES. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2002.
  • Leitch, T. M. WHAT STORIES ARE: NARRATIVE THEORY AND INTERPRETATION. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986.
  • Lord, Albert Bates THE SINGER OF TALES. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.
  • Randall, W. "Restorying a Life: Adult Education and Transformative Learning." In AGING AND BIOGRAPHY: EXPLORATIONS IN ADULT DEVELOPMENT, edited by J. E. Birren et al., pp. 224-247. New York: Springer Publishing, 1996.
  • Reis, Pamela Tamarkin (2001). Genesis as Rashomon: The creation as told by God and man. Bible Review 17 (3).
  • Wiessner, C. A. "Stories of Change: Narrative in Emancipatory Adult Education." Ed.D. dissertation, Teachers College, Columbia University, 2001.

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