Storytelling describes the social and cultural activity of sharing stories, sometimes with improvisation, theatrics, or embellishment. Every culture has its own stories or narratives, which are shared as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation or instilling moral values. Crucial elements of stories and storytelling include plot, characters and narrative point of view.
The term “storytelling” can refer in a narrow sense specifically to oral storytelling and also in a looser sense to techniques used in other media to unfold or disclose the narrative of a story.
Storytelling predates writing. The earliest forms of storytelling were usually oral combined with gestures and expressions. In addition to being part of religious rituals, some archaeologists believe rock art may have served as a form of storytelling for many ancient cultures. The Australian aboriginal people painted symbols from stories on cave walls as a means of helping the storyteller remember the story. The story was then told using a combination of oral narrative, music, rock art and dance, which bring understanding and meaning of human existence through remembrance and enactment of stories. People have used the carved trunks of living trees and ephemeral media (such as sand and leaves) to record stories in pictures or with writing. Complex forms of tattooing may also represent stories, with information about genealogy, affiliation and social status.
With the advent of writing 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. Oral stories continue to be created, improvisationally by impromptu storytellers, as well as committed to memory and passed from generation to generation, despite the increasing popularity of written and televised media in much of the world.
Modern storytelling has a broad purview. In addition to its traditional forms (fairytales, folktales, mythology, legends, fables etc.), it has extended itself to representing history, personal narrative, political commentary and evolving cultural norms. Contemporary storytelling is also widely used to address educational objectives. New forms of media are creating new ways for people to record, express and consume stories. Tools for asynchronous group communication can provide an environment for individuals to reframe or recast individual stories into group stories. Games and other digital platforms, such as those used in interactive fiction or interactive storytelling, may be used to position the user as a character within a bigger world. Documentaries, including interactive web documentaries, employ storytelling narrative techniques to communicate information about their topic. Self-revelatory stories, created for their cathartic and therapeutic effect, are growing in their use and application, as in Psychodrama, Drama Therapy and Playback Theatre.
The other type of story vocabulary is theme, a set sequence of story actions that structure a tale. Just as the teller of tales proceeds line-by-line using formulas, so he proceeds from event-to-event using themes. One near-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.
Märchen, loosely translated as “fairy tale(s)” (lit. little stories), take place in a kind of separate “once-upon-a-time” world of nowhere-in-particular, at an indeterminate time in the past. 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 effect, generally; bloodcurdling events may take place, but with little call for emotional response from the listener.
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 lovers’ leap stories belong in this category, as do many UFO stories and stories of supernatural beings and events.
Another important examination of orality in human life is Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982). Ong studies the distinguishing characteristics of oral traditions, how oral and written cultures interact and condition one another, and how they ultimately influence human epistemology.