Extracts from Chapter 1: “What’s Storytelling

WE ARE ALL part of a story — a life story. Part of a continuum with links that began with the arrival of human existence on earth and which will go on through our descendants far into the future.

Storytelling is recognised as one of the earliest forms of human activity. “Tell us a story” — along with “I love you” and “Pass the dinosaur bones” — would have been among the first words uttered by the human race.

Early people were not concerned with literature and art as such, but were driven by the basic need to survive. Stories began in caves. There were no books, radio, or television back then. To a group of cave-dwellers huddled around a campfire, a teller of the stories of hunts and battles would be highly prized and in great demand.

Early cave paintings and drawings, precursors of the written word were possibly the illustrations of early man’s spiritual beliefs. It has been suggested that the stories and drawings of the hunt were an attempt to establish a spiritual relationship with the animals portrayed in the hope that they would materialise in great numbers and so ensure an abundant food supply.

The earliest written stories were recorded 4000 years ago by ancient Sumerians on cuneiform clay tablets. About this time Egyptians carved their stories on their temples. Around 1200 BC, papyrus, a form of paper was made from reeds and used to record stories.

But many races have no written history. Their stories were handed down from generation to generation through tribal storytellers, elected by the people as narrators and curators of the traditional tales. They were gifted people who held an important place in those early societies.

What is a story?

A story is defined as a narrative or tale of real or fictitious events. Stories are a nourishment for our hungry souls. Often stories we regard as fiction have elements of truth dressed up to make them more palatable. Stories are magic, taking us everywhere: backwards, forwards or happening right in the present time, transporting us to many places and situations we might never go.

Is there a difference between written and ‘told’ stories?

Written versions of stories are not the same as oral ones. Reading restricts the teller much more. The text is an outline of what the teller sees, but the language is in a different (literary) shape or form. The storyteller frees up the static language and gives it life and form.

The story-reader has to find a way to compensate for the loss of the storyteller’s accoutrements: body language, eye contact, intonation and natural pace. This loss may necessitate some modification to the language to speed up the action. Illustrations can help, but again, they are someone else’s interpretation of the teller’s vision.

Stories entertain, inspire, instruct and heal. They are as relevant now as they ever were. Stories are like onions. There is the surface skin and then there are the many layers of sub-text that need to be peeled away before you come to the heart or wisdom of the stories.

There are many different types of stories. The most important consideration when choosing a tale to tell is whether you like it enough to tell it with enthusiasm. Stories should communicate to you a need to be told.

Some of the different categories of stories available to storytellers are:

  1. Fable — a short moral story not based on fact, using animals as characters, such as, Aesop’s Fables – The Fox and the Grapes, Lion and the mouse and others.
  2. Fairytale – The best-known would be Grimm’s fairytales about imaginary folk, such as elves, giants, witches, gnomes, and fairies. Closer to home is Mary and the Leprechaun, by Irish-Australian writer John Kelly.
  3. Folk tale – a traditional story, in which ordinary people gain special insight, transforming them and enabling them to overcome extraordinary obstacles. See The Magic Orange Tree & other Haitian Folktales by Diane Wolkstein.
  4. Legend – a story based on the life of a real person in which events are depicted larger than life, for example, The Stories of Robin Hood, or King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
  5. Myth – a story about gods and heroes, explaining the workings of nature and human nature. See Psyche and Eros or Inanna by Diane Wolkstein.
  6. Parable – a fictitious story told to point to a moral, for example, The Sower and the Seed from the New Testament of the Bible.
  7. Personal story – a life story from your own or your family’s experience, such as, Streets and Alleys by Syd Lieberman.
  8. Religious story – an historical and philosophical story based on a particular culture and religious persuasion, for example, The Story of Lazarus from the Bible.
  9. Tall tale – an exaggerated story, often humorous. Fishing stories, Australian Bush stories, see The Loaded Dog by Henry Lawson.
  10. Traditional tale – a story handed down orally from generation to generation, such as the Polynesian stories – Maui, and The Coming of the Maori.

Anyone with a message to convey can do so more memorably and effectively with an appropriate story.

A really good spinner of yarns, especially one who ‘doesn’t let the truth get in the way of a good story’, adds spice to any barbecue, pub-drinking school, or family get-together. They use storytellers’ licence (a variation of poetic licence) to rearrange a story and improve it.

Once upon a time…’ is one of the most guaranteed attention-getting phrases of the English language. Everyone loves a story!

Helen McKay