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. 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 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There is also a special form of electronic literature called Interactive fiction which was long ago abandoned by commercial publishers but is kept alive by a small but hardy community who continue not only to produce content but also develop tools and standards.