views updated


Storytellers are a significant voice of culture, and their storytelling takes myriad forms, from anecdote to ballad, film, and novel. The focus of this entry is on the storyteller as oral narrator and on the unique practice of oral craft. Unlike the processes of writing and image-making, which result in tangible or virtual formats that are saleable as products in commercial/professional venues, the greatest work of a storyteller often seems to evaporate into the ether of oral tradition. The words of storytellers may permeate the minds and hearts of listeners—or, through repetition, entire cultures—without leaving physical traces. Yet the intellectual and emotional impact of effective storytellers is undeniable, whether they perform at home, on stage, in classrooms, libraries, corporate boardrooms, or in a broad range of other locales. Some people make a living as professional storytellers; many more use storytelling, consciously or unconsciously, to enhance other activities. The stories of a teacher, for instance, can make a point more effectively than long, less interesting explanations and may be the only thing a student remembers from the lecture. Good stories are by nature memorable—therefore told, remembered, and retold. Making the best of a good story is up to the teller, who improves through experience with word choice, pace, tonal variation, physical expression, and interaction with listeners.

Although most tellers have spun their stories informally as a respected but unpaid part of domestic and community activities, the profession of storyteller is an old one with many names: minstrel, troubadour, jongleur, trouvère, minnesinger, scald, scop, skaziteli, seanachie, pinkerrd, and griot, to name a few. Before common usage of the printing press, storytellers were a primary means of circulating news and preserving historical, cultural, and literary records, which required feats of memory. Homeric poet/singers had a store of 25,000 epic formula. Irish bards had to learn a minimum of 178 historical tales during their training, with 1,000 at the highest level. So great was their power to sway people that Edward I of England ordered all Irish bards to be killed in 1284 lest they foment a revolt against his rule.

Even as oral modes were replaced by a print tradition, storytellers continued to adapt their tales to new settings. A good example is the U.S. public library movement, where, at the beginning of the twentieth century, librarians specializing in children's literature established story hours as an important part of the early learning experience of children, especially among immigrant youths struggling to bridge different languages and folk traditions. Marie Shedlock, Sara Cone Bryant, Güdrun Thorne-Thompsen, Anna Cogswell Tyler, Mary Gould Davis, Eileen Colwell, Ruth Tooze, Augusta Baker, and others were not only great storytellers in their own right, but also influential in shaping children's librarianship to include the training of children's librarians as storytellers and the establishment of story hour programs.

A U.S. storytelling revival in the 1970s centered on the annual festival at Jonesborough, Tennessee, which soon spawned other regional festivals. The National Association for the Perpetuation and Preservation of Storytelling, founded in 1973-1974 and now known as The National Storytelling Association, serves to represent many interests of contemporary U.S. storytellers, but storytellers thrive outside such organizations as well. Although some folklorists are good storytellers, a degree in folklore grounds one in the scholarship rather than the practice of storytelling. As in the case of creative writers, the best preparation for a storyteller is experience: immersion in stories by listening, reading, and telling. Some storytellers specialize in folktales, others in personal narrative or original stories. The ethics of adaptation and appropriation from other cultures or tellers have been controversial, especially where commercial interests such as recording and publishing are involved. The prevailing code is for storytellers to cite the source of a story they have incorporated from any other source, oral or print, into their own repertoire. Aside from the question of ownership, it is in the best interests of a storyteller to research the background of an unfamiliar tale for purposes of deeper understanding. Exploring folktale variants, for instance, can greatly enhance one's grasp of structural elements that have defied change across time, despite differences in detail.

Some storytellers use props, puppets, costumes, and other accoutrements to enhance their presentations, but these can be distracting if the storyteller does not possess the central power of personality required to project a story or does not have faith in the story alone to hold attention. Most storytellers learn by absorbing rather than memorizing a tale. A story truly absorbed and honed through repeated retellings survives stage fright. Though storytelling in the oral tradition is different from dramatic performance, it nevertheless requires confidence and preparation. The tools of a storyteller are selection, visualization, practice, concentration, projection, and invention. Every storyteller must find the kind of story that individual is suited to tell. Finding the right story is where the good storyteller begins. The next stage is visualizing the story as if one were walking through it until each step of the way is familiar, and then relating one's journey aloud. Just as a good writer must show rather than tell, a good storyteller provides not a description but an experience. Telling the story to others requires great concentration to the exclusion of concern with one's image, effects, interruptions, or anything else besides the story itself and the bond it forms with listeners. Indeed, the interchange between teller and listeners—whether vocal or communicated through eye contact, facial expression, or physical gesture—creates an intense sense of community that is greater than the separate elements of story, teller, and audience. Participation in this alternative world is perhaps the greatest reward for the storyteller.

Like musicians, artists, writers, and actors, few professional storytellers can make a living without supplementary income from other employment. Training and experience in storytelling may begin through education for professions such as librarianship, teaching, or ministry; through academic programs in folklore and anthropology; or simply through independent observation and practice. Certainly, no degree is necessary to become a storyteller. Selection of a good story, skill in telling it, and sense of audience are the only three requirements for success. Anyone who has experienced the successful merging of these three elements is in danger of becoming a storyteller.

See also:Baker, Augusta; Storytelling; Writers.


MacDonald, Margaret. (1993). The Story-Teller's Start-Up Book: Finding, Learning, Performing and Using Folktales. Little Rock, AR: August House Publishers.

Sawyer, Ruth. (1977). The Way of the Storyteller, 2nd edition. New York: Viking Penguin Books.

Schimmel, Nancy. (1992). Just Enough to Make a Story, 3rd edition. Berkeley: Sisters' Choice Press.

Sierra, Judy. (1996). Storytellers' Research Guide. Eugene, OR: Folkprint.

Sobol, Joseph. (1999). The Storytellers' Journey: An American Revival. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Zipes, Jack. (1995). Creative Storytelling: Building Community, Changing Lives. New York: Routledge.

Betsy Hearne