Storytelling Through The Ages

It is National Storytelling Week until Sunday, which means you can expect quite a few posts about fairy tales and storytelling coming up over the next few days. Today, let’s celebrate by looking back to see how far the art of storytelling has actually come.

Stories exist in so many different forms, it is almost impossible to completely wrap your mind around it. We frame our own lives in and as stories. Every time you tell someone about your day, you’re effectively telling a story. Mind you, it may not always be an interesting one, but you do make choices in how you order the various events of that day and which ones you want to emphasize. Anyone telling a story has to make similar choices. And we don’t just tell each other stories in daily life, stories are everywhere. Have always been everywhere. Primitive cave art might be interpreted as notebooks logging the prehistorical version of daily life. Going back even further, you might speculate that people were already telling each other stories, even if they didn’t yet have the means of recording them for later generations.

Leaping forward into actual history, the first printed book – The Epic Of Gilgamesh, incidentally also the first known work of fantasy / fiction – was published in 700 BCE. It was followed by Aesop’s Fables around 200 BCE, a collection of stories which scholars are certain had already been circulating for circa 300 years. Ever since stories were written down, people have been studying them. In 335 BCE Aristotle published his treatise De Poetica, analyzing the dramatic structures present in storytelling. In 19 BCE Horace wrote Ars Poetica, in which he provides a guide for aspiring writers and poets. This tradition still exists today, as becomes evident in the list of background reading at the bottom.

We are so obsessed with stories and the telling of them, that stories featuring storytellers are not all that rare. The trope of the embedded narrative is most famously represented by The Tales Of 1001 Arabian Nights, where Scheherazade spends the titular nights telling stories to another character. Usually, these stories feature stories, which might even feature stories. It is a very Inception-like reading experience, and epitomizes the framework telling.

It is remarkable that this art still survives today, that people still practice it, that there is even an audience for it when so many different formats for storytelling are now available as well: graphic novels, movies, TV series, musicals, theater, dance, ballet, music, paintings, sculpture, fashion. It seems that stories are at the basis of all these art forms, and that these art forms influence each other. They certainly borrow from each other. Movies are based on books, movies are novelized, video games are based on history or fiction, or a combination of the two. These influences do go deeper as well: without the Tapestry of Bayeux, where would the comic strip be? As an art form, stories are everywhere.

Which begs the question: how did they come to be everywhere? The ways in which stories manage to spread over a geographical area have also developed over time. The cave art of prehistory was pinned to one physical site, and the artists generally did not travel far and wide. The true spreading of oral storytelling was facilitated by troubadours, bards, and other travelling troupes. They would go wherever there was an audience, sharing all sorts of stories: biblical, mythological, historical: everything was fair game. This form of storytelling also still persists today, especially in Italy’s tradition of commedia dell’arte. 

In his book Into The Woods: How Stories Work And Why We Tell Them, John Yorke identifies a five-act storyline he believes to be universally present. However, he also says that this arc can be divided into three or even two acts. It all depends on how you identify those acts. For instance, Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods has a clear cut down the middle where the atmosphere of the narrative almost makes a 180. This may be because of the requirements that come from being a musical: an interlude is generally expected. There are many more patterns available though, ranging from one-shots (e.g. Vines) to 31 acts to a story.

More background

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