New Worlds: Oral Storytelling

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

“Once upon a time . . .”

I promise, it isn’t just the fact that I’m a writer that has me dividing up the topic of storytelling into two essays, one addressing the oral side, the other addressing the written. When I was in graduate school, I read a book (whose title I have now thoroughly forgotten) that argued for the transition from oral culture to written as a kind of singularity, transforming society as it passed through that shift. There are flaws in the argument — but also a kernel of truth.

For flaws, you might consider the way that literacy doesn’t always spread evenly: women, poor people, and other disadvantaged groups are often closed out of that world, creating a hybridized setup even within a given household, let alone an entire society. We should also note that despite our highly literate culture, oral storytelling hasn’t gone away. Verbal genres like anecdotes and jokes are alive and well, even though we may not think of them as “storytelling” as such. And if you’ve ever had to entertain a small child without much on hand, you may have made up a story, or given a condensed version of something you learned from a book or a movie.

But of course that isn’t quite what comes to mind when we hear the phrase “oral storytelling.” That brings to mind the granny by the fire, the priest reciting myths, a whole complex corpus of tales in different genres, all held in the mind rather than on the page.

This is not some trivial side aspect of a culture. Ask most people how they imagine a hunter-gatherer society working, and they’ll tell you that women will obviously want as their mates the best hunters, the guys who can regularly bring home a deer or whatever. In actual practice, it turns out that one of the most effective ways to attract the ladies in such a culture is to be a great storyteller. I haven’t read enough on this topic to tell you why that is, but I would guess it has to do with both the wisdom that demonstrates — a great stock of lore at the man’s command — and the social power that comes with being a good teller of tales. Plus, of course, the fact that he’ll be able to keep people amused during the long journeys from one hunting ground to another, and all the other time spent not shooting at deer.

Where the idea of lore is concerned: bear in mind that in an oral culture, storytelling isn’t only about entertainment. When you can’t write things down, everything has to be remembered and regularly transmitted by word of mouth. Religion, moral instruction, history, genealogies, how-to manuals, geographical atlases — all of that and more is contained within oral storytelling. Stories can even have magical power, such that there are taboos around when and where they can be told, or to whom. In folklore studies there’s a famous case of the scholar Barre Toelken recording Navajo stories from the Yellowman family, some of which had the restriction of only being told in winter. During his life he taught a course on those stories only during the spring semester, so he could play the recordings for his students in the appropriate season . . . but since he couldn’t trust that anyone after him would respect that promise, he ultimately chose to destroy most of his records and return the tapes to the family, rather than placing them in an archive outside their control.

You may wonder how people can remember all this stuff without writing it down. Part of the answer there is that if you don’t have writing, or don’t rely on it regularly, you simply develop that part of your brain; when you do rely on writing, it atrophies. I used to have easily a dozen phone numbers memorized, probably more. Now that they’re all programmed into my phone? I know four, two of which belong to lines long since disconnected. We have ancient Sumerian texts lamenting how children these days don’t remember anything, because writing means they don’t have to. They couldn’t conceive of our modern culture, where we’ve outsourced vast amounts of memory labor to our pocket computers. And it’s entirely possible that a future culture will have re-integrated that technology in a fashion that means the distinction between what “I” remember and what my personal computing device remembers blurs out of visibility.

But some of it also has to do with the structure of the material itself. In order to keep these essays to a semi-standard length, I’m deferring poetry until later, but even non-poetic tales make recollection easier. We remember narratives better than dry facts. And oral stories are frequently constructed with a lot of repetition on the level of both prose and plot. Which can feel grating to the modern audience, especially when read rather than heard — but what works on the page and in the ear can be very different things.

If you want to do something with oral storytelling in your fiction, the best thing you can possibly do is to seek out some collections of actual folklore. Modern ones, to be specific — because only in more recent times have folklorists devoted effort to recording the form as well as the content of a tale. I’m not just talking about the changes made by the likes of the Brothers Grimm, tidying up the bloodier or bawdier bits and replacing mothers with stepmothers so as not to reflect badly on the flower of German parenting; I’m talking about the word-by-word delivery.

Think of how flat many joke books fall when you read them, because so much of the effect is in the delivery rather than the text itself. Think of how a good audiobook narrator can bring a story to life, and a bad one can squash all vitality out of it. A great deal of oral performance relies on the instrument of the voice: its volume, its pacing, its pitch. And when it’s in-person narration, rather than a pre-recorded audiobook, you also have facial expressions, posture, gestures — all the tools in an actor’s toolkit.

The text gets shaped to those tools. When I read fictional “folklore,” very little of it rings true to me, because the writer is often still trying to replicate the devices of written storytelling. They describe the way someone is speaking, rather than assuming the performer would supply that aspect. They dig into the complex interiority of the character, when most oral tales deal much more with the surface qualities of action and speech. And they are, very frequently, way too long; real folklore is often (though not always) quite short. Even at the level of sentence structure, there are distinctions: when I wrote papers to present at conferences, I realized that I needed to craft my prose differently. Shorter sentences, more frequent repetition and callback, and other such features are common to oral texts, to an extent that would be tedious on the page.

So if you want to know more of this, go digging. There’s even a subfield in folklore called either “ethnopoetics” or “the ethnography of speaking” which has worked to develop techniques for representing more aspects of performance on the page, breaking it up a la poetry and using different typographical conventions to convey pacing, volume, and so forth. Reading such a text can be a little weird . . . but you can also seek out YouTube videos of traditional storytellers in various cultures to get a feel for how it goes in reality.

(Who knows? It might even help you acquire a mate!)

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Oral Storytelling — 12 Comments

  1. When I worked at a museum and haunted historically oriented craft fairs, there was a guy in a beaver top hat who made pottery, using a traditional salt glaze, and a wagon wheel to craft the clay, and he told stories of Oregon history. He match the rhythm of his words to the spinning wheel. I learned a lot from him about repetition and inflection as well as rhythm.

    Flash forward to an anthology I edited. My first submission was from a man in Indonesia. English was not his first, or even second, language. And obviously he was a wonderful raconteur, but not necessarily a writer. We reached an agreement where he allowed me to rewrite the story into idiomatic English. A wonderful but exhausting exercise. I’ll never do that again, but it was worth it once.

    • Yes, so much storytelling while the work gets done! Certain kinds of work, anyway — it needs to be not too noisy and not so strenuous you can’t talk easily.

  2. Pingback: New Worlds: Oral Storytelling - Swan Tower

  3. I’m betting that the book you read was by Walter Ong, possibly The Presence of the Word or more probably Orality and Literacy (the subject of a lot of snide-remarkery at my cross-town institution when it was published, until two prominent faculty members in related areas chimed in with praise). Ong’s work is respected even in the world of Arabic scholars, which shouldn’t surprise anyone.

    Ong’s work is not without flaws, but it is extremely thought-provoking. Its biggest flaw is the presumption that there exists a Grand Unified Theory — which may well be true, but the evidence is too fragmentary as yet and the theory even more so. (And its applicability to true Other, like “Faerie”, at best dubious anthropomorphism.)

    • Yes, Orality and Literacy! Thanks. And yeah, “not without flaws, but thought-provoking” is pretty much how I vaguely recall it being.

  4. Ultimately that theory goes back to The Gutenberg Galaxy by Marshall McLuhan.

  5. A lot of folktale collections clean up the tales enough to rearrange such details as “I forgot to tell you, she wore the dress like the sun the third time.”

    Word by word is harder to find but those sorts of details are included.

  6. Socrates criticized the newish practice of writing, arguing (in his remarks written down by Plato, ironically) that writing weakened memory and personal/interior knowledge and wisdom, by relying on the exterior and records of others. If my memory serves, he believed that the Greeks were declining from the Golden Age that included memorizing oral epics.

  7. Have you read God Stalk? Only thing that came to mind for fictional ‘oral’ that I’d read:

    “Jame hesitated. Few outsiders knew the full history of that treacherous act, which had nearly shattered the Kencyrath’s spirit forever, but then Dally, as Dalis-sar’s stepson, was to some extent a member of the family. Abruptly she knelt, closed her eyes, and began to recite:

    “Gerridon Highlord, Master of Knorth, a proud man was he. The Three People held he in his hand—Arrin-ken, Highborn, and Kendar—by right of birth and might. Wealth and power had he, and knowledge deeper than the Sea of Stars. But he feared death. “Dread lord,” he said to the Shadow that Crawls, even to Perimal Darkling, ancient of enemies, “my god regards me not. If I serve thee, whilt thou preserve me, even to the end of time?” Night bowed over him. Words they spoke. Then went my lord Gerridon to his sister and consort, the priestess Jamethiel Dream-Weaver, and said, “Dance out the souls of the faithful that darkness may enter in.” And she danced. Two-thirds of the People fell that night, Highborn and Kendar. “Rise up, Highlord of the Kencyrath,” said the Arrin-ken to Glendar. “Your brother has forfeited all. Flee, man, flee, and we will follow.” And so he fled, Cloak, Knife and Book abandoning, into the new world. Barriers he raised, and his people consecrated them. “A watch we will keep,” they said, “and our honor someday avenge. Alas for the greed of a man and the deceit of a woman, that we should come to this!” ‘ “