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Storytelling traditions

A short warning on the subject of how people tell stories. Examples of what a story is for, how it's conveyed, how to turn a simple tale into a classic fable.


Storytelling is probably the original art form. Tens of thousands of years ago mankind used its ability to convey information in a completely unexpected way. While language could convey simple and literal information, much the way a bee can dance in a hive to tell the other workers where to find nectar, humanity had much greater flexibility of communication.

It may have started simply, telling a joke, exaggerating for comic effect. We learnt how to convey our message as subtext, as a moral of the tale rather than simply stating it. Then at some point we learnt to enjoy the stories themselves. Even if the message was well-known or unimportant the conclusion of the story didn't carry its only value; there was merit in the journey as well as the destination. Stories became community affairs, told around campfires, public performances.

Stories became part of the culture and creativity of the human condition. We told stories, danced, sang songs, painted and sculpted. The desire to do those things is an old desire. Long before humanity knew it wanted money, power, transport, healthcare, nationality, policing, defence, agriculture, walls and windows; long before all of that, humanity craved art.

The purpose of stories

Stories aren't just random collections of words. The ones that linger are examples of information in a structured form. More than that, the ability to convey stories that engage the audience means there needs to be some sympathy beween the story and the culture surrounding it. Like art a story can be beautiful or ugly. Ugly stories, like ugly paintings, vanish from our memory.

Most stories have and convey a set purpose. A priest might tell a story to convey a lesson from religion. A father might tell a story about the dangers of swimming in the sea. A King might tell a story to inspire his troops. Deciding on what the story is telling us is just as important as deciding on the plot. Common themes in storytelling include:

Stories told to make a warning message sink in. These tales convey the dangers of the world, forming a part of the education of the inexperienced members of society.
Paragon tales
Stories of heroes from the past. These stories are to encourage people to emulate the greatest of people. Paragons may seem impossible to equal, perhaps they are, but making an effort to follow their paths is a powerful motive for excellence.
Sort of a subset of the Paragon story, these tales don't encourage people to emulate the actions of their greatest forebears but instead the piety of them. This can be seen as either a theological parable or as a priestly employment protection mechanism.
In this category we don't mean history the way a university professor understands it. As a storytelling form history isn't bedecked with footnotes and references; this is history in the Shakespearian sense. These explained where you came from, who hated you and why, who you hated and why.

The hero undertakes a journey, he overcomes difficulties, learns lessons. He is changed by hese experiences and, ultimately, can defeat his enemies and earn his rewards.

Sound familiar? Well it should, it's the plot of Beowulf and The Odyssey, of Star Wars and The Godfather. This is the heroic legend. It isn't always a hero, he doesn't always win, the rewards might be tangible or virtual, he might win gold or he might win a warrior's death. These themes are universal and compelling. Or, wait. You see there's a little snag here. In the Anglo-Saxon storytelling tradition, in the Romantic storytelling tradition, in the Slavic storytelling tradition these are universal. But what about the Aztec tradition or the Japanese tradition?

Actually with the staggeringly simple description above, yes, these are pretty universal. But there is a message here. Different cultures have different traditions.

A ghost story

A young couple moves into a house, but they discover it's haunted. Scary things begin to happen until...

  • They employ an exorcist who battles and defeats the ghost. or...
  • They discover the ghost is actually trying to warn them about the serial-killer next door who murdered the previous occupant of the house, hence the ghost. or...
  • They communicate with the ghost, finding out why it's hanging around. They then complete its mission so it can fade away in peace.

I'm aware those aren't the only options, but that's three perfectly reasonable film plots there for you to think about.

But here's an interesting cultural bias. You see a Japanese viewer, who grew up in a different cultural context, doesn't think any of those options are plausible. In Japanese culture, traditionally, the ghosts of ancestors are an implacable force, menacing and terrifying. They can't be exorcised, they don't have fond feelings towards the living, they aren't subject to a negotiated settlement. They are an entirely different kind of ghost, a different proposition entirely. In Japanese stories the approach is one of abject submission. A desperate attempt to humble yourself and make some form of offering is the only chance a ghost can be subdued. This is because in the Western tradition a ghost retains much of the personality and motivation the person had when alive. You weren't frightened of your grandmother when she was alive so why would you need to fear her when she's dead? In the Japanese tradition a ghost is nothing like the living person, retaining none of their character.

When Japanese horror stories began to become popular films in the West their treatment of the supernatural seemed fresh and exciting. Inevitably over time the Japanese cultural ghost became as familiar as any other and the new films in the tradition began to seem like reworkings of earlier efforts.

"What's unique to cinema, unlike any other art form, is that you can show the audience and the character the same piece of information. They see what the character is seeing."

Brian de Palma