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Early Forms of Storytelling


Storytelling is the ancient art of conveying events in words, images, and sounds. Stories have probably been shared in every culture and in every land as a means of entertainment, education, preservation of culture and to instill knowledge and values/morals. Crucial elements of 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.

The appearance 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 such as can be seen in the artwork scratched onto the walls of caves may also have been early forms of 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 invention of writing 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. People in all times and places have told stories. In the oral tradition, storytelling includes the teller and the audience. The storyteller creates the experience, while the audience perceives the message and creates personal mental images from the words heard and the gestures seen. In this experience, the audience becomes co-creator of the art. Storytellers sometimes dialogue with their audience, adjusting their words to respond to the listeners and to the moment.

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 relatings 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.

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