The Evolution of Storytelling

Double warning!

This is the essay that came out of the literature review. It’s even longer…

Why is storytelling important?

“…narrative is present in every age, every place, in every society; it begins with the very history of mankind and there nowhere is, nor has been, a people without narrative.” (Barthes, 1977, pg 79)

Anthropological studies have revealed the pervasion of stories and storytelling throughout human history.  It appears the structure and processing capabilities of the human mind are such that the flow and patterning inherent in stories aids in the retention of information communicated via the tale.  Sugiyama (2001) claims that children as young as thirty months can distinguish between narrative and non-narrative uses of language, in other words, they know a story when they hear one.

Given the universal nature of storytelling, it’s possibly not surprising that those who have studied the area find the same themes recurring in mythology, regardless of culture.  Campbell (1949) distilled this study into his Hero with a Thousand Faces treatise on the universality of the mythological story while Propp (1968) has somehow managed to reduce an entire genus of Russian folktales to a ‘build your own’, ‘paint by numbers’ set of stories, comprised of a selection of situations and options selected from a menu.

He compressed this even further, so each selection was represented by a symbol and he was thus able to convey an entire narrative via a semi-random grouping of symbols.  It’s not an effective method of storytelling, however.  People listen to stories to experience something new, be someone different and do things they could never do (Sheldon, 2004, pg 11).  This may be why the patterning mentioned above works so effectively through stories.  When a story is told well and connects to its audience, they suspend disbelief, become someone other than themselves and so adopt brain patterns and knowledge bridges belonging to that ‘other’ and these new patterns remain available even after the return to reality.

It’s curious to see which of the ancient myths and legends have survived to the current day and which of those are best known to mainstream Western society.  Putting aside the Old Testament, the dominant cultural source of our most commonly-known myths would have to be Greco-Roman.

There are a number of reasons why this should be the case – the relative advancement of the cultures meant the use of the written word was more common than in other, contemporary societies and increased leisure time allowed for greater scope of artistic expression, both in terms of the creation and the recording of stories.  It’s likely that the military dominance of both empires at various points also played a role, along with the proximity of their cultural relics to more recent-day centres for anthropological learning.

Regardless of the cause, Greco-Roman mythology pervades current society in the naming of the planets, the scientific labelling of animals and the ongoing commercial viability of books and movies based on the myths themselves.

Of course there are many other sources of ancient stories – cultures such as the Celts, Vikings, American Indians, Chinese, Indian and Australian Aboriginals have incredibly rich stores of folklore of their own.  Each of them share certain universal traits, as Sugiyama (2001) puts it, ‘all peoples tell stories, and the stories of all peoples exhibit similar concerns’ (pg 235).

Sugiyama (2001 – Anthropology), Sheldon (2004 – Game Development) and Campbell (1949 – Mythology) cite Carl Jung as a significant influence on the current study and understanding of stories, their universality and connection to the ‘collective unconscious’.  Jung’s description of his term ‘collective unconscious’ (as discussed in Sheldon, 2004), refers to it as the shared history of mankind.  He finds evidence of it in phenomena such as déjà vu, love at first sight and the universality of symbols (especially in dreams).  In one respect, Jung started a chain of thought, eloquently taken up many years later by Joseph Campbell (1949), on the study and comparison of stories and symbols (and symbols within stories) across cultures and over time.

Campbell’s 1949 work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, examines mythology, folktales, fairy tales and legends from a wide range of times and cultures to present the overarching theory of the monomyth.  He finds universal elements in the stories of all cultures he has studied – the hero, the quest, the object (the Holy Grail for example), the villain and the mentor.  A quick review of the Greco-Roman myths recounted by Moncrieff (1949) reinforces Campbell’s theory, for that culture at least, and a mental review of the Nordic, Zulu, Celtic, Arthurian, Russian and Aboriginal myths, along with the European fairy tales, encountered while growing up finds further support for the assertion.  Sometimes the hero is a heroine and the quest may not seem as obvious as Perseus’ ‘slay the monsters, save the princess, defeat the evil king’, but some excavation will reveal Campbell’s elements in all of them to some degree.

Oral Traditions

Returning again to Sugiyama (2001), she finds that humanity has learnt how to learn from second-hand information in order to improve the odds of surviving.  She defines information gathering as a task essential to human survival.  By extension, therefore, it may be surmised that those skilled and effective in disseminating the information would come to hold a relatively specific role within their tribes.

Boyd (2001) takes an interesting twist on the above assertion, in seeing the storyteller as one who is indulging in a deep human need to gain the attention of others and, certainly in an oral society, the effective communication of stories would bring a great deal of attention.  The narration becomes a performance rather than a recitation and transports its listeners to a virtual world with strange but helpful echoes of the mundane and ways to deal with life’s challenges.

One of the key features of the oral storytelling tradition is that each storyteller will tell a story differently, and even the same storyteller may adapt certain features and emphases within a story depending on the nature of his or her audience.  Sugiyama (2001) found a study of a Nordic tale with 150 recorded variants showing significant skews in attitude by gender of the narrator.

In short, each telling of a story, regardless of whether the story’s basic plot and structure is the same, will be different.  They are unique ‘storytelling events’ as Georges (1969) puts it.  He goes on to examine these events as social experiences with varying purposes and functions, determined by the culture in which they occur.

These variations are the origins for interactive storytelling.  A wandering storyteller or bard in the middle ages needed to be able to recount the same story to different audiences each night, each time adapting it to the audience’s particular concerns, beliefs, preferences and politics.

Furthermore, the bard would need to have a number of stories in his repertoire if he wanted to spend more than one night in a given place.  The greater the range of stories available to a storyteller, the more likely he was to be able to call upon one suited to the audience, the occasion and the mood.  It may have been around this time that stories began to be set to music, as an aide-memoire.  Regardless of the reason why, the lute-slung travelling bard of the middle ages is now as firmly entrenched in western cultural mythology as the characters of his lays and legends.

The Visual Revolution

The advent of the Gutenberg press and subsequent upsurge in printed material drastically changed the way the Western world imparted and absorbed information.  Rather than a storytelling event such as the one so evocatively described by David Eddings (1982) on page 27 of his novel, Pawn of Prophecy, or a gathering of the local population in the village square to hear the news from the travelling merchants, news and stories were captured on paper and the event moved from that of ritual communication to transmissive (as defined by Carey, 1989).

While people may mourn the passing of the community event in this manner (as discussed in Jones (1997), Rheingold (2000) and Wellman & Gulia (1999)), it’s also worth considering the effect this change in media has had on the nature of the stories being told.  By recording the words permanently in print, the need for simplicity of structure and memory aids for retelling was no longer a primary force.  A comparison of the Greco-Roman myths related (admittedly in print) by Moncrieff (1934) and, say, Shakespeare, or Tolkien show a significant change in the complexity of the plot and the depth of the characters.

One could suggest that this increasing complexity, the emergence of the ‘anti-hero’ and other non-stereotypical characters is a reflection of the increasing complexity of the world in which the stories are attempting to inform.  While there still may be a certain core formula to the relation of mythological tales, as asserted by Campbell (1949) and Propp (1968), there is much greater range for creativity in the journey of the story than would appear to have been the case in the oral tradition (although this is likely to have also been dependent on the skill of the storyteller or bard in the oral tradition).

Through the communications revolution commonly known as the 20th Century, the media by which stories are presented for consumption has expanded to encompass electronic means as well as books.  The most powerful of these is likely to be film, particularly cinema and the progression to this media has also been marked by a change in the nature of the stories told.

As Crawford (2005) asserts, ‘spectacle dominates the movies’ (pg 18) – a statement reinforced by the popularity of movies such as Transformers, Terminator and Star Wars – none of which can lay claim to either a particularly strong plot or depth of character development but they are (or were at time of release), visually and aurally spectacular.

While theatre harks back to the oral tradition of storytelling, the predominant form today is written, or recorded in the case of audio books and film/television.  A concrete, unchanging recounting of a given story is presented for individual consumption and, particularly in the case of cinema, these stories have become valuable commodities in their own right.

Witness, for example the commercial success of the Star Wars franchise; inspired by Campbell’s (1949) The Hero with a Thousand Faces, George Lucas took the classic premise of the heroic quest to outer space, replaced Perseus/Jason/Hercules with a farm boy named Luke and made millions.

No corporation is more successful at selling stories than Disney, and, interestingly, many of their most revered products are the cinematic re-telling of myths and fairy tales.  There are few people in the Western world today who wouldn’t connect a mention of Snow White or Sleeping Beauty with images from the animated features produced by this powerhouse.  When a movie is released, the entire marketing behemoth that is Disney moves into action behind it with the release of associated video games, books, toys, collectibles, clothing, TV shows, theme park rides, live shows and more.

Janet Wasko (2001) follows the activity undertaken to support the release of the Hercules animated movie in 1997 and includes a very apt quote from a Los Angeles Times financial analyst ‘All the other entertainment conglomerates talk about ‘ synergy’  but Disney is the only company that actually does it.  They know how to squeeze ‘synergy’  until it screams for mercy.’ (pg 65).

She also accuses them of ‘continuing to plunder history, mythology and folktales of its visual icons’ (pg 71), although there is some argument for the entertainment industry as a whole indulging in this plunder.  After all, if a story, such as that of Hercules, or of the Trojan War can survive two thousand or so years, then it’s logically likely to hold some market appeal.

It appears that the travelling bard has evolved into the ‘entertainment industry’, dominated in 2001 by only seven multinational corporations: Disney, AOL-Time Warner, Sony, News Corporation, Viacom, Vivendi and Berelsmann (McChesney, 2001, pg 4).  While the prediction is for this mass broadcast industry to consolidate still further (ibid), it appears the strongest challenger for the audience’s ears, eyes, hearts and wallets is the audience itself.  User-generated content is exploding.

Interactivity and Second Orality

The emergence of the internet as a major force in current society looks likely to provide the next stage in the evolution of storytelling, interestingly with a move back towards ritual communication of narrative.

People are coming together in the virtual world to share information via stories.  Of course the Dancing Guy on YouTube1 is a little different to Perseus or the mammoth hunt, but the world creating the story is a different place.  Stories exist to help us make sense of our world, as Boyd (2001) puts it, ‘appealing to our cognitive craving to comprehend the actions and intentions of others’ (pg 201).  That the stories set out in Moncrieff’s (1934) anthology are still around after more than two thousand years shows that some aspects of the world haven’t changed, or maybe these stories are more closely connected to Jung’s collective unconscious than others, so resonate across all conscious barriers.

Contrary to the doomsayers in some areas of the media and childhood education, we aren’t losing our ability to dream, to imagine ourselves into new worlds.  It’s simply being done differently.  Instead of playing soldiers (and falling out of tree houses) with school friends, kids are playing soldiers (or ninja penguins) in online playgrounds with friends from all over the world.  The role playing still exists, the physical aspect is the worrying gap (even if it did lead to the occasional broken arm).

The global village is still a village, and still has its village square, its gossips and teachers, its storytellers and doomsayers, its grumps and its eccentrics.  The stories are still there, in fact they’re more abundant than ever.  It’s the evolution of the media channels by which they’re communicated that is engendering curiosity.

Chris Crawford (2005) sees the future lying in interactive storytelling, via web-based ‘storyworlds’ in which the story’s ‘listener’ (or player, the closest equivalent to this would have to be Online Role-Playing Games) creates their own storyline each time.  Laurel (1993) illustrates this concept quite effectively via her ‘flying wedge’ diagrams replicated below.

Traditional storytelling funnel from the possible to the probable to the necessary

A plot is a progression from the possible to the probable to the necessary (Laurel, 1993, pg 70), as contrasted with:

Interactive storytelling funnels, leading to a number of possible outcomes

The interactive storytelling form (ibid, pg 72)

So, in interactive storytelling, the listener wouldn’t sit and listen to (or read about) Perseus’ battle with Medusa, or Hercules’ twelve tasks or Psyche’s various trials, they’d undertake them, in their own way and so Hercules may only complete six tasks and then go and do something else, or Psyche may decide to fight Venus, rather than follow her commands (Moncrieff, 1934).  The information the story was originally intended to convey becomes a part of the world, rather than the plot.

Again, this draws interesting lines back to role playing games, from Dungeons & Dragons to World of Warcraft.  As with many contemporary fantasy authors, the creators of these games draw very heavily from ancient mythology, be it Arthurian, Greco-Roman, Nordic or otherwise, in to order create virtual worlds that users find compelling – different and yet familiar.

As Naughton (2008) finds, when players in Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) embark on their ‘quest’ to reach the endgame, the storytellers and the listeners merge.  She takes the quest in a rather different direction to Campbell (1949), in likening it more to the personal growth quest of a tribal shaman than a myth re-told.

The power of a well-told story, interactive or not, remains undiminished.  In fact, the pervasive and connected nature of the web is likely to increase this power and give rise to what Ong (1982) calls ‘secondary orality’.  This is the next stage in the progression beyond orality and literacy to another orality that relies the written (or printed) word for its existence.

He sees this as a return to the ritual communication in its ‘…striking resemblances to the old in its participatory mystique, its fostering of a communal sense, its concentration on the present moment and even its use of formulas…’ (Ong, 1982, pg 136).  Whereas reading turns individuals in on themselves, secondary orality turns people back out, to communities, but communities not constrained by distance or time, as was the case in the primary oral culture.

This means that, once again, the presentation of the story, beyond its bare bones and key information becomes important.  The written word is the base of the storytelling event, but it’s in the presentation and connection of the storyteller with the audience where the true power lies.


  1. viewed 16:39 18-Jun-09


Barthes, R. 1977, Image – Music – Text, trans. S. Heath, Hill and Wang, NY

Boyd, B. 2001, The Origin of Stories: Horton Hears a Who, Philosophy and Literature, Vol 25, No 2, Oct 2001, pg 197-214

Campbell, J. 1949, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, HarperCollins Publishers, London

Carey, J. 1989, ‘A Cultural Approach to Communication’ (Chapter 1), Communications as Culture: Essays on Media and Society, Routledge, New York, pg 13-36

Crawford, C. 2005, Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling, New Riders, Berkley, CA

Eddings, D. 1982, Pawn of Prophecy, Corgi Books, London

Georges, R.A. 1969, Toward an Understanding of Storytelling Events, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol 82, No 326, Oct-Dec 1969, pg 313-328

Jones, S. 1997, The Internet and its Social Landscape in Jones, S (ed.) Virtual Culture, SAGE Publications, London, pg 7-35

Laurel, B. 1993, Computers as Theatre, Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA

McChesney, R.W. 2001 ‘Global Media, Neoliberalism, and Imperialism’ Monthly Review, Vol 52, No 10 pg 1-19

Moncrieff, A.R.H. c1934, Classic Myth and Legend, The Gresham Publishing Company Limited, London

Naughton, L. 2008, Magic, Myth and Mayhem: Tribalization in the Digital Age, in Adams, T.L. & Smith, S.A. (eds) Electronic Tribes, University of Texas Press, Austin TX, pg 191-203

Ong, W,J. 1982, Orality & Literacy : The Technologizing of the Word, Routledge, New York, NY

Propp, V. 1968, Morphology of the Folktale, 2nd Ed, trans. L. Scott, University of Texas Press, Austin, TX

Rheingold, H. 2000, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, Revised Edition, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA

Sheldon, L. 2004, Character Development and Storytelling for Games, Thomson Course Technology, Boston, MA

Sugiyama, M.S. 2001, Narrative Theory and Function: Why Evolution Matters, Philosophy and Literature, Vol 25, No 2, Oct 2001, pg 233-250

Wasko, J. 2001 ‘The Magical-Market World of Disney.’, Monthly Review, Apr 2001, Vol 52, No 11. Pg 56-71

Wellman, B. & Gulia, M. 1999 Virtual Communities as Communities: Net Surfers Don’t Ride Alone in Smith, M.A. & Kollock, P. (eds) Communities in Cyberspace, Routledge, London, pg 167-194


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