Yount: The art of storytelling

August 01, 2010|By DAVID YOUNT / Scripps Howard News Service


The art of storytelling is as ancient as the human species and as essential to our existence as the very air we breathe.

No sooner had the first humans discovered their power of speech than they began telling tales to one another. Ever since, the members of each generation have repeated the best of those ancient stories even as they contrived new ones.

It was the invention of language that permitted our forebears to transcend their restricted environment. Equipped with words, they could not only reminisce about the past but speculate about the future, imagining places they had never visited or that existed only in their fancies.


A compelling tale can be true to fact or to fiction (or to both), wielding the power to instruct, caution, reassure, uplift, entertain, and even terrify. Good stories give promise of transcendence beyond commonplace experience.

With the exception of comic monologues and kiss-and-tell memoirs, few tales reveal much about their authors. Instead, storytellers incline to reflect the experiences of other persons, real or imagined.

Primitive societies honored their best storytellers for granting them the gift of distraction from daily drudgery and monotony. Even today, sophisticated peoples rely on the power of stories to instruct and entertain themselves, expand their minds, exercise their imaginations, and heighten their emotions.

Stories serve children by liberating them from the prison of their own limited experience, introducing them to a wider world of wonder and adventure, at the same time reassuring them that there is purpose behind their existence and safety from their worst fears.

Stories tell us all, young and old, what it means to be human and how to prevail in life.

The late scholar Joseph Campbell, author of "Man of a Thousand Faces," devoted his life to extracting wisdom from classic tales. A story, he said, is a journey that takes its readers along for the ride, which can be harrowing. By design, classic narratives appeal to the heroic possibilities in human nature, depicting men and women who overcome apparently insurmountable obstacles.

Jesus of Nazareth ranks as one of the most compelling storytellers in history. Yet he revealed little about himself and wrote nothing at all about his life. His preference was to tell fictional tales to his contemporaries and to leave the account of his own life completely to other authors.

The effectiveness of Jesus of Nazareth relied less on the commandments he gave his followers than on the stories he told.

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