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The Art of Storytelling

<span  style="font-size: 1.5rem;" >Although every culture has its stories, the form of storytelling varies quite a bit across time and place. The oldest type of storytelling that we know about is visual. The Chauvet cave in France has paintings, and visual stories, mostly of animals, that are believed to be 30,000 years old.2 Almost every culture has examples of visual storytelling, from tapestries to paintings to scenes carved in rock. In modern times, photography has become the main medium for visual narrative. Think of the last Instagram story that you put together, and the effort you made to compile a scene that your followers could understand.</span>

Cultures also vary widely in their verbal storytelling. In Hawaii, for example, traditional hula is performed to the chanting of tales such as stories of gods and goddesses. In Newfoundland, Canada, stories are more often told around a kitchen table, probably with a pint of beer. These are generally humorous stories, whether they are true, fictional, or somewhere in between. Written storytelling really only took off with the invention of the printing press and now, of course, it’s everywhere, from novels to websites to Twitter feeds (giving rise to the art of telling a story in 240 characters or less).

The Kangxi Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour, Scroll Three: Ji'nan to Mount Tai.
Wang Hui and assistants, datable to 1698, 26 3/4 in. x 45 ft. 8 3/4 in., handscroll, ink and color on silk.

This scroll unfolds a visual narrative over forty-five feet. It shows the grand tour made by the Kangxi emperor across southern China in 1689 as a gesture of unification after a period of great unrest. This scroll (the third in a set of three) captures the emperor's trip, culminating at Mount Tai, China's "Sacred Peak of the East." Mount Tai was traditionally where Chinese rulers worshipped heaven. While this trip was made in February, Wang Hui depicts it in soft shades of blue and green, which enhanced the aura of majesty and importance.

To view this work in detail, click here.
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

You’re sitting at Thanksgiving dinner with your family. Your aunt decides to tell you all about the pecan pie she baked. She tells you about where she found the recipe, when she went to the store, the ingredients, baking the pie, taking it out of the oven, and putting it in a Tupperware to travel. You’re politely waiting for the interesting part this must be leading up to… and it never comes. That’s it? Nothing happened! Why did she spend ten minutes telling you that?

We all know a bad story when we hear one. People who tell them are those that you try to dodge at dinners. How do we avoid being a bad storyteller person? Are there principles of storytelling we can learn?

Kurt Vonnegut once gave a lecture outlining what he called the shapes of stories. These are basically graphs that show how a story develops over time. For example, one of Vonnegut’s story shapes is the Cinderella story. In this plot, a person starts in a bad situation, and then some good things happen to them, and then they almost lose the good things, but it all works out in the end. You can watch Vonnegut give this lecture here. Now, while these insights are fascinating, Vonnegut doesn’t exactly use a scientific methodology.

With modern technology at their disposal, a team of researchers set out to make this idea scientific. They took Vonnegut’s concept of story shapes and designed a study to determine if it really is possible to find story arcs, or narrative arcs, and then classify stories according to these shapes. Using artificial intelligence and a large database of fiction, they found six story arcs that were based on the happiness of the protagonist.

Rags to Riches rise
or Riches to Rags
Man in a Hole fall-rise
Icarus rise-fall
Cinderella rise-fall-rise
Oedipus fall-rise-fall 3

When the researchers looked to see which stories were the most popular, they found that the Icarus and Oedipus arcs were favored as well as stories that combined arcs (for example, Man in a Hole followed by a different character’s Man in a Hole arc).4 However, what is common in all of these results is that a good story involves emotional movement. It can be in pretty much any direction, but it definitely can’t be flat (like that story your aunt told about the pecan pie).

You probably remember listening to stories as a small child. Maybe it was your grandparents going on about life in the old days, or maybe you read a book with your parents every night before bed. Maybe you heard cautionary tales meant to scare you into obedience. It seems like, for as long as we have existed, humans have had a need to tell stories to one another for reasons ranging from bonding to entertainment to education. Whether they are real or imagined, about ourselves or others, current or historical, people love to produce and consume stories. Some scientist believe that storytelling developed pretty soon after language did.1

Studies for The Allegories of Love. Paolo Veronese, 1570–75, pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash.

This grouping of sketches demonstrates Veronese's incredible abilities as a storyteller. Here, he is exploring a number of ideas that were later employed in four canvases of the "Allegories of Love," made in 1575. It is possible that these sketches were created from clay models, as the many different angles suggest quick and easily accessible views of the figures.

Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

What are some early examples? What are some current examples?

As we have seen above, there aren’t that many different potential story arcs. However, the content of stories certainly has changed over time. Let’s take a closer look at the Icarus story arc - the most popular one. The famous Flight of Icarus story is a Greek myth that starts at a low point with Icarus imprisoned. Icarus is then given a set of wings to escape and he flies away (the high point). However, while flying, he gets carried away, doesn’t heed his father’s warning to stay away from the sun, and falls to his death because the sun melts his wings (the final low point). The earliest recording of this myth is on a jug. It was recorded both in writing and visual art by ancient poets and artists.

The same basic Icarus arc plays out in the movie Titanic.5 This movie also starts at a low point, with the heroine so miserable that she wants to jump off the ship to her death. She then falls madly in love (the high point), only to have that love end abruptly with the sinking of the ship (the final low point). The Icarus arc is probably so popular because it tickles our dreams for the future and our fear of loss. For aspiring writers, this arc is probably a good place to start.

The Fall of Icarus
Jacob Peter Gowy, 1636 - 1638, oil on canvas.
Image courtesy Museo Nacional del Prado.

“For sale, baby shoes, never worn."

Often attributed to Hemingway (although unsubstantiated), this example of flash fiction says so much in just six words.

Try your hand at writing flash fiction.

Is it easy or difficult for you to pack emotion and meaning into one six-word sentence?


1Storytelling.” National Geographic.
2 Mendoza, Melissa. “The Evolution of Storytelling.” Reporter Magazine, 1 May 2015.
3 Reagan, Andrew J., et al. “The emotional arcs of stories are dominated by six basic shapes.” EPJ Data Science, vol. 5, no. 31, 2016.
4 Emerging Technology from the arXiv, “Data Mining Reveals the Six Basic Emotional Arcs of Storytelling: Scientists at the Computational Story Laboratory Have Analyzed Novels to Identify the Building Blocks of All Stories.” MIT Technology Review, 6 July, 2016.
5 Bunting, Joe. “Story Arcs: Definitions and Examples of the 6 Shapes of Stories.” The Write Practice.

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