The Art of Storytelling

Part One (Originally published in Words Matter Publishing Quarterly Journal)




On a cave wall, gnarled fingers etched images with a fragment of flint across rock. A deer pursued by hunters brandishing spears springs out of the granite. In another image, the deer fallen pierced with spears surrounded by hunters. Yet further along the cave wall, hunters are seen carrying the fallen creature hung between them on a pole. Next we see the hunters sitting around a fire, the deer roasting on an ancient spit. The art of storytelling begins.

Stories depicted in this way were experiences of adventures recorded for all to see. A beginning, a middle and an end, a journey through time. As language developed so to an oral tradition of sharing stories between folk. All indigenous cultures without exception began in this way, the most ancient being the Aboriginals of Australia. Passing through thousands of generations, stories told around the camp fires have recorded ancient history. Many years later, as alive and vibrant as the day they were first told. The storyteller illustrating the story through engaging language entertained and captivated their audience.

With the advent of the written word, ink and scrolls of parchment, stories could be recorded to be read at any time, but were only available to the rich and educated, whilst the oral tradition continued for common folk. The oldest known manuscripts are dated around 2100 BC. But some scholars believe that these could be transcriptions of earlier Sumerian texts. Integrated versions have been found dating from around 2000-1700 BC. The most complete “standard” version written on 12 clay tablets sometime between 1500 – 1200 BC.

The ancient Egyptians had wax and wood “notebooks,” but the Romans were the first to create bound books from paper (papyrus). By the 2nd century, this type of codex was the preferred writing tool among early Christians. The Diamond Sutra is now considered the oldest known printed book, its contents are central to Indian Buddhism, and are believed to have been translated from Sanskrit to Chinese in about 400 AD. The development of printing in China in the 8th Century paved the way for this book.

In Europe the first book ever written that we know of is The Epic of Gilgamesh: a mythical retelling of an important political figure from history. Years later, in 1454, a German man called Johannes Gutenberg built his very own printing press. And thus in Europe the ‘book’ was born as the pages printed were bound together.

The plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare appeared in the Royal Court of Elizabeth I in pamphlet form. There are many great storytellers from the past, perhaps the most famous and prolific being Charles Dickens (1812-1870). He wrote more than fifteen novels, short stories, plays and many journal articles based on social commentary of Victorian England.

It is said ‘everyone has a story to tell’. So you have an idea and would like to write your story, where do I start I hear you ask? A story has five basic but important elements. These five components are: the characters, the setting, the plot, the conflict, and the resolution. These essential elements keep the story running smoothly and allow the action to develop in a logical way that the reader can follow. I feel it is crucial the opening line and first paragraph are engaging and memorable so the reader becomes hooked. You may have written an excellent story but if the reader becomes bored by the first couple of pages they may put the book down and not finish it at all. There are many excellent books with engaging beginnings and here I suggest some of my favourites for you to consider.

For example in ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1843) a novella written by Charles Dickens we read.

“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. … Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.”

JRR Tolkien in the ‘Hobbit’ (1937)

‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.’

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (1915)

‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect’

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’

1984 by George Orwell (1949)

‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams (1980)

‘The story so far: in the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move’

Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

‘Call me Ishmael’

Harry Potter by JK Rowling (1997)

 “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

The Prophecy by Lazarus Carpenter (2018)

‘For ten years past, I have been an apprentice to Llwyd ap Crachan Llwyd and have learned the ways of prophet and seer.’

In all of the examples we are hooked as the narrative engages our interest by introducing a theme and suggesting questions raised, yet to be answered. Have a look at novels by your favorite authors for other examples.

In the next edition of Words Matter Publishing On-Line Journal with part two of this series the ‘Art of Storytelling’, I will introduce ideas and concepts looking at the five basic elements of writing your tale: the characters, the setting, the plot, the conflict, and the resolution.


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