Oral Story Types

I love the inherent flexibility of an oral story – it means it can be improvised, allowing for each telling to be shaped to its audience and the environment where it is being told. With oral delivery, tellers can bring their own personalities to the story, and  listeners get to experience what it means to be part of the creative process. There are many different kinds of oral story; I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at some of them. (These are in no particular order).

anecdote – this is usually a short account of a real incident or event, often interesting or amusing though sometimes biographical.  Example:  You’re in a cooking class and are about to learn how to make a souffle and the chef prefaces the lesson by telling you about the first time he made a souffle and it was a disaster.  Anecdotes are used to lighten the mood, to reminisce, to caution or to inspire.

fable – these are fictitious stories in prose or verse meant to teach a moral lesson.  The characters in fables are usually talking animals, but can also include anthropomorphized  (now there’s a good word for scrabble!) plants and inanimate objects. Fables can be found in the folklore of almost every country.

parable – a simple narrative used to illustrate a universal truth. Usually religious allegories. Parables are similar to fables in that they are succinct stories designed to impart a lesson in moral behavior the principal difference being that parables usually feature human characters.  The best known source of parables in Christianity are found in the Bible.  Parables also appear in the Torah, and in Islam and in Sufi story traditions.

myth – these are traditionally ancient stories of unknown authorship which typically involve the exploits of supernatural beings, Gods, ancestors, or heroes in an attempt to explain aspects of the natural world, or the the psychology, customs or religious rites of a society.

legend – these are stories handed down through generations which are loosely based on historical events.  Such events can include miracles, and superhuman feats.  The Brothers Grimm defined a legend as ‘a historically grounded folktale’, as opposed to a fairy tale, which they deemed ‘poetic’.

rumor – these are almost always transmitted by word of mouth and provide “information” about a person, or event.  There are different kinds of rumor, some based on wished for outcomes, others based on feared outcomes, and still others based on a desire to undermine group loyalty or interpersonal relations. Rumor as you might imagine, is a useful and prevalent storytelling device.

gossip – where there’s a rumor, it will always be carried by the winds of gossip.

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