The BookWorm's Library

Characteristics of Storytelling

Walter J. Ong lists eight characteristics for storytelling. These characteristics are present in almost every story that is remembered and told orally.

Oral stories are:
  1. Structured for the convenience of the speaker.
  2. Structured to aid memory.
  3. Redundant to help the listener and teller remember the plot and characters.
  4. Close to the human experience.
  5. Agonistically toned.
  6. Empathic and participatory.
  7. Homeostatic.
  8. Situational. (Ong 36-49)

These characteristics do need more explanation. The first three deal with the composition of an oral story. Most oral stories are formed as poetry or in stanzas. This structure is beneficial to the teller. It helps he or she remember the action and the characters of the story and the general order it is supposed to be told in. The third characteristic explains the redundancy found in oral stories. Characters are constantly referred to by their major quality or flaw--the "brave" or "noble" hero. Every time a secondary character reappears, the teller restates that character's importance to the story. This helps the teller and the listener remember what has happened.

The next five characteristics explain details that pertain to the contents of oral stories. The fourth, Close to the human experience shows how oral stories tie the identity of the characters to their actions. The fifth characteristic shows that many oral stories have a large amount of graphic violence. Reliance on violence as an attention-getter is not a new development of Hollywood. Oral storytellers were using it from the beginning of telling stories. Empathic and participatory is the affect storytellers try to achieve between the characters of the story and the audience. To help gain the participating affect, oral stories are homeostatic and situational. Oral stories are usually set in a contemporary time. One cannot see this in most written epics because the stories were frozen in the time they were written in. They also deal with a situation the main character is in, not with the character's mental state.