Eye on fiction - The teller, the tale and the told

Steven Killick and Neil Frude talk about the psychology of oral storytelling in this 2009 article.

It is easy to forget how mysterious and mighty stories are. They do their work in silence, invisibly. They work with all the internal materials of the mind and self. They become part of you while changing you. Beware the stories you read or tell: subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world. (Ben Okri, Birds of Heaven, 1996)

People tell all manner of stories, in many different social contexts, for different purposes and to different effect. Sometimes such stories are meant to inspire or motivate, persuade or deceive. Sometimes they have the function of warning or educating, and often they are told merely to amuse or entertain. Storytelling is frequently spontaneous and informal, but it may also happen regularly and ‘by appointment’, whether this is the nightly routine of a child’s bedtime story or an event by a professional storyteller in a school or theatre. 

In this article, we will explore psychological aspects of oral or ‘live’ storytelling. It is our belief that stories can have profound effects on how people think and feel and that these effects may be particularly powerful when the story is delivered ‘live’ by a skilled storyteller.

Storytelling is sometimes seen as an innocent activity best suited to young children, but there has been a strong resurgence of interest in the ‘oral tradition’, the telling of stories that have been passed through several generations by word of mouth. This is now being recognised as a rediscovered art form, a form of entertainment, and as a social activity with many actual and potential applications in education, healthcare and in the workplace. Storytellers can now be found working in schools, libraries, arts centres, and in the increasing number of festivals held worldwide that celebrate the storytelling revival. Psychologists, both in academia and in applied settings, may find an increasing interest in the use of narrative and story in a number of fields that draw upon this oral tradition to a greater or lesser extent. Storytelling has been the subject of multidisciplinary study through the disciplines of theatre, anthropology and folklore. Although not currently the focus of much psychological research, it may be a fruitful area for investigation.

Stories, novels and poems clearly have the power to move people emotionally, to inspire them, to amuse them, to uplift them and sometimes to anger them. The process of storytelling is a highly complex human interaction, a powerful form of communication that has a high emotional, motivational and social impact. When a story is ‘told’, as opposed to read off the page or witnessed in a dramatic portrayal, it enters the interpersonal and interactive sphere and this may heighten its emotional impact. For most of human history storytelling has been a major form of entertainment, education and a means of passing on values – often conveying folk wisdom about how to survive or succeed or behave correctly.

However, relatively little has been written about the impact of ‘live storytelling’ on children and adults. Our conceptualisation of ‘live’ or oral storytelling is of a triadic interaction between a ’teller’, the ‘story’ being told and the ‘audience’, whether it be one listener or many (Killick & Wilson, 1999). We will consider each in turn, particularly in relation to formal storytelling.

The art of the storyteller
The storyteller does not learn a story word for word, as an actor learns a script, but reinvents the story afresh each time. The essential ingredients may remain the same, but every telling of a story is a unique creation that will reflect the storyteller’s mood and their response to the physical environment and the audience. The story is conveyed not just verbally but also non-verbally, and the amount of eye contact, the tone of voice and use of gesture will be modulated and adapted in response to the reactions of the listeners. The style in which the story is told will reflect the content of the story and the personal style of the storyteller. Some storytellers are typically quiet and intimate in their style whereas others make expansive and animated gestures and use a wide vocal range.

Thus storytelling is largely improvised and interactive. In order to make the experience intense and the story vivid to listeners, the teller may provide the sensory detail and information about how the characters are thinking and feeling. Stories are ‘remembered’ by the teller through interplay between language and image (Thomas & Killick, 2007). The teller may call upon the rhythm of the words as well as some specific phrases that are remembered exactly, and they may create strong visual images associated with the story – storytelling is not only about listening but also about ‘seeing’. The teller may be said to ‘inhabit’ the story and to take listeners on a journey. Such processes have much in common with well-known memory techniques. Indeed, the writer Doris Lessing has claimed that literacy may have had a negative impact upon our ability to remember. Without easy access to information provided by literacy there was more effort and success in committing tales to memory (Lessing, 1999). 

The storyteller role involves a number of aspects; the teller is part teacher, part preacher and part entertainer with different storytellers emphasising these elements to different degrees. The fact that a storyteller can select or change the story to suit the needs of the audience adds to the storyteller’s power to engage. The expression to ‘spin a yarn’ reflects the fact that storytelling was often used to help time to pass more quickly when people were engaged in laborious, repetitive and boring activities. However a teller’s function is not only to distract and to entertain. In many cases it is clear that there is an intention to instruct (or in some cases mislead), inform or influence through the meaning inherent in the tale and transmitted in the telling.

‘Telling’ tales – what are stories really saying?
A story is a treasure chest of sign, symbol, image and metaphor. A staple component of many storytellers’ repertoires are traditional or ‘folk’ tales. These stories come from a mainly oral tradition, passed on through word of mouth (although they may have become texts at various points as well). Traditional stories include myths and legends, historical tales and ‘fairytales’ (also known as ‘wonder tales’). A small proportion of wonder tales such as Snow White or Cinderella are very familiar today, partly because they have been transferred to other media and transmitted to wide audiences in novel forms. Riddles and proverbs are fragments of the oral tradition still commonly used today.

It is possible to trace many of these stories back through the generations, during which time the tales have evolved considerably while still retaining a significant core identity.T he fact that the same stories retaina widespread popularity and an appeal across generations, and often across cultures, has suggested to many that there is something archetypal about these enduring tales and that they must resonate with something deep in the human psyche.

Many writers, such as Sigmund Freud, Bruno Bettelheim, Joseph Campbell, Ernest Bloch and Clarissa Pinkola Estes have speculated about how such stories may reflect aspects of the psyche and may facilitate the resolution of internal conflicts or provide an arena for wish fulfilment. Although it has been alleged that he took his ideas, largely unattributed, from the work of Julius Heuscher (Pollak, 1997), Bettelheim has been particularly influential. He suggested that these stories provide a means of transmitting unconscious role models to children and thus helping children through the various stages of psychosexual development. His idea was that, by identifying with the heroes and heroines they encounter in these stories, children rehearse strategies for dealing with such delicate issues as separation from their parents, failing to meet with their parents’ expectations and rivalries with peers. Stories allow difficult issues to be examined in fantasy without provoking too much anxiety (Bettelheim, 1976). In a contemporary analysis, Jon Kabat-Zinn (1994) wrote of such stories as ‘wise, ancient, surprisingly sophisticated blueprints for our full development as human beings’.

These tales are often elaborate metaphors of transformation and frequently have an identifiable hermeneutic function. The message that they convey is often deeply implicit but sometimes, as in Aesop’s fables, laid bare. The Brothers Grimm collected many  traditional stories and, as they became popular with the newly emerging commercial market for children, amplified the moral undertones of the stories they collected. Zipes (2006) suggests that such stories are effective transmitters of memes, being storehouses of cultural beliefs, symbols and practices. Typical themes of such stories are the overcoming of seemingly impossible obstacles through the application of such virtues as persistence or kindness.

One remarkable theory suggests that the content of popular children’s stories affects the level of economic growth in the culture. McClelland (1961) suggested that the level of personal motivation within a culture is an important determinant of economic productivity and that the stories told to children affect their achievement motivation and, decades later, the economic productivity of the culture. He studied the stories typically read to children in various cultures, analysing the story content to see whether the themes expressed high or low achievement motivation and then correlated the achievement emphasis in these stories with the economic growth (assessed by gross national product) 25 or 50 years later. Remarkably, given all of the other factors that affect economic outcome, he was able to demonstrate a highly significant correlation between economic growth and the content of children’s stories decades before. He then engaged in various projects designed to raise the achievement motivation of children in underdeveloped countries, and an important element of this was to select specific stories to be included in children’s readers.

A more contemporary analysis might suggest that the heroes and heroines of folk tales often display the character strengths that have been recently identified within ‘positive psychology’ as key factors in the achievement of authentic happiness and the ‘good life’. Stories can help to celebrate these strengths (Fox-Eades, 2006).

The key messages within folk tales do not always relate to moral imperatives. In some cases a twist in the tale reframes the situation portrayed within story so that our eyes are opened to a different way of seeing things. Such stories sometimes mislead the listener into one way of seeing things and then produce a sudden shock, surprise or amusement when the ‘truth’ of the matter is revealed. However, whatever meaning may be inherent in the story and emphasised by the storyteller or context, it is the listener who is most active in constructing the meaning found in the story.

The impact of storytelling
Listening is an active process that involves both the imagination and the making of meaning. The positive educational effects of reading stories to young children have been well demonstrated, particularly with regard to the effects on children’s language and cognitive development (Blake & Maiese, 2008; Fox, 1993) suggesting storytelling could be a foundation for literacy. However, additional benefits of storytelling have also been postulated. For example, it has been argued that oral storytelling has a considerable role to play in fostering emotional and social development or ‘emotional literacy’ (Fox-Eades, 2006; Thomas & Killick, 2007). Listening to stories can impact on the five pathways of emotional intelligence; awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social competence. Engagement with stories, in all their many forms, can provide an emotional ‘work-out’ for the mind that helps both children and adults to ‘attune’ with their feelings (Oatley, 1998). Indeed, stories might be ‘the natural language of feelings for children’ (Sunderland, 2000). Stories educate people about the emotions, providing insight into human responses and providing a vocabulary for emotions. Stories also portray different ways of coping with emotional situations and of coping with our own and other people’s emotions. Stories can also directly provoke emotions in the audience, thus providing, in some cases, an emotion laboratory ‘in the room’. For young children to hear a ‘scary’ story from a trusted adult gives experience of intense feelings of anxiety and excitement, with a happy ending enabling resolution that produces relief and a return to safety. Other stories stimulate the audience to anger, frustration or sadness. Traumatic experiences can be portrayed directly or indirectly and metaphor and fantasy can be powerfully used. Emotions can be experienced safely within the storytelling context, and the safety of the experience may be ensured by the presence of a trusted attachment figure. Research is needed to ascertain if these benefits exist.

Hearing of the emotional responses of characters in the story can have profound effects in helping children to develop an appreciation of ‘other minds’ and empathic skills. Oatley (2008) suggests that written stories are simulations that can increase the audience’s understanding of the feelings and intentions of others, adding considerably to the sophistication of the listener’s ‘theory of mind’. This effect may be amplified in the process of live telling.

Another benefit is that repeated exposure to hearing stories will help to develop the listener’s understanding of and use of narrative form (Haven, 2007). Appreciation of structure can lead to the ability to recreate such structure. Thus by hearing stories children learn how to tell stories. This may be far more important than it may at first sound. Even if a child never engages in formal storytelling, the ability to produce a narrative is an essential social skill, because from an early age people are expected to be able to give well-structured and coherent accounts of their experiences. Reporting on ‘what happened to me’ is a basic social requirement, and the expectation is that such reports will include the basic elements of a story (context, characters and action) and will be presented as a narrative following a chronological sequence.

Furthermore, it may be that some of the most important stories we ever tell are those that we tell about ourselves to ourselves. We need to develop the capacity to relate ‘self’ or autobiographical narratives. Thus we may organise our understanding largely in the form of narratives, and the capacity that we develop to construct and manage narratives may reflect our exposure to formal and informal storytelling. The process of being able to ‘tell our story’, to develop a narrative perhaps around a traumatic or other significant event, enables us to organise our own experience and communicate it to others. Experience of storytelling, particularly personal narratives, may help develop this skill.

Storytelling may also be a critical ‘attachment building behaviour’ utilising the building blocks of intersubjectivity; joint attention, turn-taking and affect attunement (Engel, 1999). Therapists interested in building attachments between children and carers increasingly call upon storytelling in their work. Dan Hughes (2004) describes how a therapist uses the skills of the storyteller to develop affect attunement. Lacher et al. (2005) describe how creating and telling stories helps build ‘narratives of attachment’ in adopted children.

But there are many ways of calling upon this ‘ancient art’. Storytelling is being used more and more as an educational methodology. Scientist turned storyteller Kendall Haven uses storytelling as a way of engaging and interesting learners in a wide variety of subjects, especially science (Haven, 2007). He sees  not only the potential of stories to help students’ engagement and motivation but also benefits in terms of memory and attention. Another use for stories is as a stimulus for inquiry to develop thinking skills. This approach is an integral part of the ‘Philosophy for Children’ project (Fisher, 1996), which is also a vehicle for developing emotional literacy skills in school settings and the use of stories especially to help develop an emotional vocabulary and social skills.

In healthcare, storytelling and drama have been used to build confidence and communication skills in people with acquired brain injury or to help value and recognition to people’s experience of recovery from severe mental illness and cancer care. Storytelling is also being combined with technology. Digital storytelling uses digital technology to help people tell their own stories. In the NHS ‘patient stories’ can be used to help people gain a sense of the ‘journey’ they will experience or to help staff empathise and pay more attention to the experience of service users. The ‘1000 Lives’ campaign (tinyurl.com/1000lives) uses storytelling as a service improvement tool to prevent unnecessary deaths. Patients use storytelling skills to record their experiences of healthcare. These ‘digital stories’ are used as a tool to help healthcare staff be more aware of patients as people rather than just ‘conditions’, also to inspire and remind them of ‘good work’ and simple changes they can make that have great benefits for patient care. The stories can also be used to inform the media and through them, the public, of service changes that are under way. Storytelling is also being used in other organisational settings to develop brand identity and to foster both staff and customer loyalty (Simmons, 2004). Stories may be an alternative, or an antidote, to presentations of quantitative data. They can make such information much more meaningful to people.

More than a sideshow
Much of what is speculated about the benefits of exposure to storytelling is based on the study of story-reading.   However, it might be that the gains of this ancient and technology-free method of communication may enhance and amplify the benefits of reading and be worth psychological investigation. It has been said that the art of oral storytelling has been lost to modern society through the rise of literacy and the electric light. Now, the experience of hearing a story well told is an unfamiliar one for many. However, the art of formal storytelling is currently enjoying something of a renaissance and is providing more and more adults and children with a rich and joyful experience. And, apart from the world of the virtuoso storyteller, there is the everyday storytelling in which we all participate because it is, quite simply, part of the way in which we all function in our daily interactions with other people. Ultimately, storytelling may be much more than a sideshow in the fairground of human interaction. Stories remind us of what it means to be human in all our complexity, differences and diversity.

Steven Killick is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist in Cwm Taf NHS Trust, South [email protected]

Neil Frude is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist in Cardiff and Vale NHS Trust     
[email protected]

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