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What Makes Storytelling Artistic?
by Mary Hamilton

There are some ideas about storytelling that have concerned me for quite some time. Those ideas are "...the power of storytelling lies with the story itself, and not the storyteller, dramatics, or any of the trappings of theater" and "A good story is a work of art all by itself."

Yes, "A good story is a work of art all by itself." and I contend that work of art is writing, not storytelling. When the story can stand alone and loses absolutely nothing by standing alone, that is writing not storytelling. So what makes storytelling artistic?

Storytelling demands the intersection of story, teller, and audience. Yes, the story must be a good story worthy of the time given to it by teller and listener, but what distinguishes storytelling from the writer and reader relationship?

For storytelling to be artistic something must be happening that would be lost without the presence of all three - story, teller, and listener. I believe the words should not be able to stand alone (as they do with the writer/reader relationship). The teller should be conveying something through body and/or voice and/or gesture and/or timing and/or facial expression that is not conveyed if one only had the words. Note, this does not require screeches and flinging oneself all over the stage "a gaudy framework" but it does require more than simply speaking the words. I think the story for telling should be constructed with sensitivity to the mode of delivery which, with storytelling, is more than the words alone, so there's more to storytelling than "a good story."

In storytelling the presence of the listener should impact the telling. Unlike reading, where the reader can slow down or even turn back and re-read a passage for increased clarity or begin skimming if a section seems to warrant a faster pace, the story listeners receive the story at a pace set by the teller. A good teller watches the listeners and makes changes during the telling to match how the specific group of listeners present see to need/want the story to come to them.

Unlike reading, where no matter how many times a reader returns to a story, the delivery will always be the same (the same words and same punctuation), storytelling is dynamic, not frozen. Each telling of a story should be a new event because the listeners are not exactly the same, the environment is not exactly the same, how the teller feels that day is not the same, the teller's voice and body will not be exactly as they were in the previous telling of the story.

This relationship between teller, story, and listener is the heart of our art. Storytelling suffers when any one of the three is seen as over-riding the others. All three must be given importance in the act of storytelling. An excellent delivery cannot make up for a poor story. An excellent story cannot make up for a poor delivery. The presence of the listeners allows the story to be told in the first place; excellent story and excellent telling cannot make up for the absence of listeners (I'm not talking about size of audience; I'm referring to the presence of a listener.).

In fact, I think there is no way to duplicate what happens when story, teller and listener come together. Moreover, I believe we practice an ephemeral art. It's here; then it's over, and it's gone. I'm not saying the telling of stories has no lasting impact; I'm just saying the art as a whole (story, teller, and listener together) cannot be duplicated. This has been the source of both great joy and great sadness for me over the years.

Recently, I was telling an Appalachian version of The Three Pigs. After the first pig was visited by the fox and died, when the later pigs heard a knock at the door and said, "Who is it?" the audience replied "Fox." So I did not say "Fox" nor did I say, "And Fox replied, 'It's me, Fox.'" Instead I had pig respond by telling Fox to go away. If I were to record the story, I would not leave a blank space, assuming the listeners would call out "Fox" when the pig asks "Who is it?" nor did I specifically plan to tell the story that way. But when the audience calls out, as they did, I am going to go with the telling of the tale as it is spinning out(and the audience has indeed made an impact on how the story is told).

I contend the relationship of audience and teller to one another and to the story is at the heart of our art form. And I don't mind one bit if others want to disagree with me. This has been a soap box I've been thinking about for quite some time now, and stayed silent about. However,now I'm talking, and I don't mind the disagreement.

P.S. I do see the creation of recordings by storytellers as a different art form than storytelling. The story does become frozen and the listener is absent (even in a live recording, the listener listening to the recording is still absent and cannot impact the telling), so it becomes a different art. And no, I do not have a name for this other art form. And yes, I'll still let folks know when I have the stories I tell available on recordings and will sell those recordings with no disclaimers stating "this isn't really storytelling, but something else I have no name for" even though I quite firmly believe that is what my recordings are.

Mary Hamilton, from Frankfort, Kentucky, tells stories in her straight-forward “just talking” style, serving up an eclectic repertoire of Kentucky tales, world folktales, true stories, myths, tall tales, and original fiction. All ages listen, imagine, and create worlds. You may learn more about her by visiting or reach her at:

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