The Lost Art of Storytelling

I just recently learned that the Ancient Greeks used to invite orators to their banquets and parties, and they would listen to stories of the gods and past heroes as the entertainment for the evening.

I wasn’t too impressed. I didn’t even take much notice. Plenty of past civilizations kept their history, myths, and legends by passing them down orally, generation to generation.

Then I learned that the Ancient Greek orators would tell their stories impromptu–without rehearsing–in verse.

Verse, as in poetry. With meter.

I heard that, and I thought to myself, “What has our society come to?”

Let’s not even think about history or legends, for the moment–let’s think about everyday life. We tell stories everyday, and every time, it’s an opportunity.

Most of the time, it’s an opportunity wasted.

“Oh, you’ll never believe what happened to me today!”

Ooh, this sounds promising. Pray tell.

“So, like, I’m at the grocery store, right?”

Ah, what a setting. I can see it all right now.

“And, like, I’m just trying to get my cookie batter off the top shelf, right? And I, like, can’t reach it, of course, because my arms are too short.”

The opening conflict–this is getting better by the minute.

“So I turn around, and–you won’t believe this–”

Will I truly not? Oh, I can’t wait! What happens next?

“–there’s this super tall guy behind me. Like, really tall. And THEN–”

Oh, I’m on the edge of my seat. Speak, already! The suspense is killing me!

“–he doesn’t even help me! He just sits there watching me struggle and then walks away! Can you believe that?”

What an ending! Chills all the way down my back! Can you tell it again?

There’s so much opportunity hidden inside that story. Honestly, it could be a hilarious, delightful story if just a little bit more effort went into it.

We’re so eager to get to the end of the story, nowadays. We can’t seem to slow down enough to enjoy the telling. We want to be through it–we want it to be over, so we can see the look on their faces when we finish.

If we just took a little more time and care in the telling, though, it would be so much more effective. The looks on their faces would be even better.

Can you imagine what Hesiod would be able to do with a plot line like that? Elaborate settings, my friend–a passionate description of a heart-wrenching struggle–a glimmer of hope–vivid description of the apparent knight in shining armor, and then–

Betrayal! Treachery! Cruelty and malice! Dashed hopes! Epic similes! Epithets!

Hilarity reigns in the golden halls of the host.

And that, gentle reader–that’s only the story of a visit to the store.

When was the last time you made up a story to tell someone? Chances are, you never have. I know I haven’t–and I’m a writer. A dreamer. A teller of stories. I love fiction.

But people never ask for stories when they’re sitting around a hearth or a table after a good meal. It doesn’t even cross their minds.

The story-weaving muscle of the American brain hasn’t seen action in a long time.

And history?

We can’t even remember any history. History is crammed down our throats in school, and we drop it as soon as possible when we get out.

When was the last time you told someone the story of Paul Revere? Of the Alamo? (Or did you forget the Alamo?) Of the Underground Railroad? Of D-Day?

I don’t remember ever telling anyone those stories. In this day and age, I don’t need to. I’ll probably never need to. No one needs to hear it from me–there’s the internet.

Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Wikipedia can tell the story of the Alamo better than I ever could–or more accurately, in any case.

But I do think we’ve lost something, with the decline of storytelling.

Every once in a while, I hear a truly enjoyable, well-told story. It’s like the last fry at the bottom the MacDonald’s bag–a joyful surprise.

But intentional, well-told oral stories are generally a thing of the past now. Personally, I think it’s a loss. I think it would be nice if story-telling came back as a form of entertainment. But I don’t think they could–not quickly, anyway, and not like they used to be.

Stories are like treasure–like buried gold–but they’ve been buried a long time, and we’ve misplaced the map.

Not even children ask for stories anymore. They have TV and books.

Don’t get me wrong–I love TV. And you know I love books.

But there’s something about oral story-telling that’s appealing on a different level than reading a book or watching a show.

It’s gone, now, in any case–lost to the wind.

But now we have memes and vines and Snapchat, so I guess we’ve pretty much broken even.

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