Storytelling is Us

by | Aug 20, 2012

Author Henning Mankell, writing in the New York Times last year related how he came to live much of the time in Mozambique. Listening to old men sitting on a bench talk, he speculates:

It struck me as I listened to those two men that a truer nomination (name) for our species than Homo sapiens might be Homo narrans, the storytelling person. What differentiates us from animals is the fact that we can listen to other people’s dreams, fears, joys, sorrows, desires and defeats–and they in turn can listen to ours.

Now, Homo sapiens means loosely “knowing person.” Homo narrans would be “storytelling person.”

Certainly we are differentiated by our intelligence, but I found Mankell’s idea magnetic.

No matter what realm we operate within, no matter what discipline we’ve learned or invented, storytelling has a central place.

For instance, it’s how we transmit the news of our discoveries, how we describe who we are and where we want to go, how we account for what we’ve become. In each case a personal narrative in involved. A collection of stories that taken together create a personal history all our own.

How did you meet your wife? Where did you go to school? Why did you decide to start that business? How are you different from the person you were when you graduated high school?

Each question evokes a story, or a chain of stories that weave into a narrative.

We vary widely in how compellingly we tell these stories, both to others and to ourselves. Some stories we tell internally, in our own minds, are always accompanied by feelings, justifications, memories, the bits and pieces left with us from our own experience and the way we’ve processed that experience over the years.

Some of these narratives are truth in the sense that the events described really did happen. Many many others are interpretive accounts, colored by the passing of time and the agendas and assumptions through which we filter our experience.

Some of the narratives are fanciful, intentionally or not. Fables, fantasies, speculations, imaginative wanderings, all those stories have their place too, and that’s why we have those other storytelling magicians, the novelists.

Storytelling and Story-selling

When I watch a really accomplished marketer at work, I’m always looking at the stories they are telling. It might surprise you to know just how much even the most dedicated pitchmen rely on stories to reach their audience.

Everyone loves a story, everyone wants to know how they end, what happens next: “Tell me more!”

The serialized novel, the never-ending soap opera, even the little 3-panel comic strips in your morning paper, they all rely on story and the narrative arc to teach, entertain, to amuse.

  • First panel, the setup.
  • Second panel, the conundrum.
  • Third panel, boom, the punchline hits from an unexpected direction.

The storyteller, no matter what her medium, knows how to surprise, to delight, to put a twist or a bend in the road that we didn’t expect. It’s all about keeping the attention of the reader.

Think how storytellers in the thousands of years before literacy became widespread had to be able to hold the attention of the crowd with only their own words.

A lot of that is still in our language and our expectations every time we realize there’s a story to be had. Every year we tell the iconic stories; the three wise men; the early settlers and the native peoples; the salvation of the world.

Most religious texts are, after all, collections of stories used to amaze and teach us.

Today’s Storytellers—You and I?

Because story is at the base of our civilization and runs throughout human endeavor, you would think that artful storytelling would be one of the most highly respected occupations a human could aspire to.

This isn’t true, of course, although our best storytellers who also capture the popular imagination—like movie makers, novelists, songwriters and playwrights—become stars.

But you and I, writers who unspool our stories for far smaller groups of people, are participating in an age-old and uniquely human activity.

Whether they are used to sell, to persuade, to inform, to entertain or to enlighten, our stories in a way define us. And in that sense, I guess I would agree with Mankell. Man truly is the “storytelling person,” Homo narrans.

Finding the stories you need to tell, and telling them as best you can, are things all writers learn. Heard any good ones lately?

Photo by futurilla

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  1. Allan

    Not to accuse Mr Mankell of plagiarism (it is very possible he truly did come up with the term on his own), but the term ‘homo narrans’ occurred in a 1984 essay by one Walter Fisher, “Narration as a human communication paradigm: The case of public moral argument”. Also by Richard Emmanuel Smith in his 1971 dissertation “A study of the correspondences between the Roman de Renard, Jamaican Anansi stories, and West African animal tales collected in culture-area V”. And possibly in an article by Kurt Ranke in 1967, but that’s in German so I can’t even begin to speculate as to how he used it.

    I just found this interesting.

  2. bowerbird

    well, yes…

    i have been attending poetry open-mikes
    for over 25 years. (my first featured show
    was written up in the l.a. times on 7/11/87,
    so i just passed that anniversary last month.)

    i’ve experienced 10,000+ people take a stage
    and voice a unique articulation of themselves,
    so the notion that “everybody has a story” is
    one that has weaved itself deeply into my life.

    and indeed, a major portion of the motivation
    in my support of self-publishing over the years
    was grounded in the importance of our stories.

    i know the value of how they can enrich our lives.

    which is why i have always bristled when people
    (who i grant might’ve had very good intentions)
    preached their “you’ve gotta _market_ your book”
    insistence at new authors. it’s difficult enough to
    write a book, and edit it to a smooth state of art,
    without being told that “then the hard part begins”.

    that only places an _obstacle_ into the path of the
    person who wants to “tell their story” to the world,
    when what we should be doing is _easing_the_way_.

    we saw it here just the other day, when we insisted on
    strict conformance to the conventions of book design,
    with a dissenter countering “it’s _story_ that matters”.

    many people don’t even care if their book “sells well”.
    they only want to ensure that their story can be heard,
    when someone out there — anyone — wants to hear it.

    indeed, my favorite “use case” is the person who wants
    to tell the story of their life to their grandchildren, and
    grandchildren who are curious about their grandparents.
    or their great-grandparents, or great-great-grandparents.

    how did they meet each other? how did the courtship go?
    what about their early years together? and their old age?
    did they have rough times? how did they make it through?
    or, if they didn’t, how did their lives evolve, as they went
    on and found other spouses, to form different families?
    what kinds of jobs did they have? what kinds of hobbies?
    how did they entertain themselves? what did they think of
    their lives, and each other, and the world around them?


    at any rate, on the one hand, i am quite glad that even
    a “purist” (from the standpoint of book design) like joel
    is becoming alert to the idea of people “telling a story”.

    but on the other hand, i find that — to a large degree —
    i have moved on. part of the reason is precisely because
    it _is_ so very difficult to write — and then edit — a book.
    even professional writers will confirm it can be _draining_.

    moreover, even when an amateur writer can _finish_ a book,
    the resulting product will often be less than fully satisfactory.
    all of us can use language, true, but not all of us can _write._
    so sometimes “the book” fails to do total justice to “the story”.

    in the past, however, “the book” was the only way your story
    could be related with adequate color and in sufficient depth.

    but we’re in a completely different time and age now. today,
    many of us walk around with a video-camera in our pocket.

    so the best way for us to tell our story _nowdays_ is just to
    turn on that camera and start talking. maybe make a script,
    so you don’t sound totally inarticulate to your grandchildren.

    but other than that, just record it. no need to write a _book_.
    the only thing that’s gonna give you is some soundless words.

    contrast that with a video recording, where your grandkids
    _hear_ your voice, how you talk and laugh, your inflections,
    how you pronounce words, and phrase sentences, and they
    _see_ what you look like, how you move, your mannerisms,
    your eyes twinkle, how you “talk” with your hands, what your
    smile looks like, and how your belly shakes when you laugh.

    it’s easy to see this is a much richer gift to your grandkids.
    it’s _natural,_ without the artifice of a well-groomed book.
    and not only that, but it’s a hundred times easier to create.

    so yes, i’m still a huge proponent of self-publishing a book.

    but if what you wanna do is to tell your grandkids your story
    — or tell the world your story — consider that the best way
    just might be to use that video-camera there in your pocket.


    p.s. as usual, sorry for the length, joel. but i hope that
    it was worth it…

  3. Meredith Lorimar

    Great piece. It’s always the people who tell the most enchanting stories who you remember from any experience.

  4. Desiree Woodland

    This article brings to mind once again the power of story. Our stories do everything your article says and more! They validate our experience and our existence. They draw us closer to our humanity since we see ourselves in one another’s stories, and arouse in us sensations, feelings and emotions yet undiscovered. To quote George MacDonald, ” Words can shake us more awake than we are most of our lives” Thank you for reminding us:)

  5. Katie McAleece

    This article draws you in, it’s so well written. Honestly one of my new favorites of yours.

    I love the idea of considering ourselves story-tellers. I think, as writers (and readers), if we embraced this concept a little more freely we may see many things about our lives/styles change. For one, we are writing our own story every day. But also, people love hearing stories, don’t they? So the concept of it could take deeper root in all of our writing, and it would be amazing.

    “It’s all about keeping the attention of the reader.”

    Loved this. Thank you!

  6. Turndog Millionaire

    Love this!

    Life is one big story. We all have them in us, and although some are better than others, we all have tales to tell.

    Finding that voice and that special way forward is precious indeed

    Matthew (Turndog Millionaire)

  7. Phyllis Humphrey

    How obvious when uou tell us, but how seldom we think of ourselves that way. Good article.

  8. Ilana Waters

    “Think how storytellers in the thousands of years before literacy became widespread had to be able to hold the attention of the crowd with only their own words.”

    One of your bests posts ever, Mr. F, in my opinion. You really are a poet! The quotation above was especially moving. I constantly try and incorporate such timelessness into my own work. I think “What themes/emotions/events would have held an audience captive hundreds of years ago? How can address that in today’s terms?”

    Thank you for the inspiration–and respect–you give writers every day.

  9. Gordon A. Long

    Talk about storytelling being part of our modern life. I was speaking with a young lawyer the other day, and he was saying how important storytelling was in his career.
    When I questioned this, he said, “Each lawyer tells his client’s own story about the events that happened. The story the jury believes wins the case.”
    Stories are all around us. Writers just choose the best ones to tell.

  10. Heather

    I really enjoyed this piece. I love the idea of storytelling as a marketer and a writer. Previous to working in self-publishing, the most fun stories I got to write about were for a wood flooring company that reclaimed old growth pine from torn down industrial buildings along the east coast. Customers absolutely had to know where their floors were coming from so that people could say something like, “See this floor, it came from the original Buster Brown shoe factory.” Fun things like that.

    Also, quick note. There’s a typo, you have homo spaiens after your quote.


    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks for spotting that typo, Heather, it’s appreciated.

      Story often lives in odd ways at the center of business pursuits. One of the first jobs I had while still in college was working at a “european art” gallery in a strip mall in Danbury Connecticut. We sold oil paintings based on their size, the colors in them, which periods they would best complement, a lot like interior decoration if you know what I mean.

      Of course customers always wanted to know about the artists, and it was handy to have little capsule biographies typed on bits of paper that were taped to the back of the stretchers, along with the other information about the painting like its name, price, and so on.

      Even at that age, the whole enterprise and the guy who ran it, a sharp fellow up from New York City, seemed a bit odd to me. I knew some artists, but they must have been very different than the artists who painted these paintings.

      One day, coming back to the store to collect a paycheck, I happened on the owner in the back room with a typewriter. When I saw what he was typing, he looked at my sheepishly.

      It was a long string of “artist bios” and it was quite obvious that he was just making them up, names, histories and all.

      He came clean, telling me how they bought the paintings by the yard, how they were painted in “factories” where the work was highly specialized. They had artists who only painted trees, for instance, others who did the waves.

      Something about that experience has stayed with me since then. He wasn’t a bad writer, really, but the writing itself and the inventing of the stories was just a way to make a buck, so he did it.

      Thanks for commenting.

      • Tracy R. Atkins


        Sounds like what some of those “Private Label Rights” type people would do.

        But the lesson is a good one. People want depth in art, any art, including writing. Sometimes the circumstances are as important as the words written. Would The Diary of Anne Frank have as much impact if it were written in a New York loft in the 1960s?

  11. Sarah Elisabeth

    Timely, Joel. Just got confirmation that I’m on the program for the Five Tribes Story Conference (, scroll down to see my name on the right) My first “storytelling” outside of Toastmasters, and at the conference where it all began for me two years ago. It was there I realized I wasn’t just a writer – I’m a storyteller.

    Thanks for this article, further encouragement for me!

    Now to block out public speaking nerves and tell a story or two. And live one.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Sarah Elisabeth,

      A “storytelling concert”—now that sounds interesting, can’t say I’ve been to one of those. Have fun at the conference, it looks like a great event.

  12. Terry Dassow

    “It struck me as I listened to those two men that a truer nomination (name) for our species than Homo sapiens might be Homo narrans, the storytelling person. What differentiates us from animals is the fact that we can listen to other people’s dreams, fears, joys, sorrows, desires and defeats–and they in turn can listen to ours. ”

    This is the first time I’ve come into contact with Henning Mankell’s words. Thank you so much for blogging about this.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Terry, he is the author of the Kurt Wallender crime novels, which have given rise to a couple of TV adaptions, but the books are wonderful to read. Enjoy.

  13. Diane Lynn Tibert McGyver

    I love this, Joel. Thank you for sharing. It has inspired a story, or a story structure.



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