What Is a Story, and Where Does It Come From?

We are all storytellers; the story’s first teller is our self and the first listener is our self


We’re all storytellers.

But, what is a story? And where does it come from?

Before we attempt to define story and its origin, I want to make one thing very clear. As storytellers, as purveyors of yarns that are intended to entertain, educate, inspire or intrigue, we have to be aware that our yarns can assume several different forms.

Like shape-shifters, our stories can morph themselves into a variety of configurations depending on the nature of the story, the intended recipients and the circumstances. Some possible shapes: novel, short story, poem, play, film, memoir, oral, audio, visual, etc. You get the idea.

Back to the first question: What is a story?

A story is a depiction of a journey. In a story we follow a character or a series of characters on a journey as they pursue something up against certain obstacles. Okay, that’s a beginning.

What does the dictionary say?

1. a factual or fictional narrative

2. a short fictional prose piece

3. a plot of fiction or drama

4. an account of facts

5. a falsehood

6. a news report

7. a legend or romance


OK, not bad. Perhaps something to work with there.

Warning: This is not a good time to get into all the genres, styles, delivery systems, etc. That can all wait until later.

A story is the telling of an event, either true or fictional, in such a way that the listener experiences or learns something just by the fact that he heard the story. A story is a means of transferring information, experience, attitude or point of view. Every story has a teller and a listener.

No matter the medium, there has to be the one telling the story and the one receiving the story. That seems to be essential. “If a tree falls in the forest …” “If I story is told and there is no one there to receive it, does it make a sound?”

But, where do stories come from?

We tell stories every day – mostly to ourselves. We tell ourselves stories to make a point, to imagine a possible future, to remind ourselves, to reprimand ourselves, to comfort ourselves. Inside each and every one of us is a complex system of storytelling that is active, rich in content, and, I believe, very necessary to the health and well being of each of us.

This is where stories start, where they are conceived, gestate and are eventually born. Consequently, the story’s first teller is our self and the first listener is our self.

A story is a series of events we either create or remember or imagine which we tell ourselves because we want or need to hear them. Perhaps we create stories because we want or need to know something, or learn something, or answer a question. Perhaps it is the listener within us that demands the story and the teller within us that does its best to accommodate.

Maybe the creative urge we feel is meant primarily to feed our selves, nourish ourselves, take care of, comfort and protect ourselves. We think we tell stories for others, to inform or entertain. But what if we are initially doing this for ourselves? What if our storytelling is such an essential tool to keep the human psyche in balance that it has become as important as food, air and sleep?

Oliver Sachs (in "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat") said that he felt that the 'telling of our life stories is perhaps one of the most powerful therapeutic tools available to man.' What if the telling of our stories is necessary so that we can move the story out of our system, release our clutch on the life raft it has become, and make way for new stories, new life rafts?

The essentials of life (food, water, air, sleep) pass through us. Nothing remains. We take them in, absorb their essence and them let them out. Maybe it’s the same way with story. We need to create our stories. We need to allow them to grow inside us. We need to feed them knowing they will feed us. And then we need to let them go, to share them. In the sharing every story will generate or stimulate more stories, more nourishment. And life stays in balance.

And, isn’t it possible that if we viewed our stories (and our deep desire to tell stories) with more respect and admiration we might possibly tell better stories? Someone said, “write what you know”.  But how often do we actually do that?  How often do we reveal ourselves in our stories? How many of us are really willing to allow our inner stories to be shared and exposed? Every story is a piece of us, a gift to the world, an attempt to find a deeper connection with the other inhabitants of this globe.

We are all storytellers.