In this session, we will look at stories to find out what is prototypical about them and discuss research methods that deal with them. Because they are narratives, they have linguistic structure (phonemes, lexemes, morphemes, syntax, and semantics) and occur within cultural settings (pragmatics) and scenes. A storyteller draws on these features and more (e.g. non-verbal ones) to present and perform his/her story. As cultural outsiders we have an etic understanding of story features that allow us to examine and analyze them. Cultural insiders will have an emic view of the story based on their experiences in the world around them. When they tell a story they use the shared background knowledge of the audience.  If the audience is not a part of the cultural setting, it will have an etic, i.e. an outsider’s arrangement and interpretation of the story. Etic and emic are cultural perspectives that we need in order to understand a story.[1]

We will discuss research methods as they apply to story structure, noting initially that story research methodology is simply good ethnology (in particular, participant observation[2]). Part of the process of story gathering in an oral community involves recording genealogies and family histories so that we can know the storytellers and their relationships in the cultural scene.  We examine story performance by spending time with storytellers as part of their audience. In so doing there are a number of assumptions that hold.


What is a story? [See Glossary in LYT] What are the characteristic or prototypical (etic) features of a story? [structure: beginning, middle, end; characters, plot, events; predicament, warnings, violations]

The “etic” features are those that we know from our own experiences and background (the structure that is a result of the researcher’s analysis).  For example, what do the following beginning statements suggest about the stories that may follow?

  1. “Once upon a time…”
  2. “There was once a man who had a fig tree growing in his vineyard…” (Lk 13:6)
  3. “The following spring, at the time of the year when kings usually go to war…”
    (2 Sam 11.1)
  4. “There were two men who lived in the same town; one was rich and the other poor.” (2 Sam 12:1b)

What are the emic dimensions (cultural assumptions for these items?

a’. Does this begin a legend, a myth, a child’s story, an historical account, etc.?

b’. Is this a “true” story? An historical account? Fig tree? Vineyard?

c’. Seasons? Do the kings fight or are they a metonymy? War? History.

d’. A parable or an allegory? What does it mean to be rich or poor? The “Big Idea” in a             story, i.e. its theme.



One assumption is that etic and emic are valid and necessary research viewpoints, so I will discuss and illustrate stories from those perspectives. I am assuming that although we are cultural outsiders, with an etic view, our goal is to understand how to tell stories and how to tell what they mean. As an illustration, the story I use later is from the Kewa (PNG)[3] and translated into English, so the culture is not Western and American.  This is a realistic example because most of you will be doing fieldwork in a foreign language and culture and will initially hear and analyze stories from an etic viewpoint. My assumption is also that in your language and culture learning, stories will be an important part of your fieldwork.  However, for our purposes, it is not necessary for you to have done fieldwork.


What is a worldview?  How does a worldview enter into our description and understanding of a story?

What background and assumptions (worldview) are a part of the Hagar and Sarah meta-story of Galatians 4:31-31? [slave v. free; usual birth v. God’s spirit; Mt. Sinai v. (Calvary); Jerusalem v. Heavenly Jerusalem]

Stories and Genre

Worldview and Story

kind of                                                                              part of

genre                    mode                                                  audience              features


parable                                              monolog                             imagination                       intonation

poem                                                  dialog                                  feedback                            lessons/moral

sermon                                              singing                                inside/outside                   theme/motif

lecture                                               chanting                             memory                              nucleus/peak

  • oral history                                       mime                                   reflection                           cultural setting

epic                                                     metric                                 motivation                         scripts/frames

ballad                                                 symbolism                          etiquette                            artistry

counting-out rhythms


Classifying stories is helpful, whether from an emic or etic point of view. Oring (1986:18), for example, says that a story is considered folklore if it employs dimensions such as verbal art, unwritten tradition, Great Tradition, and folklife. Other scholars definitions vary, but we consider folklore as an orientation including what is communal, common, informal, marginal, personal, traditional, aesthetic, and ideological.

Bauman (1992:29) would seem to agree. He notes that folklore has various definitions, but includes manners, customs, observances, superstitions, ballads, proverbs, and so on from past traditions.  Some anthropologists have assumed that tradition would give way to modern life and eventually be lost. Folklorists have reserved the designation of ‘folk’ for peasant peoples and village artisans occupying a lower strata of society.  One of the essential cores of folklore is its ‘artfulness’ in speech and action.

More on Etic and Emic

We have noted that the classification of stories varies according to the viewpoint of the analyst and that etic and emic are two ways to view the same thing, resulting in two ways to describe it, providing, as Pike (1957) says, “A stereoscopic window on the world.”  The detached observer has one view, the native participant has another, but both are necessary. The outside observer is attempting to understand the inside viewpoint and as he does so, he moves back and forth from the objective etic categories that he has been trained to utilize to a subjective understanding of what the categories mean—their emic nature.  The etic view is alien, cross-cultural, prepared in advance as a typological grid, somewhat absolute, often measurable, created by the analyst, while the emic view is domestic, mono-cultural, structurally derived, relative and contrastive in reference to a system, and discovered by the analyst.  Another way to think of the differences is that the etic analyst uses various discovery procedures (for example, see Longacre 1983) to outline the structure of cultural units, but needs an ethnography or grammar to derive an emic understanding of the items.

Etics, like sounds, are similar across cultures, while emics, like phonemes, are particular to a language.  We impose etic grids on a language or culture as our starting points from which we derive emic conclusions.  The particular theory that underlies our etic grid guides us, but the results are subject to the recognition of emic differences proposed by cultural insiders.

By applying these criteria to stories, we view stories simultaneously in terms of their etic and emic features.  Stories are contrastive units; for example, parables have different forms and features than poems.  Each has a range of variation and are told or read from their particular context.  The teller and listener have shared background and context , so the meanings are interpreted or understood on that basis.


How does a sermon contrast with a lecture? [audience, purpose, content]

Story Structure and Analysis

LeRoy (1985), in his study of Kewa tales (stories), uses the metaphor of “frame” as the structure or material support for a story.  The frames provide the formula for the story types. For example, one frame in the story of “Abuwapale the Provider” has the following functions:

i: A young man unites with a woman of special status.

ii: The woman gives him wealth, but under a condition.

iii: He ignores the condition, and she dies as a result.

iv: There is an act of retaliation.


Below each of the functions LeRoy gives a reference to a story that illustrates it, e.g., for the final function there are 5 stories that illustrate the act of retaliation.

Fieldworkers commonly apply structure analysis to folktales and the procedures are also relevant in examining Bible stories. The Indonesian Branch of SIL provides their members with a handbook (by Powlison and Peckham) that outlines a series of exercises to demonstrate the process. Powlison has assimilated Propp’s[4] functions with other analysts and added Biblical elements to show the connections between typical Oral Literature structure and the Bible. For example, his biblical hero pattern has 50 motifemes (themes) that are relevant to the points from Propp and other the secular analysts. He demonstrates the importance of discovering the motifemes that are present in a translation project. For example, the following are four motifemes (from a total of 50):

  1. Introduction and identification of hero’s parents as royalty and/or deity.  (Gen. 1:26-28. Adam created in likeness of God and designated ruler over all life on earth. He is the figure of the Hero that was to come. (Rom. 5:14)
  2. Absence of parent or elder (Gen. 3:8ff.  Implied absence of God from garden of Eden)
  3. Interdiction or prohibition addressed to hero (Gen. 2:17. Don’t eat fruit of tree in middle of garden)
  4. Violation of prohibition (Gen. 3:6. Eve and Adam ate forbidden fruit)
  5. Reconnaissance of victim by villain (Serpent asks Eve the loaded question “Did God really tell you not to eat fruit from any tree in the garden”? 3:1)

The motifemes emphasized in oral literature reflect the group’s temperament, character, and philosophy of life—that is, its worldview. A complete inventory of all motifemes emphasized in a culture would show their underlying assumptions and points of view. Motifemes that are lacking or rare require special attention and care in translation. For example, the final success or failure of a hero may correspond to the culture’s hope or lack of hope. It is even possible to categorize books of the Bible by the motifemes, e.g., Job illustrates the Struggle-Victory sequence.


What is a motif?  What is a motifeme?  In Propp’s theory, what are the “functions” in a story?

Oral Histories

Oral histories are an important dimension of storytelling. A recent issue of the Storytelling Magazine (Volume 19, Issue 4, July/August 2007) carries a number of references to Oral History. One of the lead article’s on the subject (“Oral History 101 for Storytellers) is by Jo Radner, who teaches workshops on the art of interviewing.

Radner reminds us “your storytelling project calls for oral history interviewing, an absorbing, emotionally rewarding, and uniquely demanding kind of research.” It is demanding because we are in this case not a storyteller. We are a listener for information, assisting the person to discover meaning in his/her own experiences and story. Further, we are a witness to the story and “the custodian of a gift to others.”

A few tips from the article are:

  • Do your background research
  • Make an appointment
  • Practice with your recording equipment
  • Record your interviews carefully and remember that an interview is not a dialogue
  • Use a simple and broad question to begin the interview
  • Prepare a question list, beginning logically, but suggesting expansive answers
  • You are not seeking data but the person’s knowledge
  • Do not interrupt—silence is OK
  • Do a follow-up interview and write a thank-you note
  • You must have a signed release before you can quote from or use the interview


What are some values that accrue from gathering oral histories?

Family Histories

According to Pratt and Fiese (eds. 2004) the family is the context for interpreting the wider world and the life cycle stories are an intimate part of the process. Their book studies and describes how families “support, guide, or sometimes stifle” (3) the process. The authors refer to the “ecological context of the family” with the role of “family paradigms, myths, stories, and rituals” (4) forming important links in life.  One example in North America is the “rags to riches” motif.

Carole Peterson and Allyssa McCabe (Echoing our parents: parental influences on children’s narration), in Pratt and Fiese, claim“There is no such thing as a born storyteller. Rather, narrative skills are shaped by many influences, and one of the most important is the sort of habitual verbal interaction that takes place between parents and children.” (27)  This includes time spent as well as the degree of attachment, although there are cultural variations.  Narrative skill is one of the most important predictions of school success and literacy acquisition. (28) The authors follow Labov and Waletzky (1967/1997)—Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience) for their prototype of a narrative and its structure in terms of a “classic narrative” that includes:

  • Orientation to the context of the narrative (who, where, when)
  • Development of the action of the story (events and what happened)
  • Emotional or evaluative high point (a crisis event)
  • Resolution of the crisis
  • Inclusion of emotional evaluation (how one feels)

There are other developmental patterns of narratives as well:

  • Ending is at-the-high-point narrative
  • Chronological features (lists of things that happen but no overall coherent organization)
  • Leapfrog narratives (from event to event in a confusing manner)
  • Impoverished narratives (too few events to be described structurally)

Stories and Performance

We can know about stories, but we also want to tell them. Let’s think through what makes a good story. We know that a story has to have elements like characters, plot, and description, but imparting ideas and teaching is one of the main goals of storytelling. As a storyteller, we wish to start the audience visualizing, but leave them to create images themselves because if they combine emotion and imagination they will be more likely to remember the story.

According to Sawyer (1942), “The art of storytelling lies within the storyteller, to be searched for, drawn out, made to grow.” (26)  What then does a good story involve?

  • Creative imagination and the power to evoke emotion
  • A sense of spiritual conviction on the part of the teller where one shares one’s heart and spirit, to be “gloriously alive” (28)
  • Careful selection of the story or stories, indicating that the teller must study in solitude and silence for understanding
  • An approach that is not simply to impart information or prescribed material, but seeing storytelling as a folk-art, involving-emotions, imagination, and wisdom
  • Being one’s own teacher and critic, developing love and propensity for the art (35)
  • Being dependent on the power of creation, with integrity, trust and vision

Mary MacDonald (1993) also emphasizes that we plan our stories carefully, then memorize bits and episodes by practicing and evaluating our delivery and flow. What effect do we wish to have with the story?  In teaching others the teller must:

  • Give the story,
  • Talk through the entire story
  • Break into groups to evaluate the story.

We must accept our role as storyteller by listening, identifying, instigating and reflecting. Remember that for a story, there is no right text, but infinite variants and that repeated tellings tend to perfect a tale.  MacDonald says not to worry about exact cultural reproduction and gives this advice:

“My colleagues sometimes suggest that those elaborate, soul-searched, personal stories and the hard-honed literary pieces which they construct and perform for adults are a higher art form, somehow on a different plane from the work of simply “telling stories to children.” Nonsense…. Art is judged by the ear and the heart.  A simply told parable may stand above all of these elaborately developed twenty-minute recitations” (80).

Exercise: A Kewa Story[5]

The Long House. There was a very long house where many men lived. One time one of the men told the others that he wanted to go up into the forest to strip bark from a tree. While he was stripping bark he heard an old man yelling at him from the Yalu garden area. “Who is that up in the bush banging away? My daughter has died.” The man who heard this thought it was true, so he gathered his bark and went to see where the crying was coming from. But the old man captured him and bound him inside of a fence in an isolated area. Later another man decided to go the bush to strip some bark from the tree and the same thing happened. The old man yelled out again that his daughter had died. This happened again and again until all of the men were captured and inside of the fence. There was just one poor little old man left (a man like Ipiri), who lived at the far end of the long house. The little man searched for his brothers and found the bones of them inside the fence. He sneaked up and saw that their bones were in a pile in the Robake house. But on the eya tree branches surrounded it, on one of them the cordyline leaves had something shining in the sun. He licked the cordyline leaf as he went along. Suddenly the old man appeared and said, “What are you doing?” “I’m looking for my brothers who are lost so in hunting them I arrived here.” “I haven’t seen your brothers.” “They are down there by the fence.” As he said that he took out a bamboo knife that he was carrying and stabbed him in the liver. Then with an axe he split him into two pieces. Then the old man fought with him and taunted him, saying “Tickle me with your fleas.” Then he carried him off and because he wasn’t dead yet he took that tanget leaf and stabbed the man with it. The tanget leaf was red like the liver of the other man, so it killed him. That is all.

Now let’s think about the story from the etic and emic perspective:

  • How would you classify the story (is it a legend, etc.)?
  • Who would you ask about the story? (who are the recognized experts?)
  • What would you ask the experts? (an insider can tell you what to ask)
  • What is the organizational structure (location, plot, characters, etc.) in the story?
  • What are some of the etic features of the story? (chronology, trickster, plot, characters, dialogue, recursion, PNG topography, Highland cultures and languages)
  • What appear to be the emic features of the story? (mourning protocol, symbolism of the tanget leaf, the long house, bones in the spirit house, stripping bark, taunting)
  • What is the most important theme in the story? (little old man v. the big man)
  • What is the plot and who are the characters (how do you imagine them)?
  • Is there a transformation point in the story?
  • What additional information do you need about the story?
  • What do you need to remember in building the story? (the images)

Here are the questions that one man suggested about the story (notice their order/ lack of chronology because they focus on events or incidents):

  1. How many men were there (in the long house)?
  2. What did one of the men first do?
  3. Did the old man shoot an arrow?
  4. Then did the man die?
  5. After all the men were gone, how many were in the other end of the long house?
  6. When he searched for his brothers, where were their bones?
  7. Who stabbed someone with the tanget leaf?
  8. What did he hear down at the Yalu garden area?
  9. What was he licking as he went along?
  10. What did the old man say?
  11. What did he do to all the men in the long house?

When telling stories, professionals tell us that there are certain things to keep in mind:

  • Space (physical), audience, starting and finishing, acknowledging
  • Posture and dress
  • Create intimacy with audience
  • Why are you telling the story?
  • What images do you want to get across?
  • Can the audience see and hear you (work close to them)?
  • Are you trusting yourself to let the story unfold?
  • The audience forgives—they want you to do well
  • Respect the intelligence of the audience
  • Have you warmed up your voice?
  • Start off with something short
  • First story must be a very familiar one
  • Limit the time of the introduction
  • Take 30 seconds to establish yourself
  • Provide varieties in your speech patterns
  • Mix up the stories (if telling several)

Notice that these are etic suggestions by Western professional storytellers, i.e. they are cultural perspectives that would not in every case apply to a Kewa storytelling scene.

In Summary

Although there are prototypical and academic definitions of what constitutes a ‘story’, the linguistic and cultural insiders and outsiders will classify stories differently.  Our Western literary tradition has a great range of genres that we use for classifying stores but an oral culture will have a taxonomy that will appear quite flat (i.e., without a hierarchy of any depth).

The emic and etic viewpoints provide the researcher with an apparatus and model that is helpful in distinguishing story meanings based on cultural viewpoint and analysis.

The structural analysis of stories (from an etic viewpoint) is helpful in establishing the recurrent themes in a story.

Oral history is a valuable tool for the fieldworker—it not only provides texts that illustrate worldview, it also allows the researcher to know and respect the storyteller and his/her culture.  Oral histories include the context of families and their stories.

Performing a story involves the storyteller carefully selecting the story, some creative imagination when telling the story, and interaction with the storyteller’s audience.

A Kewa story illustrates some of the cultural background that is necessary to understand the context, background and general pragmatics of any story.

Selected Reading List

Bailey, Kenneth E. 2008. Jesus through Middle Eastern eyes: cultural studies in the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic

Bauman, Richard, ed. 1992. Folklore, cultural performances, and popular entertainments: A communications-centered handbook. NY: Oxford University Press.

Denning, Stephen. 2001. The springboard: How storytelling ignites action in knowledge-era organizations. Woburn, MA: Butterworth Heinemann.

Franklin, Karl J. 2009. Loosen your tongue: an introduction to storytelling. Dallas: Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics.

Greene, Bob and D.G. Fulford. 1993. To our children’s children: preserving family histories for generations to come. NY: Doubleday.

Greene, Ellin. 1966. Storyelling: art and technique, 3rd edition. New Providence, NJ: R.R. Bowker.

Haven, Kendall. 2007. Story proof: the science behind the startling power of story. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Ives, Edward D. 1995. The tape-recorded interview: A manual for fieldworkers in folklore and oral history. 2nd ed. Knoxville” U. of Tennessee Press.

Lanman, Barry A. and Laura W. Wendling, eds. 2006. Preparing the next generation of oral historians: an anthologyof oral history education. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

Longacre, Robert E. 1996. The grammar of discourse, 2nd edition. NY: Plenum Press.

Lord, Albert B. 1960. The singer of tales. Second edition, Steven Mitchell and Gregory Nagy, eds. 2000. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

MacDonald, Margaret Read. 1993. The story-teller’s start-up book: finding, learning, performing and using folktales.  Little Rock: August House Publishers, Inc.

MacDonald, Margaret Read. 2006. Ten traditional tellers. U. of Illinois Press.

Maguire, Jack. 1998. The power of personal storytelling: spinning tales to connect with others. NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.

Mooney, Bill and David Holt. 1996. The storyteller’s guide: storytellers share advice for the classroom, boardroom, showroom, podium, pulpit and center stage. Little Rock: August House Publishers, Inc.

Murphy, G. Ronald, S.J. 2000. The owl, the raven, and the dove: the religious meaning of the Grimms’ magic fairy tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Oring, Elliott, ed. 1986. Folk groups and folklore genres: an introduction. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press.

Pike, Kenneth L. 1957. A stereoscopic window on the world (Language and life, part 1). Bibliotheca Sacra 114:141-156. [W. H. Griffith Thomas Memorial Lectureship for 1956, Dallas Theological Seminary and GraduateSchool of Theology.]

Pike, Kenneth L. 1967. Language in relation to a unified theory of the structure of human behavior. The Hague: Mouton & Co.

Pike, Kenneth L. 1982. Linguistic concepts: An introduction to tagmemics. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Pike, Kenneth L. 1993. Talk, thought and thing: the emic road toward conscious knowledge. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Pratt, Michael W. and Barbara H. Fiese, eds. 2004. Family stories and the life course: across time and generations. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.

Propp, Vladimir. 1975. Morphology of the Folktale, 2nd ed., tr. Laurence Scott, ed. Louis A. Wagner. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Richie, Donald A. 1995. Doing oral history. Vol. 15, Twayne’s Oral History Series.

Rodari, Gianni. 1973. The grammar of fantasy: An introduction to the art of inventing stories. Translated by Jack Zipes, 1996. New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative.

Rosenbluth, Vera. 1997. Keeping family stories alive: discovering and recording the stories and reflections of a lifetime. Hartley & Marks Publishers.

Ross, Ramon Royal. 1996. Storyteller: the classic that heralded America’s storytelling revival. 3rd revised edition. Little Rock: AR: August House Publishers, Inc.

Rubin, David C. 1995. Memory in oral traditions: the cognitive psychology of epic, ballads, and counting-out rhymes. Oxford University Press

Sawyer, Ruth. 1942. The way of the storyteller. Viking Press.  Revised edition 1962. Compass edition 1965, Penguin Books 1976.

Walsh, John. 2003. The art of storytelling: Easy steps to presenting an unforgettable story. Chicago: Moody Publishers.

Schank, Roger C. 1990. Tell me a story: A new look at real and artificial memory.  NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Silverman, Lori. ed. 2006. Wake me up when the data is over: how organizations use storytelling to drive results. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & sons.

Simmons, Annette. 2001. The story factor: Secrets of influence from the art of storytelling. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.

Sitton, Thad, George L. Mehaffy and O.OL. Davis Jr. 1983. Oral history: a guide for teachers (and others).Austin: University of Texas Press.

Thompson, Paul. 1978. The voice of the past: oral history. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Truby, John. 2007. The anatomy of story: 22 steps to becoming a master storyteller. NY: Faber and Faber, Inc.

Turner, Victor. 1987. The anthropology of performance. NY: PAJ Publications.

Wilder, Amos Niven. 2001 [1976]. Theopoetic: Theology and the religious imagination. Lima, OH: Academic Renewal Press.

Wolcott, Harry F. 1995. The art of fieldwork. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.

Some recommended web resources on oral history:

[Karl Franklin, Verbal Arts 2009]

[1] There are also general and specific definitions related to storytelling that are in the Glossary of Loosen Your Tongue (LYT).

[2] We start with language learning—note the references on the Lingua Links library, in particular Healey’s Language Learner’s Field Guide. For participant observation, Spradley’s book (1980) is still a practical guide to project selection, questions, the collection and analyzing of data, and of course writing it up. James Roberts (1992) has translated Luc Bouquiaux and Jacqueline M.C. Thomas , Studying and Describing Unwritten Languages, which was published by SIL There are numerous questionnaires that help elicit materials on linguistic and thematic topics.

[3] A group of people numbering over 100, 000, speaking three dialects and residing in the Southern Highlands of PNG.

[4] Vladmir Propp examined narrative structure t in 100 Russian folktales. In addition to his sequence of 31 functions, he concluded that all the characters could be placed into 7 types: (1) the villain, (2) the donor, who gives some magical object; (3) the helper, who assists the hero; (4) the princess and her father, who identi5fy’(5) the dispatcher, who makes the lack known and sends the hero off; (6) the hero or victim, who react to the donor; and (7) the false hero or usurper, who takes cred for the hero’s actions. See (accessed August 5, 2008).

[5] From Karl Franklin and Yapua Kirapeasi, eds. 1972. Akuanuna Iti Remaanu Buku. Ukarumpa: Summer Institute of Linguistics. [A Kewa myth book used as an advanced reader, comprising the stories by several W. Kewa men. Questions follow each story.]