Once upon a time not long ago, I thought of storytelling in 3 forms; bedtime stories, stories used in a public speaking, and the ‘war’ stories from veteran military members and firefighters. That’s it. Man! How much I have learned in 5 years! I now understand there are at LEAST 17 types of oral story types (The List So Far ). The type that I perform the most? Personal Narrative Storytelling.

At least, that’s what I’m calling it. I have heard a number of names- short form and long form personal narrative storytelling, true tales, The Moth-style storytelling, and the list goes on.  When an idea has a lot of names, it becomes difficult to classify and understand it. Here is my attempt at defining this type of storytelling:

The definition as I know it

A person standing in front of others telling a story about themselves that is as true as they can remember. Time ranges from 90 sec to 45 mins. It seems like some form of this type of storytelling has existed for a while. The biggest difference I can find from what existed before and what is common today is time. It seems that personal narrative storytelling from before normally took 10 – 45 mins. In recent years (the last 20 years or so) versions that are 8 mins, 5 mins, and in some cases, 90 secs have emerged.

After some thought, here are the parts I think define personal narrative storytelling. I put it into an acronym called HATS. Why HATS?

  1. I’m a former military person. Our whole language is acronyms
  2. Figured it make it easy to remember
  3. The original order I wrote down SHAT. I didn’t care for how that turned out.

Anyway, HATS:

  • Happened to you
    • Personal narrative stories are just that, personal. The type of stories that impacted you because you are a part of the story. For this type of storytelling then:
      • You have to be there in the story
      • You personally have been impacted. The change can be life altering, or just a funny, new perspective. Still, there is a change.
  • Audience
    • Every oral story needs an audience. The locations and types of audience vary. Personal narrative stories are told at coffee shops, venues that hold over 1000 people, and now, using video teleconferencing.  
  • True, for the most part
    • From taking psychology in college, I learned that memory is not 100% reliable. There isn’t someone fact checking the story, but the storyteller should work to be truthful and honest. Shorter personal narrative stories (8 mins or less) might have things left out to meet the time limit. Making changes to fit the time limit while staying true to the events of the story are generally permissible.
    • Personal narrative storytelling is popular in a way that differs from the other types of storytelling because of vulnerability. It reveals a truth about the storyteller to anyone that hears it. Funny, embarrassed, shameful, struggling. People learn about the actual person the storyteller is.
    • Telling stories connects people. Telling stories about yourself connects hearts and minds. 
  • Story
    • It has to have a story structure. Normally the simple structure of beginning, middle, and end works. Of course, there will need to be an inciting incident, a resolution, and a conclusion
      • There are a number of other structures used  and ways to craft the story.
    • Can be funny, sad, adventurous, and more
    • Should have a message or point. By the end of the story, the story listener will be asking “Was this worth the time to listen to?”
      • Still, the message or point shouldn’t be really preachy. A well-crafted story should lead listeners to an idea, not force them to accept it

There have been some debate if personal narrative storytelling fits in the greater world of storytelling, and how. That’s probably a another article at some point. I will say this, when hip-hop first came out, it was supposed to be a passing fad that wasn’t real music. New forms of existing art seem to make themselves fit into the world. Might as well tell your story on purpose!

References

For this article, I don’t have the usual reference section, as the info here was put together from discussions and messages read in forums and conversations with storytellers. I want to thank the many storytellers that talked to me by message and on the phone about personal narrative storytelling. Below are some of the groups that helped to shape my understanding:

Storytellers

https://www.facebook.com/groups/griots

Artist Standing Strong Together

https://www.facebook.com/groups/217623652768510/?multi_permalinks=344504033413804

National Storytelling Festival

https://www.facebook.com/groups/30204857460

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