The Origins of Storytelling: Fire, Desire & Conflict


I’ve just started reading Solutions for Novelists: Secrets of a Master Editor by Sol Stein. He puts forward the following theory:


Once upon a time the subject was hunting. Maybe it was the only subject. It was the time of the hunter-gatherers. Around the fire, one can assume the men who hunted told what happened on the hunt… The unsuccessful hunter, possibly to save his own life, had to go into where he hunted, what he saw and heard, how he tracked an animal, perhaps how a sudden storm or a falling tree impeded the chase, how he had to turn back home empty-handed.

The successful hunter, being human, possibly enhanced his story by telling what he would have liked to have happen on the hunt. One can presume that, because of the dangers, hunters would go out in groups. They would be witnesses to each other’s actions. It is possible that the best hunters were not the best storytellers. So the hunters might let the best storyteller speak for them. They would tolerate his exaggerations because his telling would enhance the herohood of all of them.

You can see it unfolding – the development from truth to excuse or exaggeration to story. Nice theory, right? Except it’s not just a theory any more. Starting in the 1970s, an anthropologist called Polly Wiessner has conducted a 40-year long study with Namibian Ju/’hoan tribes to explore how their storytelling is impacted by gathering around a fire. Daytime conversation was on practical matters, but at night the stories began to creep in.

There’s something about the dark and dangerous, food-giving, light-giving fire that triggers stories. Fire brings people together; people together start talking. And people talking communicate – bond and explain – via stories.

The point Sol Stein is making is the critical nature of the stories our early ancestors told. The success of the hunt was a life-or-death matter. If you didn’t catch things, you went hungry. If you didn’t catch things for long enough, you were too weak to hunt and you died. The hunter – the protagonist – needs something desperately, for himself and his community. There are obstacles to be overcome, which creates conflict. Desire and conflict: the two most fundamental aspects of a story, from the beginning of stories onwards. These are the things you, as a hunter-writer, need to have in your story. Otherwise no one will gather around your fire to listen.



Thank you to the raptor for the Polly Wiessner link.

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