Tall Tale Genre

Definition – Examples – Hallmarks – Tips

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Hello Lovelies, and welcome to the blog. Last week,we talked all about the Folk Tale pillar of genre and I introduced you to the main subgenres within the Folk Tale category. As a reminder, Wikipedia defines a folktale or folk tale as “a folklore genre that typically consists of a story passed down from generation to generation orally.” This week, I want to talk specifically about Tall Tales, giving you some examples and some specific hallmarks of a Tall Tale.

Tall Tale Definition

Tall tales are stories that are told, usually by an unreliable narrator, in that they have unbelievable elements but are told as if factual and true. When a person exaggerates their story a little, it is usually still believable. It is when they exaggerate it to unbelievable lengths that the story stretches into the tall tale category.

Examples

Perhaps you’ve heard of Paul Bunyan the massive lumberjack who eats 50 pancakes in one minute and who dug the grand canyon with his axe, and has a blue ox named Babe who made the Mississippi River? Or maybe you’ve heard of Davy Crockett, the so-called “King of the Wild Frontier” as the song might suggest? These are two examples of tall tales where one person was real and one was completely fictional, but both told unbelievable stories as if they were true.

Hallmarks of a Tall Tale

There are several distinct aspects that tall tales have in common.

  • A character that has extraordinary ability and a specific goal in mind. Generally, tall tales involve normal people doing incredible things.
  • A problem solved in a clever or humorous way.
  • A blend of both truthful and exaggerated details. Don’t play too hard into one or the other.
  • A comical ending that makes the audience laugh, or sometimes groan.

Tall tales are largely bragging stories that don’t take themselves seriously. They often have surprise or unexpected plot elements, and will generally leave the audience in a good mood after experiencing them.

Tips for Telling a Tall Tale

The most important thing about tall tales is that they have historically been told orally. While you can find written copies of the tales in question, the original tales were largely told verbally to friends and family and grew into a storytelling tradition in their own right. While you can absolutely write a tall tale, you might find it best to actually tell the tale to somebody, and try to figure out which parts to embellish. Lean into the incredible parts and figure out how to make them the parts that become larger than life. 

Keep your tales lighthearted. Most tall tales don’t try to teach morals or get too heavy handed with directing someone’s views in one way or another. They are often stories about regular people doing things they would normally do, but getting into unbelievable situations or completing a mundane but important task in an almost superhuman way and saving the day. The key is that the story is fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Stick the landing. Not only should a tall tale be a fun ride all the way through, but the end of the story should make the audience laugh and leave the feeling good after listening or reading the story. This is almost more important than the beginning of the story, because they may question parts or all of the story’s truthfulness, but if they leave the story feeling angry and disgruntled, you know you aren’t sticking the landing. A successful tall tale will, by necessity, end in the receiver feeling positive and upbeat at the end. 

Next Week

I hope this brief overview of the Tall Tale subgenre has sparked your interest in telling stories handed down from the oral tradition. Next week, we are going to talk about Myths versus Legends. 

Discussion Questions

  1. What is your favorite folk tale subgenre?
  2. Do you have a favorite tall tale, and where does it originate from?
  3. What genre is your favorite to read in, and do you write in the same genre or a different one?
  4. What is the most important reason writers should be aware of genre and its conventions?
  5. What questions would you like to see me answer in a blog post or podcast episode?

Leave your answers in the comments section for this post!

Click this link to hear this blog post as a podcast with your favorite podcasting app!

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