Characteristics of Tall Tales (+ Tips for Telling)

I love telling outrageous and funny stories. These larger-than-life stories are commonly called Tall Tales. Let me tell you all about them.

When I grew up, I delighted in the magical tales of Baron Munchausen. He rode a horse cut in half, flew through the air on a cannonball, and did the most amazing things.

As I got older, I loved telling ‘true stories’ about myself that became more and more outrageous, only to find out when people would stop believing me. 😉

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What is a tall tale?

A tall tale is a fictional story with unbelievable, outrageous parts, told as if it really happened. While children might believe the story is accurate, adults enjoy listening to the funny exaggeration.

Why do they call it a tall tale?

The origin of ‘tall tales’ is unclear. Probably, the name refers to the heroes and adventures in tall tales, which were larger than life. Tall expresses the extraordinary of these tales.

At english.stackexchange you can find a group of people trying to answer this question.

Why are tall tales being told?

There are three reasons for telling tall tales: entertainment, to impress listeners, and to explain landscape features.

Tall tales, the stories people told around the fires in the so-called Wild West, are often presented as an American phenomenon. However, there are many tall tales in other countries, too.

First of all, tall tales were told for entertainment. Picture a group of weary travelers sitting around the fire or hanging in an inn. Stories are being told and retold, and change in the process. Characters turn into heroes larger than life; stories become more and more outrageous. All share the story’s fun and chuckle about the unbelievable, outrageous moments.

Second, when you can tell an incredible story about a hero who does extraordinary exploits, it impresses your listeners. Whether it’s an exaggerated personal story or a story about a folk hero, as long as everyone has a good time, people will keep listening to you.

Third, some tall tales explain and talk about the landscape the people were traveling through. This is clearly seen in the American tall tales, such as the tall tale about how John Bunyan created the Grand Canyon.

Paul Bunyan dragged his axe along the ground, and so created the Grand Canyon

5 Characteristics of Tall Tales

How do you recognize a tall tale? And what do you need to write one? Let’s look at the characteristics of tall tales.

1. A tall tale is rooted in the oral tradition

Tall tales mainly were stories that were told. Each retelling made their heroes grander and their exploits more outrageous.

Even the composed tall tales, like those of Baron Munchausen, could easily be told.

2. A tall tale features a believable setting and everyday problems

Tall tales are not complicated. Their heroes are easy to identify with. Like us, they have to catch fish, fight animals, and get tired. They operate in a setting familiar to us.

3. The main character in a tall tale is larger than life

While the setting and the problem might be very believable, the main character is unbelievably fit, clever, strong, and fast. And then some.

4. The tall tale features exaggeration beyond belief

The exploits of the main character range from exaggerated to super duper unbelievably exaggerated.

5. A tall tale is a comedic, funny story

Tall tales are, first and foremost, meant to make you laugh, to entertain you. If they, in their funny way, inspire you to have your adventures, fine. If they help you remember the form and history of a place, fine. But first and foremost, they are told to have a good time together.

One day, when attacking a city, Baron Munchausen rode into the center on half his horse…

5 Famous Characters from Tall Tales

1. Baron Munchausen (Germany)

Baron Munchausen is based on a real German baron who became known for telling outrageous tall tales of his adventures. Among his adventures are riding a cannonball, fighting a crocodile and tiger simultaneously, and attacking a city on the front half of his horse.

Wikipedia has quite a lot of useful information about him.

Trailer of the 1988 movie adaptation of The Baron’s adventures

2. Paul Bunyan (USA)

Paul Bunyan is a giant lumberjack and folk hero from the USA. A truly larger-than-life figure, he once ate 50 pancakes in one minute. He dug the Grand Canyon while dragging his axe behind him. He was frequently spotted together with his Blue Ox Babe.

You can find a lot of tales about Paul Bunyan’s exploits at PaulBunyan.org.

3. Davy Crockett (USA)

Davy Crockett, the American frontiersman, once ran away on an adventure where he made a new friend; he found himself hugging a big brown bear. He threw around alligators that dared to disturb him and married the wild Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind. And that was only the start of it!

4. Pecos Bill (USA)

Cowboy Pecos Bill was a true superhero. He teethed on his father’s knife when he was little, subdued a panther attacking him, and one day even rode a tornado. He found his true love: Slue-Foot Sue.

You can find a nice collection of stories of Pecos Bill at American Folklore.

5. Fionn mac Cumhaill (Ireland / Scotland)

There are many classic heroes from the myths featured in tall tales. Fionn mac Cumhaill, better known as Finn MacCool, was such a mythical hero. Once, when he traveled to Scotland, he built the Giant’s Causeway to keep his feet dry. He has a magic thumb that makes him wise and a giant black dog called Bran that goes wherever he goes.

5 Tips for Telling Tall Tales

1. Prepare your listeners for a tall tale

Make sure your listeners know beforehand what kind of story you’ll tell. You don’t necessarily need to do that by telling them; you can also prepare them with some jokes or banter.

Imagine these strong and funny tales being told around a campfire. You’ll want to create that same atmosphere in your telling.

2. Construct your tale

Make sure you know your story. Some elements of the tall tale are rooted in everyday life. Problems usually are common problems. Don’t make the mistake of making everything outrageous; you’ll quickly end up with nonsense that does nothing for your listeners.

3. Be amazed yourself when telling the tall tale

Your audience is listening to the tale together with you. When you enjoy the telling, chuckle about the outrageous adventures, or shake your head in disbelief, they will feel your connection to the story. You are not a performer; the story is part of you, and you are part of the telling.

4. If it isn’t funny, it isn’t a tall tale

Telling a funny story starts with finding something you find funny and ends with telling it so often that you know what your listeners like. Although the tale might be simple, the tellers honed their craft by telling and adjusting their stories to their listeners.

5. End it with respect and in character

I have seen people ruin a wonderful telling with a disastrous ending. Don’t discredit your tale. Stand proud as the superhero character that inhabited your tale. Smile broadly. Receive your applause!

Books with tall tales you can tell

  • The tales of Baron Munchausen (link to Amazon) were first published in 1785. The fictional Baron (based on a historic aristocrat) rode a cannonball into a city, repaired his horse cut in half, visited the moon, and turned a wolf inside out.
  • From Paul Bunyan (and his ox Blue), to Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind who could “outgrin, outsnort, outrun, outlift, outsneeze, outsleep, outlie any varmint”; this collection of American tall tales (link to Amazon) features some of the best American tall tales, straight from the wild west era.
  • This tall tale collection contains more than 120 stories, many of them tall tales. They are the stories of classic American heroes like John Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and Calamity Jane. Told and retold, these figures became larger than life in their tales. This book is part of the wonderful Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library.

Websites with free tall tales you can tell

Tall Tales FAQ

Why do people enjoy tall tales?

It does not matter whether the tale is accurate or not. What matters is the fun people have together when listening to a tall tale. They enjoy the wildly exaggerated and larger-than-life heroes and their adventures.

Why do children tell tall tales?

It’s very typical for young children to make up tall tales. What is true and imagined for them is still part of the same world. Add to this that they are exploring what lying is and how it works, and it is no surprise that you find children telling the most outrageous stories.

Are fairy tales tall tales?

Most fairy tales are not tall tales. They lack the funny and outrageous exaggeration characteristic of tall tales (some do, for example, Grimm’s The Brave Tailor).

Is a tall tale a fable?

A tall tale is no fable. Fables feature animals as their main characters. Contrary to tall tales, which feature humans with extreme strength and wit.

What is the difference between a tall tale and a legend?

A legend is an (often exaggerated version) of history. It was based on an actual person, place, or event. While many tall tales are also based on historical figures, many aren’t.

Photo credits: WikiImages from Pixabay


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