What is a tall tale?


Hello, and welcome to the Folklore & Fiction newsletter. In this edition, I'm writing about the tall tale with help from scholars Richard Bauman, Carolyn S. Brown, Henry B. Wonham, and others, helping you analyze a tall tale, and discussing ways to bring tall tales to your story craft.

The tall tale is difficult to trace through history, but Brown cites examples of it in Plutarch's writing and in Baldassare Castiglione's Book of the Courtier (1987, 11). Both tales, spaced 1500 years apart, describe weather so bitterly cold it froze words after they were spoken, which had to be thawed by various means in order to be heard. The tall tale was often ignored by nineteenth century European collectors of folklore, many of them German (Brown 1987, 11), but we know it was present in the oral culture of the region. A hundred years earlier, the real Baron Münchhausen's tall tales about his life and career inspired Rudolf Erich Raspe's book Baron Munchausen's Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 1998).

There is a great deal more information about the genre's development in the early United States, where it flourished in political and cultural satire (Wonham 1993, 5). In newspapers and novels, writers like Mark Twain used the tall tale as a comedic narrative form through which characters like Tom Sawyer entertained cultural insiders in a way that invited misinterpretation by cultural outsiders (Wonham 1993, 14). This triangle of storyteller, insider audience, and outsider audience was and remains important to the genre, so much that Bauman and other scholars emphasize its oral expression over its literary counterpart, since the greater humour value lies in the immediacy of the storyteller's exaggeration of truth, the insider's participation in the joke, and the outsider's relative gullibility (Bauman 1986, 1-2, Wonham 1993, 27-28).

Folkloric Definition of the Tall Tale

Brown's definition of the tall tale is quite good and follows from my discussion above, so I'll offer it to you here. She writes that "...the tall tale is a fictional story which is told in the form of a personal narrative or anecdote, which challenges the listener's credulity with comic outlandishness, and which performs different social functions depending on whether it is heard as true or as fictional" (1987, 11). However, there are no details in this definition, and we need them to understand how the tall tale is constructed. So let's dig a bit deeper.

A Personal Narrative or Anecdote

The tall tale is a discreet form of oral narrative anchored in human events (Bauman 1986, 1-2). This means that the composition of elements comprising the tall tale is unique enough to be called a distinct genre, that this genre finds its best expression in performance, and that the tales themselves are told as if they actually happened. Bauman writes that the tall tale is also a male expressive tradition arising from social encounters in which men tell big fish stories, whoppers, and other kinds of entertaining lies to one another as a form of play and a contest of wit and words (Bauman 1986, 6,14,22).

Challenging the Listener's Credulity with Comic Outlandishness

Tall tales are comical lies told as truth. They may begin with a storyteller's effort to proclaim himself a trustworthy narrator with phrases like "I guarantee," offers to prove his honesty, or assertions that other people find him reliable (Bauman 1986, 21-22). From here, the storyteller aims to create confusion in his listeners about the extent of the lie, which often proceeds along a continuum "...from the mildly improbable, through the physically impossible, to the mind-jarringly illogical" (Brown 1987, 23). When combined with the deadpan delivery style common among tall tale tellers and the equally common use of exaggeration and understatement by turns, the tall tale becomes a slippery, surreal thing full of absurdities that are often hard to pin down (Wonham 1993, 7, Brown 1987, 30).

Performing Different Social Functions Depending on Whether it Is Heard as True or Fictional

As previously mentioned, the tall tale is best understood in the context of a live performance because of the social processes in play as the tale is told. The storyteller's goal is to test the gullibility of his audience, and he does this by telling an entertaining lie. However, members of his own community have insider knowledge of the man, his subject matter, and perhaps even the tale itself, so they're "in on it." Outsiders don't have any of this knowledge, and in most cases the storyteller has already taken care to proclaim his trustworthiness. The end result is often a joke at the expense of these outsiders and the simultaneous reinforcement of insider community bonds (Wonham 1993, 15, 22-23). Wonham writes that in the United States frontier, visitors from New England and Europe "...saw no humor in such unfriendly treatment of strangers, and many proceeded to record the eccentricity of native storytellers as evidence of the moral depravity of backwoodsmen in general" (1993, 36). So the tall tale is a toothy, socially complex narrative form with the power to bite unwitting incomers.

The Checklist

With this information on board, we can extract a checklist of tall tale characteristics. However, I would add that as with other folk narrative genres I've covered, a full discussion of the tall tale would be richer and far longer than I can offer in a newsletter.

The tall tale is:

  • a fictional prose narrative told as if it were true; an entertaining lie.
  • best understood in the context of an oral performance but may also be written down.
  • a male expressive tradition in which the storyteller often begins by asserting his own trustworthiness.
  • rooted in comic humour, misdirection, and outlandishness; slippery, surreal, and absurd.
  • often told in a socially complex environment comprised of a storyteller, insider audience, and outsider audience.

Example of a Tall Tale

Ready to work? Great! Give the short piece that follows a good read, and using the information above, see what elements of the tall tale you find in it.

Smart Pills

To underscore his observations about a smart fellow trader, a dog jockey from Oklahoma who almost never misses a First Monday at Canton told the following story:

And they're smart, too. I know an ol' boy, by god, he fell on a damn scheme to make some money, you know? Got hisself a bunch o' damn dog pills. 'Stead o' them damn...he called 'em "smart pills," you know, and by god, he'd sell them damn things, and an ol' boy'd come along, and he'd sell 'em a little to 'em, and tell 'em how smart they'd make 'em, you know, an' he'd get a dollar a piece for 'em.

An ol' boy come along and he sold him one.

He said, "hell, I don't feel any smarter than I did."

He said, "I found sometimes when you're pretty dumb it takes several of 'em, by god, to get you smartened up."

He bought another one, took it, stood around there a few minutes, and said, "now, I ain't no smarter than I was."

"Boy," he says, "you're somethin', you're just pretty dumb. You...you've got to take four or five for you."

Well, he bought another one, took it, so he stood around, and he said, "man, them things ain't helping me a damn bit."

He said, "I told you, you was pretty dumb." He said, "by god, you're gonna have to take another one."

So he bought another one, by god, and he took that son of a bitch and rolled it around in his damn hand, and he reached up to taste it, and he said, "that tastes just like dog shit."

He said, "boy, now you smartenin' up." (Recorded Canton, Texas, June 5, 1977) (Bauman 1986, 22-23)


How did you make out? Here's what I found.

To my eye, this dog jockey is extolling the virtues of his fellow trader by telling a fictional prose narrative about him as if it were true. It's an oral performance, and it's told by a man who asserts the trustworthiness of the tale by attributing the narrated event to someone he knows. It's comical, surreal, and absurd, and while it isn't immediately apparent from the context of the tale itself, it's told in a socially complex environment. Bauman writes that First Mondays in Canton are full of dog traders who tell tall tales (Bauman 1986, 13), so this storyteller is part of an insider community. As the ethnographer who heard and collected the tale, Bauman himself is the outsider.

How a Tall Tale Might Be Used in Fiction Writing

Utilizing Existing Tall Tales

Classic tall tales told about real or fictional people like Annie Oakley, Keelboat Annie, Johnny Appleseed, Pecos Bill, Davy Crockett, and others offer fiction writers plenty of interesting opportunities for adaptation. Shelly Duvall did this in her 1985 television series Tall Tales & Legends, which dramatized the exploits of several larger-than-life folk heroes. Another avenue for adaptation may exist in researching the lives of people folklorists like to call "local characters," whose experiences and stories make singular contributions to community life. However, in cases where living or once-living people are involved, it's important to consider the impacts of prospective fictionalization upon their reputations and the memories other people have of them. It may also be appropriate to include these people in the creative process, and writers working with this kind of source material should be certain to do so if possible. Finally, remember that any tall tale a fella tells you belongs to the fella who told it, which means that writers need the express permission of storytellers to fictionalize their work.

Creation of New Tall Tales

Mark Twain spun tall tales into The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Daniel Wallace's Big Fish: A Novel Of Mythic Proportions is entirely about a tall tale teller and his adult son. These are only two of many fictional uses of the genre, but what's interesting about them both is that each one has a storyteller at its heart. This nod to the orality of the genre is an important note to writers hoping to work with it, and I would argue that in order to successfully craft fictional tall tales, a writer must also craft fictional storytellers and fictional audiences comprised of insiders and outsiders. Of note, I haven't seen women fictionalized as tall tale storytellers, but I think it could be done by a skillful writer sensitive to the peculiarities of the genre. If you've encountered any fictional women who tell tall tales, please let me know. Meanwhile, there's a good article in the Journal of American Folklore about women who competed in the Gascon Liar's Contest during the 1970s and 1980s; I'll include a reference to it in the bibliography for interested readers.

A Closing Passage on the Tall Tale

Mark Twain, in an interview with the New York Sun:

I never yet told the truth that I was not accused of lying, and every time I lie someone believes it. So I have adopted the plan, when I want people to believe what I say, of putting it in the form of a lie. That is the difference between my fiction and other people's. Everybody knows mine is true" (Budd 1983, 158).

That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! I'll be back next month with a departure from folkloric narrative into folkloric belief and a discussion of rituals.


  • Bauman, Richard. 1986. Story, Performance, and Event: Contextual Studies of Oral Narrative. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Brown, Carolyn S. 1987. The Tall Tale in American Folklore and Literature. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
  • Budd, Louis J. 1983. Our Mark Twain: The Making of His Public Personality. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press.
  • Duvall, Shelly, and Fuchs, Fred. 1985. Tall Tales & Legends. Showtime.
  • Mark, Vera. 1987. ‘Women and Text in Gascon Tall Tales’. The Journal of American Folklore 100 (398): 504–27.
  • The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1998. ‘Baron Münchhausen | Hanoverian Storyteller’. Encyclopedia Britannica. 20 July 1998. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Baron-Munchhausen-Hanoverian-storyteller.
  • Wallace, Daniel. 1998. Big Fish: A Novel Of Mythic Proportions. First Edition. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books.
  • Wonham, Henry B. 1993. Mark Twain and the Art of the Tall Tale. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.