What Is a Tall Tale? Common Elements Explained

Updated May 13, 2021
tall tale paul bunyan
    tall tale paul bunyan
    CSA Images / Vetta / Getty
    Used under Getty Images license

By the time children are finished with elementary school, they've probably heard dozens of tall tales. But what is a tall tale, and what's the difference between a tall tale and a folktale? Keep reading for the elements and several tall tale examples.

Elements of a Tall Tale

A tall tale is a type of American folktale with exaggerated characters, adventures and events. Tall tales tell the story of one amazing person and how they used their talents to save us all, similar to a legend. Some tall tales have become so ingrained in American culture that they take on a mythological role.

Tall tale elements include:

  • a superhuman hero, usually a man, who is very strong (and/or very large)
  • a narrator who is part of the story, or who witnessed the events
  • a pleasant, folksy tone
  • a folktale setting, such as a small town or village
  • a problem that affects everyone
  • unbelievable details told with figurative language
  • the superhuman hero solves the problem with their strength
  • the claim or belief that the story "really happened"

Tall tales can be based on a real person (such as Davy Crockett) or completely made-up (such as Paul Bunyan). Either way, the character is described in a hyperbolic way that makes them seem unbelievably heroic.


Where Did Tall Tales Begin?

The origin of tall tales, also called yarns, might be a tall tale itself! Back when 19th-century frontiersmen were traveling across America, they would engage in "bragging contests" around the fire each night. One pioneer would repeat a story they'd heard from somewhere else, and in the oral tradition, they would add and exaggerate details to make the story even more entertaining. Eventually, the stories were so well-known that children grew up hearing them long before they appeared in storybooks.

Examples of Tall Tales

The tall tale is a distinctive part of larger-than-life American folklore. Heroes such as Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed personify the American pioneer spirit and tell the story of the country's creation and growth. Films such as Big Fish (2003) also illustrate how exaggerating details can make a larger-than-life character seem unbelievable. While there are similar story traditions around the world, including fables, folktales and legends, the tall tale itself is unique to American culture.


Tall Tales About Real People

Some tall tales got started when word of a real person's achievements got around. Their feats — and their personalities — became exaggerated with each retelling, so much so that many may even doubt whether the original person ever existed.

Popular tall tales about (probably) real people include:

  • Johnny Appleseed - an apple-loving man who planted hundreds of apple trees ahead of the pioneers on their way to the West; based on John Chapman, a Revolutionary-era American who planted apple orchards in the late 18th and early 19th centuries
  • Jim Bowie - the namesake of the Bowie knife for his legendary fighting skills and bravery; based on James Bowie, an American frontiersman and smuggler who died at the Battle of Alamo
  • Davy Crockett - known as "king of the wild frontier" and always pictured with his raccoon-skin hat and buckskin jacket; based on David Crockett, American politician and frontiersman who also died at the Battle of Alamo
  • John Henry - a freed slave whose incredible steel-driving abilities helped him win a race against a steam-powered drill, after which he died from exhaustion; based on a strong railway worker who may have been named John Henry
  • Calamity Jane - a wild frontierswoman known for her eagle-eye sharpshooting, affinity for hard liquor and close relationship with Wild Bill Hickock; based on Martha Jane Cannary, a Missouri woman who dressed like a man and appeared as a storyteller in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show

Tall Tales About Legendary People

Other times, tall tales reflect the legends of American culture. These characters embodied the big, broad attitude of American expansionism in the 1800s.

These fictional characters from tall tales include:

  • Pecos Bill - raised by coyotes after falling out of his parents' covered wagon; used a rattlesnake as a lasso and ate dynamite instead of food; shot all the stars from the sky, leaving only the Lone Star
  • Alfred Bulltop Stormalong - 30-foot-tall sailor from popular sea shanties whose ship was so large it could scrape the moon; rival of the Kraken, the mythical sea monster
  • Paul Bunyan - enormous lumberjack who, along with his huge blue ox, Babe, dug the Grand Canyon and the Great Lakes with only his ax; it took five storks to deliver him to his parents.

Tall Tales as Everyday Exaggerations

Another way you might hear the phrase tall tale is as a synonym to "white lie" or"exaggeration." If you tell someone a story and embellish the details, they may decide that you're telling them a tall tale.

Some examples of everyday exaggerations that can be described as "tall tales" include:

  • When I went fishing, I caught a fish as big as my arm!
  • Sorry I'm late, traffic was backed up all the way to my driveway.
  • My girlfriend's a supermodel, but you don't know her; she goes to a different school.

Like tall tales themselves, these little lies have an element of truth mixed with unbelievable details. The next time someone tells you that you're telling tall tales, check to see what parts of your story might sound a bit "fishy" to you!


How Are Tall Tales Different From Other Tales?

A tall tale is an interesting type of short story. The exaggerated part of a tall tale is usually very obvious compared to the ordinary setting, unlike fairy tales or even myths.

Other types of tales that aren't exactly like tall tales include:

  • folktales - stories unique to a culture; they don't include much exaggeration
  • fables - very short stories that use animals or forces of nature to teach a moral
  • fantasies - stories from a literary genre told in a world that's full of magic; they typically include kings and queens, dragons, elves, and other fantastical characters
  • fairy tales - magical stories that use fantasy characters to teach a moral to the reader; the main character is usually persecuted or in need of saving
  • pourquoi stories - metaphorical explanations for why something in our world came to be (usually featuring animals)
  • myths - often include the influence of gods or other dieties; they explain religious beliefs

As American as Apple Pie

Tall tales are an important part of American folklore and literature. They reflect the change between wide frontiers and small towns, as well as what our ancestors valued most in their everyday heroes. For more about American culture, check out these famous American symbols and their brief histories.