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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, August 13, 2007

surprise me

Robert McKee recommends that the storyteller pay attention to the way other people tell stories, not just in formal media like movies and novels, but in everyday life. For, he asserts, most human communication is storytelling, and we can find storytelling ability of all different grades and levels in our own immediate environment.

In my experience, it's true that most communication is storytelling. Think about any conversation. Usually there is some topic of discussion, typically something personal like, "A customer was incredibly rude to me today." After that topic sentence, a story follows--an anecdote of what happened, proving the assertion that a customer was indeed incredibly rude.

The story will usually have features that heighten the point being made, such as descriptions of the teller's exceptional efforts to be calm and reasonable, and to put the best possible construction on the customer's statements and actions. But no: it is revealed that the customer was indeed a jerk, and an injustice was perpetrated on the teller. With a final contemptuous insult, the Rude Customer leaves the store. The end.

Often, then, someone else will jump in on the topic of Rude People, and start narrating his own anecdote--how he, or someone he saw, was also a victim of gratuitous rudeness. In order to keep the conversation at least slightly interesting, this story will have to be different enough from the first one: either a greater level of rudeness, or a different type of rudeness.

Most people do not tell stories very well. For one thing, I think it's a sign of storytelling weakness to start with the them or moral of a story--like the aforementioned "a customer was rude to me today". The relegates your story to being a mere illustration of a point you've already made, and which the listener might well be prepared to take on credit, without having it proved in a story. This might even be a bit patronizing, unless the rudeness in question was really outside the bounds of normal experience--as though you were saying, "I expect you don't believe me, so I'll prove it to you."

In a story like this, the only surprise is usually in discovering the specific act or acts of rudeness mentioned at the top, which usually is not much of a surprise. A better storyteller always delivers a bigger surprise.

In storytelling, surprise is all. The storyteller's duty to the audience is to deliver surprises--the bigger, the better; the more numerous, the better.
How do you surprise people? You lead them to expect something--then give them something else.

This is always possible, for we must always use expectation to manage our lives. We are aware of patterns in life, and make use of this knowledge in order to get things done. We develop expectations, which usually work. The storyteller makes use of this tendency to deliver surprises.

In the rudeness anecdote, one way to help it along would be not to "telegraph" its intent by announcing at the beginning what your message is. The more skilled storyteller will simply start narrating the story--and will do so in a way that leads our expectations. The story might start with the entry of an elderly man who is handsome and well-dressed, making a favorable impression. Then he swears at the storyteller, snapping the image, surprising the storyteller at the time, and now the listeners later. The "message" of the story comes out not at the beginning, but at the climax: "people can be surprisingly and gratuitously rude!" or "I was the victim of unprovoked rudeness!"

That's a simple example. Notice how more talented storytellers are able to disguise where the story is headed, to deflect attention from certain things that turn out to be important. This is exactly the same way that magicians create their illusions--by directing attention away from where the surprise is being built.

I invite you to listen to yourself and others telling stories over the next day or so. What are the stories like? What is their message? How engaging and well-told are they? How might they be improved? What makes the better ones better?

For the would-be professional storyteller, this should be an ongoing task.


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3 Comments:

  • Have you ever attended a story slam? They hold them in the city regularly. Some stories are pretty lame, but there are others which are quite excellent.

    I grew up from babyhood listening to stories told to me by my parents (and some read to me too) and did the same for my kids.

    By Blogger Wynn Bexton, at August 13, 2007 10:18 PM  

  • Hello Wynn. No, no slam for me as yet. I lead a solitary life--and like it that way!

    In Buddhism such characters are called "rhinoceroslike", but my animal familiar I think is the owl.

    By Blogger paulv, at August 14, 2007 2:53 PM  

  • hi Paul, well it's not entirely my cup of tea either but I've watched a few times and found it fascinating, especially the storytellers (or slam poets) who memorize long passages and deliver them with such gusto!

    I enjoyed you music entry tonight. Ah yes, that song was also a favorite of mine.

    My son's in the local music scene, a fine Blues musician
    Steve Kozak's Westcoast Blues Review.

    By Blogger Wynn Bexton, at August 14, 2007 9:15 PM  

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