Humanity, suspense and surprise in storytelling

Ira Glass

Ira Glass

So what makes a good story good? That’s where we left off last time in this series on the art of story-telling.

To begin deconstructing the magic, listen to th amusing and thought-provoking video talk below by Ira Glass, the host of NPR’s This American Life and a great story-teller. (I already mentioned once just how good a story teller I consider him to be when I praised the episode that explains the current financial crisis and that remains the most memorable, clear and touching piece of journalism done on that subject.)

In the talk, Glass says what I’ve always thought: that journalism, and the American sort in particular, imposes a “fake gravitas” on stories by artificially separating the world into a) serious or b) funny, with a barren no-man’s-land in between. Glass calls this a “failure of craft”–the craft being story-telling.

What he and his team do, and what so many other journalists don’t do, is to “inject joy and pleasure” into stories. They choose–and I love his way of putting this–

stories whose aesthetic is suprise.

These stories, furthermore,

portray people at exactly human scale.

There is no fake or contrived grandness, at least not in the conventional sense. Somehow, these very human characters make us feel right from the beginning that

something is about to occurr.

Why we feel that way we cannot quite say, because this is

not about reason but emotion.

Events seem to “accumulate”, and they seem to be

heading in a direction.

In the process, the story-teller is constantly

raising and answering questions,

which leaves the audience (in this case listeners rather than readers) feeling that they

can’t get out.

And now, just as they are hooked, there is a surprise. What seemed small suddenly reveals itself to be about a

bigger, universal something.

The big idea comes effortlessly but forcefully in a rhythm not unlike that in Beethoven’s Fifth:

Action, action, action and then thought.

And so, what seemed small was really grand after all! Only, there was no need to yell at the audience at the start. It became clear all by itself.

Fittingly, Glass then illustrates all of this by choosing the story of Scheherazade, whom The Hannibal Blog anointed as the matron saint of story-tellers in the previous post.

I just came across Glass’s talk but, as you can imagine, I felt as though I were meeting my soul mate. All of this is exactly what I have been trying to do in the book manuscript that I just sent off to my editor this week.
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5 thoughts on “Humanity, suspense and surprise in storytelling

  1. Wonderful post.

    My last year at U.O.P. I indulged myself and enrolled in a course called Storytelling and Creative Drama taught by Dr. Dewey Chambers, the most popular professor on campus. Funny– his class I remember well while other more heady ones, I do not.

    We would find great stories, learn to tell them, and venture into schools all over Stockton. Children and teens let us know quickly if we were telling that story well. Or not. 😦

    I remember one football player-type guy, an enormous man, very shy, who told Kipling’s
    Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.With his arm, undulating like a python, and his hand , shaped like the snake’s head, he had those kids in South Stockton mesmerized. That memory goes back 38 years!

    All of the points you highlight are not only crucial in the art of storytelling, but also in the art of teaching, as you may have found with your journalism students at Cal.

    The great teachers employ many of Ira Glass’s steps in that they ask students to come along with them, down the road of physics (that’s for Mr. Crotchety) or literature. I still ask my students to come with me, say, into the study of a story. A story about a story.

    Education is all one big story: the catch is, how and what you use to tell it!

  2. stories whose aesthetic is surprise
    portray people at exactly human scale.
    something is about to occurr.
    heading in a direction.
    not about reason but emotion.
    raising and answering questions
    can’t get out.
    bigger, universal something
    Action, action, action and then thought.

    Based on the proffered attributes of a great story, I suggest that our inner-voices or so-called mind talk are the greatest story tellers. At least mine, meets the criteria to a “T”. Even the most boring uneventful existence is a great story when told by the actor’s inner voice. Can you think of good examples of this in great literature.Aren’t there a multitude of literally examples of this? Like the mind talk revealed in the Old Man and the Sea. Pretty much a megaphone to the inner thoughts of the fisherman as he experiences what we all cherish as a compelling and gripping example of one man’s journey. Simple, compelling, something is about to occur, we are stuck on that boat with him, eating raw tuna, feeling the sting of the salt water on the hand wounds, can’t get out, action action action and then …the sharks….resolve. The hair is going up on the back of my neck……

  3. Serious or funny. What is the root cause of this? Are journalists taught to polarize everything? Does this polarization percolate thru society from advertising? It comforts people to know with certainty what sort of story they’re hearing. The laugh track is reassuring for this reason. All kinds of things are polarized; if you’re not good, you’re bad. If you’re not early, you’re late. It’s maddening because we (and things) are a composite. Every thing oscillates at some scale and together; everything constitutes a continuum. Maybe solitary hydrogen atoms are truly either serious or funny.

  4. I think the root cause is a certain vulgarization. For instance: there is a fine and sliding line between profanity and humor. If you’re in very sophisticated company (especially in Britain), then you will never hear swear words, until…. you suddenly hear one, and then it will be hilarious, not vulgar. When Yanks are present, they usually blush or faint, and make everybody feel bad. But it would be vulgar not to use the word if that’s the word that fits.
    So it’s all about context. And it takes both (cultural) confidence and sophistication to know context….
    Same with serious/funny: Ira Glass has the cojones to go with the flow. There are always some listeners who are offended by something or other. Well, bye-bye.

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