Grimm storytelling

Back to our story-telling thread. Why not take some of the most obviously great story-tellers in history and think about what made their stories so great? I think the most obvious two must be the Brüder Grimm, Jakob and Wilhelm. Perhaps I’m thinking of them first because I am re-reading them aloud a lot, in the original German, to my daughter these days.

They did not invent the stories they told. They collected and selected the folk tales that they heard all around them, rather as Homer narrated the legends that he grew up hearing. And that is the first interesting point about them. You don’t need to invent something completely new; instead, you need to tell something timeless in a new way. Indeed, if Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell are right, then you can’t invent anything new, because there only are a few stories, or monomyths, which we tell again and again in different forms.

So what makes Schneewittchen (Snow White), Hänsel und Gretel, Aschenputtel (Cinderella), Rotkäppchen (Little Red Riding Hood), and the countless others–all of them with a Disney character, it seems–so enduring?

I’m going to try to answer that question, for the Grimm brothers and other story-tellers we’ll talk about, by using some of the ideas we’ve already tried on for size. If that doesn’t work in future posts, fine, we’ll adjust the framework. The point is to test these ideas.


By now you know that I consider simplicity the root of all genius and all beauty, whether we’re talking about Einstein or Brancusi or story-tellers. And the Grimm Märchen (fairy tales) are very simple. (But not simplistic.)


The stories also all have have the kind of trajectory that Ira Glass describes. Recall that Glass talks about “portraying people at exactly human scale.” Well, Hänsel and Gretel are at extremely human scale–vulnerable, exposed, afraid, desperate. Like all of us, only more obviously so.

Glass then said that we immediately need a feeling that “something is about to occur”, that “things are heading in a direction”, that we “can’t get out” because we are trapped not with our “reason but emotion”. We know the wicked stepmother wants to get rid of them, by leaving them stranded in the dark forest. We see Hänsel’s first attempt to get back to safety, by dropping little pebbles, failing; we know that his second attempt, dropping bread crumbs which the birds will steal, is doomed. We’re along for the ride. We are now stranded in the dark forest.

And then the house: We know that the ginger bread and sugar windows are snares. Stay away! But they don’t. Then the witch. Now Hänsel is in the cage, to be fattened for the slaughter, with little Gretel to do the fattening….


But remember that Glass said that action for its own sake is not enough for a good story. It must be “action, action, action … and then thought!” There must be a recognition of the universal, otherwise the story is banal and loses us.

What is universal here? Quite a lot. In Jungian terms again, the characters are archetypes–that is, we already know them from our dreams and lives. The anima of the stepmother and witch; the Hero and Heroine who heed their call to adventure (Campbell’s terms), travel the road of trials, achieve the boon and self-knowledge, then return to the ordinary world in order to apply the boon.

Or, to put it in Glass’s terms, what is the thought? Is it that the world is full of people who can’t be trusted? I would call that the backdrop, the premise, the scene. But if that were all, my daughter and girls like her everywhere in all eras would not be glued to the story. No, the thought is that …

… Gretel discovers who she is!

The witch gets fed up and fires up the oven to roast Hänsel, and tells terrified Gretel to climb in to test that the heat is right for her brother. ‘I don’t know how to get in,’ says Gretel. ‘You stupid girl,’ croaks the witch, ‘you get in like this’–and climbs in herself. The ruse has worked. Gretel slams the oven door shut. Now it is the witch who is roasting.

Gretel, little red-cheeked Gretel, is the one to win the boon! She is her brother’s savior! She was clever, decisive and strong.

The “thought” is her sangfroid in the name of love, her savviness in overcoming. My daughter gets it. That’s why this is a great story. It is, as Isabelle Allende says, “truer than truth”.

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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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Into a Golden Age of story-telling

Indulge me for a moment as I take a quick detour away from the book and book-writing as such, and zoom out to story-telling in general, with one interesting anecdote.

I was having lunch with Andrew Haeg, a radio journalist at American Public Media who is now doing research at Stanford about the future of journalism. We were sitting there at Chez Panisse (tough life, I know), brainstorming about citizen journalism, audience participation, media fragmentation, the blogosphere and the “mainstream” media, and so on. I’ve been thinking on and off about these things since I wrote a big report (starting here) in The Economist about it, over two years ago. Andrew will be thinking full-time about it for the next year.

A minor epiphany occurred when Andrew began a sentence saying something like: “Yeah, but the best story on the sub-prime crisis….”

I interrupted him to complete his thought: “…. was that episode in This American Life, right?” Why, yes, said Andrew, that’s what I was about to say.

Now, I had not even listened to the episode at that point! But my wife had recommended it to me a few days earlier. And in one instant, using old-fashioned (offline) social networking, I had saved myself hours of hard work and boring reading, because I knew that I was going to go home and listen to that particular episode. If two people in my social circle independently recommend the same story-teller, I would be crazy not to take the hint.

Insight Nr 1): Great stories well told eventually find their audience.

How? Through the recommendation network of our social networks, just as in the past.

The “new media”, from Facebook to blogs, by expanding our social recommendation circles from the merely offline to the off-and-online, make these introductions between story-tellers and audiences even more fluid.

Case in point: I noticed a status update from my friend Michael Fitzgerald on his Facebook page about how he was reading Norse myths to his spellbound kids. I immediately badgered him for which particular story-teller he was reading from, and now I am ordering the book.  No sense wasting my time with the bad version.

The new media, in other words, not only do not hurt traditional story-tellers, but they positively help them, provided that ….

Insight Nr 2) … provided that the story-telling is actually good.

What did I find when I got home and listened to that episode in This American Life? Everything that Ira Glass, the show’s host, and his team are so good at:

  • The complex made simple.
  • Character! Colorful, richly painted individuals who found themselves involved in a global financial disaster.
  • Scene. Sound-painted place and context to reinforce the characters.
  • Plot. A story-line that connected this unlikely combination of individuals and thereby–effortlessly, en passant–explained a fiendishly complex subject.
  • Humor and, yes, irony (see my earlier thoughts on irony here)
  • Empathy (rather than judgment) for the characters
  • Suspense

In short, I found what great story-tellers have always provided. No change.

Insight Nr… Hypothesis: New media disrupt short-form but not long-form story-telling

YouTube has forever changed the genre of short video clips. Blogs have forever changed the genre of short text news and opinion. If you were a traditional story-teller producing short video clips or short news or opinion articles, you need to change and enter the great, gushing Haiku stream of the new media.

But longer stories? We all gladly exit the stream, get cosy, and enjoy a long story well told. A two-hour film, a 200-page book, a one-hour podcast. It’s not the medium (text, audio, video) that matters, but the experience. Lean-forward versus lean-back. Eager to be interrupted versus eager to be immersed.

As the short-form media improve the introductions between story-tellers and audiences, the golden age of story-telling seems to have just begun.

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