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.
Bookmark and Share

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.

Bookmark and Share