So What Does Storytelling Mean Anyway?


Four settings come to mind when I think of “storytelling”

  1. Being read to as a child by my parents at night before bed.
  2. Library time at Patrick Henry Library in Vienna, VA.  The smell of books, of the cedar chips the house guinea pig had in his cage.
  3. Around the campfire at scouts- hearing ghost stories about the Scarly Yow (or the Snarly Yow) a terrifying black dog-like monster wandering the foothills of the blue ridge in Virginia and Maryland.
  4. Later in my mid-twenties, at Constitution Hall in Philadelphia of all places, listening to the tour guide tell the story of how the constitution was written in the punishing summer heat and how agreement was finally made among all the individual drafters.  Standing in the hall on that fall day, through the guide’s story, I could imagine the pressure these men were under, the airless feel that room must have had in pre-air conditioning days.

Storytelling is to me:

  • A live, person-to-person activity- with my parents, it meant time just for the two of us (I’m guessing the other parent was savoring the first moments alone all day while I was being read to by their spouse!) It wouldn’t be the same if it was over the phone, via Skype or Facetime, for example.  Story telling isn’t watching a movie either—you need to be able to look the person in the eyes and share the same space with them.
  • An opportunity to connect with someone.
  • To believe something maybe unbelievable—that through story you and the storyteller can suspend disbelief for just that moment when the story is being told and believe the tale at hand.
  • Stories bring the audience together emotionally.  After the story is over, we can talk about it: “wow, the ending to that movie was a real tear-jerker” or “I can’t believe she ended up with him! What a jerk”.

To describe storytelling to someone else: Storytelling is when one person recounts a tale-true or fiction-to another person or to a group of people.  It usually takes more than a few minutes—it’s not just telling an anecdote at the dinner table—but not too, too long.  The story may have actually happened to the person telling it, but in my mind, the tale being told is usually at least 2nd hand; a father telling his child about her grandfather, the story teller’s father, for instance.

The story teller is knowledgeable-they add their own flair or asides to the narrative.  Yet they keep a certain distance.   For example, they may not tell you if the story is true or not—they leave you guessing.   Or they may not tell you what happens after the story ends; you will want to know more than what they can tell you.

For digital storytelling to work, it has to keep that same sense of connection and intimacy as person-to-person storytelling.  If I add “digital” to the mix, I suppose the narrative stays the same, but the story teller disappears- or at least, isn’t a human sitting next to me.  The narrator is more detached and as a result, I think harder to trust.  The storyteller is much more likely to be a “stranger”.  “Digital” doesn’t conjure up the same warm, fuzzy feeling as sitting around the campfire, for instance.  That being said, digital storytelling can bring more to the table than “traditional” storytelling—it’s just different.

I originally read the New York Times piece  on the Avalanche at Tunnel Creek in print when it was first published.  It’s a fascinating, terrifying story.  The digital edition of the piece added so much more- the photos that make you feel like you are on the mountain, the audio/video pieces with the persons involved, the sidebars that explain an element of the story. In that respect, digital media made the story more real and more compelling and strengthened my connection with the story.  So I guess digital storytelling isn’t as cold and impersonal as maybe I’m thinking.  I’ve already disagreed with myself!

I had been told in the various public speaking classes at school and at work that you need to have a “hook” to grab the attention of your audience, but I have never given much thought to “elements” of a story.  In some way it sounds calculating to create a story that has “bait”, that makes the audience “work for its food”, but Finding Nemo and Toy Story are beloved worldwide because they draw you in and make you care for a toy cowboy and a clown fish.  So bait and making the audience “work” by coming to its own conclusions, which move the story along, aren’t so bad after all.

I liked Andrew Stanton talking about the spines of characters and the idea that it’s the absence of information that draws us in, which is similar to Ira Glass talking about “the bait” and the moment of reflection.  Characters need to have something that drives them, a value system that makes them operate the way they do.  If we can’t figure out why Michael Corleone acts the way he does—or we don’t feel the need to figure it out—then the Godfather is a movie about a bunch of bad guys who do bad things.

Three movies I loved this year—American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club and Saving Mr. Banks—were great in part because of the questions they raised and leave you to answer.  Was Amy Adams’ character really stringing along Bradley Cooper the entire time?  Why would a homophobe work so tirelessly to help AIDS patients get treatment like Matthew McConaughey’s character does?  And why was it really so hard for P.L. Travers to let go of her story so Walt Disney could make it into a movie?

The “negative space” in a story—the bits that go unsaid, whether for you to answer or to remain a mystery—are just as important as the known plot points.  I don’t know if digital media can specifically address this point, but to the extent that it can make a story richer and more compelling, it can absolutely enrich the experience of telling and listening/watching/experiencing stories.


2 thoughts on “So What Does Storytelling Mean Anyway?

  1. Wow, a tremendous amount of thoughtful ideas here. I found it interesting that in your list of what comes to mind for you in terms of storytelling that they include things that speak to the different senses- sounds, smells, even the heat of of a summer day in Philadelphia.

    I can understand why a hook (and “bait” might be a “baited” term) might seem calculated, but everything in a film or written narrative serves a purpose of the story; so I see nothing that illicit in using what appeals to the interest of people who rad stories or watch movies. Critics say the craft of Alfred Hitchcock was how well he knew how to tap into human emotions via the camera.

    And as far as “digital” being detached, I would say that might be so be proximity, so that means to me that how much more it must b e its ability to suggest the warmth/presence of a teller. Might not be possible? It’s this course you get to try. And be thinking of how does one creative that negative space? How much to pull out? How do you do that and not leave the audience lost?

    A most excellent analysis, I am enjoying your blog a lot!

  2. Hi, Brilliant blog title, and a great post. You note: “An opportunity to connect with someone” is important and that digital loses the warm fuzzy feeling. I can see that, but sometimes, when you are lucky, you can get a feeling of community and friendship across digital oceans. I’ve found this happens in DS106 in particular, when I start riffing on someone else’s artefact or even better when something I do is used by someone else. We can pass bits of story back & forward building the connects as it goes.

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