Recently, my partner Candice asked me a question:
“Why do you like storytelling?”
That’s—a really good question. One I’m a little disappointed it’s taken me this long to reflect on. I think asking “why” is important to understand the heart/core/meaning of the things we do. If we don’t ask why, we don’t understand, and if we don’t understand something, then we have no control over it; no ability to improve. In the creative world that translates into an inability to create.
The sculptor must ask, “Why does this wood curl when I heat my knife?” The writer must ask, “Why does my protagonist react so intensely to water?” The musician must ask, “Why do these two chords make me feel sad? Will it make others sad, too?” Creatives across all media ask why of their process, their tools, their raw material, and their results, because only by asking why—by understanding—can they create something that will have an emotional or intellectual impact upon someone else.
For the record, I’m talking about a love for the act of storytelling itself (whether I’m the storyteller or the audience). Taking (or experiencing) disparate and alike pieces and putting them together in a certain, often pleasing way to yield a result. Then presenting this new whole to an audience so that they can comprehend an idea you had and take it into themselves, where they can apply it to their own experiences and feelings; to create new meaning that they take away with them when the story ends.
The answer to “why I like storytelling” has some pretty significant consequences to my life. It’s a damn big important question alright, and as you’ve probably already guessed, I’m going to think about it here on Adventures in Storytelling. I encourage you to play along, too. Stop reading this article and take some time to think. Why do you like storytelling?
The first thought that came to me when Candice asked this question was, “It’s my Gold nature.”
Have you ever heard of True Colours? It’s a reflective exercise that we used a lot in Student Affairs—there are dozens, if not hundreds, of iterations of this thing; if you’ve ever spent time working in an office, I guarantee you’ve done something like it—that helps you understand more about your personality type, and thus how you fit into your team dynamic.
In True Colours, my dominant colour is “Gold” which means a lot of things, but mostly the part about Golds being motivated by “…their underlying values which include duty and responsibility, accuracy, order, and tradition…”. Of note, I’d like to point out the “accuracy” and “order” bits.
Now, if you know me, you know I like to organize. Sometimes, as James would probably point out, to my own detriment. But personality foibles aside, I like the power and beauty of an organized structure. There’s just something right about seeing all the pieces slide neatly into place and be where they’re supposed to be. Have you ever needed a thing, say a pencil, and you reach out and low and behold, a pencil was there! Or you walked into someone else’s house, stood in the kitchen and looked around, then said, “The spoons should be in that drawer.” And they were.
Storytelling is all about taking a bunch of … things (moments, scenes, characters, history, personalities, plot twists, explosions, dialogue, etc.) and lining them up in a pleasing shape that makes sense. It’s putting them where they need to be so that the story happens right. This ordered fashion allows you to show an audience a little bit of our world, but in a focused, specific way.
And that pleases me.
The Power to Microscope
Speaking of focused, I think that’s the second reason why I like stories and the telling therein of. A story is a pleasing arrangement, and that arrangement is designed to accomplish a specific task—to look at some part of the human condition and resolve it in micro. The story becomes a very focused playground that lets us zoom right down on that idea without the rest of the hustle and bustle of real life getting in the way.
Have you ever watched a movie or TV show, and exclaimed loudly, “That’s ridiculous! It would never happen like that in real life, that’s not how ____ works!”? That’s exactly my point. It wouldn’t ever work like that in real life because real life is full of minutia that create an ever complicated nexus of cause and effect. The more you know about a thing—like being a doctor, or meteors, how cars work, physics, etc.—the more you can see what has been left out of the story.
It’s why so many characters (especially in sitcoms) are never at their jobs. How do they have so much free time!? The story isn’t about their jobs (not usually), it’s about the people involved, so turn the dial on that microscope until careers, money, family duty, basic human bodily functions, and more are zoomed right out of the picture—until those elements become relevant to telling that story, then bring them back; but only the pieces you need.
It may not be realistic to life, but the story’s job is not to be real life. It’s job is to remind us enough of real life that we can experience that one thing closely and intimately, and try and resolve it through our feelings. I like the microscope because it’s where a single moment can be pointed to and said, “That’s where Buffy decided to fight back. That’s where she felt X because of Y and thus did Z.” You get chills up your back as you watch her decide, deep in some demon dimension, to stop being a captive and start being a hero; and the fallout that comes from re-deciding who she is: choosing to go home. You may not have literal demons you need to face to overcome your own emotional challenge, but through watching Buffy play out hers, you might get a little closer to a reckoning with yours.
Stories Are Puzzles
What’s going to happen, how does this piece fit into the one beside it, and how does all that fit into the whole? In Lucky Number Slevin or an Agatha Christie novel, it’s easy to see there’s a mystery or a puzzle to solve. How about a heist or whodunit? Sure! How will they pull it off (or be thwarted in the attempt)? Even a horror tale makes you wonder what the monster really is and from where it came. But a drama, or a comedy, they also make you question how all the pieces will tie together in the end, and if done well, it’s not so much an act of predicting, but planning your emotions.
“Stories Are Puzzles” is related to “Being Gold”, but I feel like there’s a slight nuance at play. Whereas “Being Gold” is about organization the puzzle is about having those elements before you and finding meaning in the pieces; finding meaning in the the way the pieces fit together.
For awhile, I thought organizing versus puzzle was the difference between the creator and the audience, but that wasn’t right. I appreciate a storyteller’s organization when I’m their audience (not just when I’m creating), and I’m just as curious about how Charlotte, Raul, and Blue’s interpersonal interactions will get them through trouble as I write their story. I can’t say I fully understand the difference yet, but it feels right to me, so I’ll leave it at that for now.
= = = = =
When I started writing this article, I thought I’d have a fun time coming up with a dozen reasons why I like storytelling, and all together I’d be able to come up with a deeper meaning that explained why I love storytelling so much. But I couldn’t. Turns out, deciphering why I like storytelling is hard. After unlocking that, “I’m Gold” idea, I felt like the well ran pretty dry; everything afterwards (microscopes and puzzles) felt a bit forced; like they were just pieces of the first idea again. To be honest, I felt like I was missing something, like there was a depth I expected to find but (ironically) failed to reach.
Good thing I get Candice to read all my stuff. She saw something in the first draft of this article that I wasn’t able to (possibly for being too close). Candice says:
You demand a lot from stories because you’re trying to find the answer to the question “why do I like storytelling” in every story you hear/watch/read. You are critical of plot, internal consistency, character development; the things one would expect a writer to be critical about from a craft-perspective. You’re interested in them as a practitioner, seeing how other writers have organized their stories, what element of real life they felt important to zoom in on, and how they have constructed meaning out of selected pieces of minutiae. But the part you haven’t considered before (at least not consciously) is that you are so critical of every story you engage with—from your favourite book to the Fast and the Furious franchise—because you are really trying to find the answer to this bigger question. You are looking for the meaning of the story, and your meaning in the story.
She then proceeded to drop a mic and walk out of the room.
James makes fun of me (or is worried for me? Sometimes it’s hard to tell) for being so damn critical all the time when it comes to movies, books, television, songs, and the like—and he’s not wrong. It’s not impossible for me to enjoy a bad movie (who’s lovingly looking at whom, Van Helsing), but I do demand a lot from stories, whether they’re B-movie action romps or “high” literature, and Candice just may have hit on why. Which is that very question: why? Why tell this story? Why tell it like this? What is the meaning of your story, and what meaning will I take from it? I always look for meaning in stories—internally, externally—because I believe there must always be a meaning. Otherwise, why bother telling it?
Meaning in stories is the line we must cross as creators in order to transform a series of events into story. Organized, focused, designed meaning whose pieces fit together seamlessly. That’s story, and storytelling.
I have a lot more thinking to do around this idea, but already being aware that I look for meaning in all stories is explaining a lot of my reactions. More to come on this in the future, but for now, let me know what you came up with. Why do you like storytelling?