THE ART OF THE STORYBack to musings
With the evolutions in technology and the way we consume media, one would think that over the years storytelling would have evolved too. Word of mouth stories changed to written ones. Art, theatre, photography and moving pictures brought in powerful visual content. New technology and the digital world introduced myriad new forms and techniques. But none affected the art of the story. And it’s probably because storytelling goes way back in time to the very beginning of human communication. The etchings on the cave walls are a testament to man’s deep connection with stories since the dawn of civilization. It is interesting then, that despite stories being very much a part of our lives, why most of us a rather poor at it.
As communicators and content creators, the art of the story is something we can only ignore at our own peril. Through storytelling, we create connections and empathy. Without it, there can be no communication. In the eagerness to pass on our messages, we often forget to add that crucial ingredient. Look around and you’ll find yourself surrounded by unmoving and uninspiring communication material. And, on the rare occasion you happen to come across a good piece, look closely and you’ll see the art of storytelling at work.
Creating a good story starts with the awareness that people are not interested in your message. You are nothing but an intrusion into their world. This is an important point which communicators tend to overlook. Crafting the right message is itself quite taxing and all our energies are consumed in the process. At this point, it may be a good idea to bring in fresh minds and new perspectives to focus on the art of the story.
Beyond its entertainment value, stories provide us with simulative experiences that help us understand the human social world. They serve as fictional realities that guide our personal and social evolution in the real world by offering us a model of what could happen. Our engagement with the story is through the concept of shared experience and identification. Which brings me to the first question that one must ask while developing a story: who is the protagonist? Often, this is not as easy a question as it sounds like. He or she (or it!) should be the right person to move the story forward and eventually bring it to a satisfactory conclusion.
The second question to ask is, what does the protagonist want? What does he or she long for - a deep personal desire for which the central character is willing to do anything? Only by achieving this ‘desire’ will there be balance in the life of the protagonist. It could be a simple desire, or a complex and difficult one.
Now let’s turn to the third and final element of the story. This is where it gets interesting. This section involves figuring out what stands in the way of the protagonist’s desire. The simple answer: everything and everyone. Your central character’s struggle against the opposing forces that block his desire is your story. The more powerful the adversary or the challenge, the more epic is the protagonist attempts to restore balance. The story ends with the hero achieving his desire or failing gloriously.
Essentially, stories are about changes to the status quo – either desired or forced - and how one goes about dealing with the twists and turns that unfold as a result of it. Through abstraction and simplification, we turn every story into a learning experience to augment our capacity as social beings.
If you enjoyed reading this, you might also enjoy this short and entertaining video of Kurt Vonnegut explaining the ‘Shape of Stories’: