Story technique has been with us for 2300 years – it’s time to brush up on it

2300 years ago Aristotle wrote “The Poetics” which contained his secrets of storytelling. Being human, these secrets haven’t really changed.

Many research presentations I’ve seen, including many of my own, have been bogged down by too many facts and figures. It is like reading a book which is so full of florid description that one begins to skip pages and start looking for the action.

Likewise stories can suffer from relentless action – the type we see in Peter Jackson movies where we get chase, fight, chase, fight, another chase, another fight followed by another chase – and the net result is just plain boredom. His King Kong movie is one of the few films I’d rate as un-watchable. It ignored the storytelling craft. It was all pageantry (look at our CGI techniques!) and no drama.

We do the same with research. We go heavy on descriptive results – without telling the true story. Or we go heavy on special effects (I do this too much: showing off analytic techniques) but forget to tell the story. Or we simply have a story but we don’t tell it with any craft. We muddle it up. The drama is in there somewhere but we didn’t quite extract it.

This seems crazy, because the craft of telling stories – the techniques and skills required – have been part of our pantheon of written human knowledge for 23 centuries. Storytelling goes back to the dawn of civilization  but the Greeks started thinking about the craft, and analysing it, and applying systematic rules to it since Aristotle considered the subject.

Why not? As Steven Pinker explains it, storytelling has universal elements across so many cultures to lead him to conclude that stories are part of how our brains are wired. They reflect how we think. We’re engineered to tell stories.  Stories are a means of processing complex visual, verbal and emotional information.

In the 20th Century much was written about story telling craft as writers considered modern day psychology and found, among other things, how well Shakespeare captured the human condition. You could pick apart Othello and find it stood up to a Jungian framework, or to modern theories of the human condition. Writers such as Lajos Egri who published the seminal guide for playwrights The Art of Dramatic Writing helped create the debate about what drives a good story: is it events and action, or is it character? He concluded that character was at the heart.

So here is a good definition of what makes a good non-fiction story, summed up by American Jon Franklin in his work: Writing for Story.

“A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he or she confronts or solves.”

Sounds simple, and – actually – it is. But the next layer down is where the story craft gets more complicated:

  1. Giving the story some structure. Do we start at the beginning and build to a conclusion? Or do we start at a critical moment of decision – and then go back and fill in the back-story and offer the options that our lead character faces?
  2. Choosing from whose point of view we tell the story. (Do we tell it from the brand’s point of view?  Or the customers’ point of view?)
  3. Characterisation. Do we paint the Brand as a hero? Or is it a flawed everyman? Are those customers a roiling mass – a Spartacus uprising in the making? – or are they the savvy, price-seeking satisficers who are undoing the good work of marketing? Who are the goodies?

These are just some of the decisions we must make when we tell stories, and they require a lot of forethought and imagination. The process is far different from the usual art of starting a PPT deck with Q1 and working through to the results of the final Question. I wrote a teen-novel once, (The Whole of the Moon) which did quite well but I spent a month deciding whether to tell it first person or third person.

Well before then, working in TV, I learned in drama editing and writing just how important it is to find a congruency between action and character. The decisions made by the protagonist (he kills his attacker) need to be within the realm of possibility for that character. (Would Coca-Cola really do this??)

I also learned that good stories need some relief. Shakespeare would open each act with a couple of fools joking around: something to get the rowdy audience engaged before launching into a Lady MacBeth tirade.  In client presentations or conferences I try the same, and the light moments may seem like diversions, but they always have a point – they put across the enjoyment we’ve had in the project, or they give a bit of anecdotal evidence of the dramas and challenges we faced in the survey: the day the blizzard held up the fieldwork.  These diversions humanise the story, and connect the storyteller to the audience.

Writers can get into a groove and employ hundreds of these little lessons instinctively – but it is increasingly important that researchers and analysts now also learn some of these techniques. We have audiences who want to digest the main thrust of what the data is saying.

And as story tellers we don’t want them to walk out on us.

Even modern theatre employs the lessons from ancient Greece. After all, it is all about people and how they make decisions when complications get in the way of their objectives.

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