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Storytelling Is Dead - Long Live Storytelling

by Michael Southard

July 9,2010

I'm still trying to decide what I want to do when I grow up. I will be turning 30 in only a few days, which has made me take a closer look around and question what drives me. No matter what medium I work in or what project I start, I always find that what intrigue me the most are little glimmers of good storytelling. Great personal narrative is something that really motivates me, but it seems that for many, storytelling is slowing disappearing—or it may be that it is so pervasive that it is simply going unrecognized and undiscussed.

Storytelling may take many forms: an old yarn from a family member, a sitcom, a Twitter feed. There is a marked difference between these forms. Certainly the connecting thread of all is the use of narration to engage an audience. The telling of stories gives listeners experiences outside of their own. The difference between personal narrative and more produced content, such as the tales broadcasted on primetime television, is the way in which the audience engages in the storytelling experience.

Personal narratives are not created by a production team with marketability of their content as their modus operandi. There is an intrinsic difference in the levels of abstraction used in more produced content, in which a story is adapted and readapted through many lenses. When groups of writers, producers, and directors come together to develop a story, they reach a consensus on how that narrative will be shaped. The character and scale of produced content and personal narrative develop in contrast to one another at this stage. Personal narratives are flawed, inconsistent, fragmented streams of consciousness that are informing, immediately accessible, and usually invoke emotional reaction.

The level of engagement that people experience in personal narratives is tangible. It is direct. It comes in the form of reminiscing about the worst date you ever had, in explaining how you don't think pancakes are as good as waffles, or in expounding why Coke is clearly better than Pepsi. These narratives are both informal and spontaneous, skirting much of what makes television programming overworked and formulaic.

When people engage in the act of storytelling, more likely than not the conversation leads to a greater dialogue where one person's ideas and stories build upon those of another. It is an organic process that generates new thoughts, further developing the way one perceives, thinks, and acts in the world. Someone who has no experience with losing a loved one, being evicted, or traveling through dense urban streets looking for a secret music show, gains insight into what those experiences are like. This is the scale of everyday life, and has the ability to leave a tremendous impact on the individual.

This kind of dialogue holds the potential to facilitate deeper social interaction that ripples throughout society. When generation upon generation tells stories of great accomplishment or tragedy, it informs a collective narrative. Examples span from the achievement of space travel to horrors of the Holocaust.

The artist maintains an influential role in the process of storytelling. Plato expressed a certain wariness when it comes to the amount of power artists wield through an ability to articulate things that might challenge vested authority. The great power of artists is their potential to bypass social constructs and articulate something that is on the verge of becoming. This is very much in line with the process of personal narrative and dialogue developing into larger public discourse. When artists are able to recognize the more fluid nature of personal narrative and articulate those stories, there lies the possibility to open public discourse at a livable scale.

But storytelling is more than a vehicle for social change: what really gives it power is its ability to captivate, to convey meaning, to inspire, to entertain. Its sheer accessibility and ubiquity allows it to be a potent tool. Few things are more human than storytelling, regardless of whether it takes the form of a blockbuster or just porch-sitting chatter. Look around: print, radio, film, illustration, performance—we are inundated by stories, but for some reason we miss how they shape everything we do. If truth is just what sounds the best, then those who weave the best stories hold the power to shape the world.

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