Monday, January 16, 2012

A storyteller vs. a person that tells a story

Today I was talking with my students and we were trying to figure out what should be the quality of a good storyteller.

We established that there is a big difference between a storyteller and a person that just randomly tells you story - and it's not in the structure or how the story unfolds.  After a long moment of reflection what came out was: a storyteller always has a good reason as to why he/she wants to tell you a story.

So yes, an opinion but also a belief and a moral.
So while anybody would tell you that they woke up and put a sock on and the sock had a hole in it and the big toe started sticking out.... a storyteller would tell you the same story from the point of view of the sock feeling abused and mistreated, he/she would make you feel for the poor little sock, attach emotions to it and, in the end, he/she would tell you that the reason why the sock had a hole in it was that it hadn't been washed properly and you should always cherish your clothing, mend them and value them.

So what are the qualities necessary if not indispensable to a storyteller to make him or her different from a random person who tells you a story?

Well, this is what we came up with. A Storyteller:

- must read a lot : all kinds of books, including essays (sociology, psychology, physics, etc.), newspaper articles, history books, catalogues, bills, comics, novels (very old old one, especially if this books is "the first one" to ever do something like... being in prose!), the ingredients on the packaging of the cookies they bought, everything. This is a good source of information.

- must gather and keep informations well: a sketchbook, a scrapbook, a box with cut outs from magazines, archives of photographs, pdf with interesting stuff taken from the internet (for we know that bookmarking is not enough, one day the website is there, the next it is gone), a notebook, a diary... any form of folder that helps keep stuff in order. Cataloging information by the possible use they may have. It is fundamental.

- must observe: and in this I'd like to add watching movies, tv shows, very old one particularly, the first movie with sound or color, the very important ones. The environment... awareness of own surrounding are a stepping stone to creating original worlds. Some things we take for granted but no one Country collects the garbage the same way the Country next door does (Singapore has garbage shoots, Japan does not even have garbage bins and the truck collecting the rubbish plays a little tune, like an ice cream truck, to call the people out so they know it's time to bring the black bag out), coffee is different everywhere you go (what in the U.s. is an espresso, in Italy it's just coffee; what in the U.s. it's coffee, in Italy is an americano), and many other things. Observe and compare. People: some of them are worth going into your stories... I want you to know that Callista does exist and so does Pea and they just happen to be my two best friends. Pifo is based off another friend of mine too. Father Guido, that we just saw in this week's update, was my University professor. A good storyteller is a very observant person.

- must be clear: clarity is fundamental, it never overestimate people's extraction, intelligence, patience and ability to focus. It never underestimates language barriers and cultural backgrounds and ethnocentrism in general. Clarity needs simplicity, as simple is best, and a down to Earth kind of language. If nobody can understand what you are talking about it does not matter how beautiful your story is it would not make sense to anybody else but you. So remember that nobody lives in your head and is able to tell past what you actually show them. The audience owes you nothing.

- must be compelling: being compelling is important, what happens in the story must be something people can relate to through empathy and sympathy. Emotions (love and fear) rule your characters and make them universally equal to the audience: same genetic stuff after all, carbon based whatchamacallit we are. This year I watched tons of movies and tv shows and had a very hard time going through them without falling asleep. Something dramatic happened... I could not care less. The most compelling movie I watched this year was "The muppets". It was the only one that made me laugh, cry and sing. Remember to touch your audience.

- must be engaging: stories can not stay flat nor on a frantic tone all the time... sometimes they have to slow down a bit  and make people breathe. Some people might not like that, because they are already spoiled by the hammering narrative styles of contemporary movies who constantly bang you on the head with super short sequences (2/3 seconds) after short sequences... never letting go, never breathing.  Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut! There is a down side to keeping up a frantic rhythm... it desensitize the audience and they stop feeling for the story. This is deteriorating the quality of storytelling a bit in favor more visually stunning looking things. Eventually that won't be enough anymore (Green Lantern anyone? I rest my case!). It is good to slow down a bit and take your time but do it with grace, remember to crack a joke here and there. Entertain without being desperate to do so.

- must have ideals: well, this sounds kind of romantic but I think that basically what we were trying to say is that there must be a good reason behind the need of telling a story. So if anybody asked you: why are you telling me this? - the answer should make it sound very important: because I want to show that there are other ways to care for a sock! Because bleach is evil! So must be supported by a theme, a good thesis and an opinion.

- must be an explorer: “When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.” — Eric Hoffer .

This usually happens because people stop at their first idea without thinking about developing it or exploring further. What happens is that the idea was never theirs to begin with, it was subliminally implanted by something they just saw and extremely liked. There is nothing wrong with liking something and starting from somewhere, but common sense requires that you use a derivative mind more often if you want to grow as an artist, otherwise you will stay stuck as somebody else's echo instead of finding your own voice.
Derivative thinking is something we are born with and lose in school as we grow old, but it's the ability of asking the right questions to find more answers than needed.  So let's say we like something very much, the first things we should ask ourselves is: what did they do right and what did they do wrong? Also... can I make it better?
These questions must never be related to the lexicon of a story (existing character or plots), rather to its grammar (the naked structure). That's why instead of writing a fanfiction of an existing character/world, writing a character of your own that spawns from a similar trope would help you understand the structure of storytelling much better and faster. Going OOC with somebody else's character instead will only derange the understanding of proper storytelling. So Fanfiction, you must know how to do it  and it's quite fan (most TV shows are fanfictions as they have different writers writing different plots from the same foundation). Going Out Of Character implies wishful thinking instead, which usually wounds your writing instead of helping it.

- must have fun: for better or for worse a storyteller sees a potential story in everything. Painful experiences as well as good ones. It is good to use own experience to talk about something. Some people might be against "writing about what you know" it's a bit silly and preposterous to go against the Universe we all have inside (it's wider than what we see outside). But the fact is... if you know durians, you can write a story about an alien fruit found in space that smells awful but tastes divine, as simple as that. So  when it comes to experiences, no experience is bad for storytelling and the most painful moments in our lives can be stressful at the moment, but so freaking cool to talk about later.

For example: when my grandmother was ill I went to see her in the hospital before I left to fly back home. When I saw her I knew instantly that it was going to be the last time I would see her, and as much as I wanted for her to tell me something meaningful I knew, in my heart, that she wasn't lucid enough and in too much pain to even recognize me. So no matter what I told her she was not able to answer me. But I knew that one thing was still working: her memory. So before I left I sang to her the initial part of a Sicilian song and she turned to look at me and she finished the song with me. And she would have continued with a poetry and a story and rhyme if I did not stop her.
As I think about that moment I think that was the most meaningful message I could possibly receive from her. My entire life she had fed me food and stories together. When the story she was telling me was over so was the food in the plate and, let me tell you, I really did not like eating.

I have many more experiences where I got lost, stranded and it got scary.

All of these are good stories and I like talking about them.

If all these things come together the right way, Originality will find its way.

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