Friday, May 15, 2020

Storytelling vs. Reporting

Here's something that happened to me the other day - for brevity's sake, I will offer the abridged version. I got into my car to go run some errands. After my last errand, my wheels skidded and I slid into a crowded intersection, having a near-accident with two other cars. Fortunately nobody was hurt and there was no damage, so all parties went home. Once I got home, I did some thinking about what could've happened if I had made one different choice on that drive.

That's the simple version of the story, but it's barely a story. Why?

Obviously, the lack of details is a clear problem, but believe it or not, that is not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that it communicates the events of my drive but offers nothing in terms of meaning, message, importance, or relevance to my life. It is a story, but the lack of substance makes it little more than just reporting the events of a day. A story earns its stripes when it tells more than a series of events. And there are a few ways to do that.

First, we can convey the importance with details - not filling in every blank, but exclusively offering details on the part of the story we want to stand out. If the point of the story is to emphasize that I was almost in an accident, do the details of my errands make a difference? Probably not. Maybe if the incident happened just outside my last stop, I can throw that in, but otherwise, details about stopping at the pharmacy, the gas station, and the hardware store are irrelevant.

This may seem obvious, but is it? What details should be included if the purpose of the story is discussing how one difference in my route would've meant no near-accident at all? At that point, the errands are the important part, because changing that route would change where I was for the incident. In fact, sliding through an intersection now loses importance because the purpose of the story becomes a discussion about choices and outcomes, not a near-accident.

And since we are referring to this near-accident all the time, let's focus a little on how to tell this story. A near-accident goes by another term - "not an accident" - and there's not much interest in a story about going on a drive where we don't get in an accident. Every drive I have taken this year ended up without an accident, so this is nothing special. Therefore, if our purpose is to tell a story about not getting into an accident, for this to be an interesting story, we might need to tell it a little differently.

Note that "tell it a little differently" does not mean lying or changing any events. It simply means reorganizing story to capture the audience's attention. We know the order of events, but if we start telling the story with, "As my car skidded into the crowded intersection, I thought I was a dead man," then I can go back to the beginning with the reader eagerly awaiting that moment. I should still choose what details are relevant and what I want to convey, but by changing the order of how the story is told, this near-accident is actually interesting.

Lastly, and most importantly, I need to include myself in this story. I need to offer more than the events and the details - that isn't a narrative story, it's a news report. If I don't include my feelings, fears, thoughts on that moment and how my hands shook even after I got home, I have not offered anything more than a spectator's view of an event. To be a story, we need to include that main character of ourselves and all the emotional substance that comes with. Otherwise, all we are doing is warning people about the dangers of the intersection of Steger Road and Western Avenue, even though there wasn't an accident there.

2 comments:

  1. Just call me Walter Cronkite (except for his reporting of the assassination of JFK, of course.)

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