Archives For storytelling

This little exercise of turning longform radio story-telling ala the internet intelligentsia’s favourite This American Life and others into a scribbles on napkins is nice. Because thinking about how to structure stories is an interesting exercise – for those who like telling stories, reading stories, or, I would argue, preaching. If a significant part of the material we preach from is narrative – and if we have a view of the Bible that sees it as one overarching and intricate narrative telling the story of Jesus from creation to new creation, where we’re invited to pick a side as we read – then why isn’t more of our preaching “narrative” flavoured? I’m not actually sure what that looks like – but I’m pretty sure it’s not a list of three propositions presented propositionally.

Anyway. The napkins. I haven’t listened to any of these (other than This American Life). But they are helpfully described in the post…

“Napkin #1″ is Bradley’s drawing for This American Life, a structure Ira Glass has talked about ad infinitum: This happened. Then this happened. Then this happened. (Those are the dashes.) And then a moment of reflection, thoughts on what the events mean (the exclamation point).”

 

“It starts with a straight line. That’s the opening scene where the reporter introduces listeners to a character often in action. Bradley gives the example of a story about ticks he produced for ATC. In the opening minute or so of the piece, we meet a biologist plucking ticks from shrubs in Rhode Island.

The dip down and up is what Bradley calls ‘the trough.’ “Throw whatever reporting you have into this middle section,” he says. In the “trough” of the tick story, Bradley included info on tick biology, lyme disease, and lyme disease research.

Then, the final line is a return to the original scene. Perhaps time has passed and  the character is doing something new. But, it’s like book-ending a story — end close to where you started. Bradley’s tick story ended back out in the woods with the biologist.”

“The e” is what the Village Voice reporter drew for Bradley many years ago. The beginning of the line is the present or somewhere near the present. (Frankly, you can start wherever you want in terms of time, but the present or recent past is fairly common.) And, typically, there’s a character doing something — a sequence of events.

Then, at the point where the e loops up, the story leaves the present and, perhaps, goes back in time for history and or it widens for context.

When the loop comes back around, you pick up the narrative where you left off and develop the story further to the end. Somewhere in that second straight line the story may reach it’s climax then the denoument or resolution of the story.”

“The first line is the opening scene. Then, it’s followed by history, context…. a widening of the story. Then, a return to the opening scene only further along in time. Then, that’s followed by several characters each of whom have a connection to the story. That’s what the horizontal lines on the right represent.

When I spoke to Bradley about how a story might play out using this structure, he suggested considering a story about Lutheran ministers advocating for same-sex marriage in the church. In the first line, we meet a minister who is in favor same-sex marriage and he’s in church preaching. In the “V” we learn about the history of the issue in the church and the proposed changes. We return to the minister, perhaps at a meeting where he’s advocating his position and that’s where we meet several people linked to the issue and their perspectives.”

 

I also love this Kurt Vonnegut lecture about the shape of stories, which became a nifty infographic.

And then, of course, there is the classicly overthought Dan Harmon – creator of Community – who in order for his show to be so very meta, needs to have a firm grasp not only of how he wants to repackage stories and tropes, but needs to know how the stories he is dissecting work. He reckons there’s one universal story structure. His best tip from this series of posts about his story circle (part 1part 2part 3part 4) is this one, about finding a relatable hook for your audience so they can take part in the story and be moved by it:

sooner or later, we need to be someone, because if we are not inside a character, then we are not inside the story.”

The Circle

Storytelling comes naturally to humans, but since we live in an unnatural world, we sometimes need a little help doing what we’d naturally do.

  1. A character is in a zone of comfort,
  2. But they want something.
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation,
  4. Adapt to it,
  5. Get what they wanted,
  6. Pay a heavy price for it,
  7. Then return to their familiar situation,
  8. Having changed.

Simplified, his 8 steps look like:

  1. When you
  2. have a need,
  3. you go somewhere,
  4. search for it,
  5. find it,
  6. take it,
  7. then return
  8. and change things.

Harmon reckons almost all good stories follow this pattern – and, in fact, that it is innate.

“Get used to the idea that stories follow that pattern of descent and return, diving and emerging. Demystify it. See it everywhere. Realize that it’s hardwired into your nervous system, and trust that in a vacuum, raised by wolves, your stories would follow this pattern.”

Descent and Return

Why this ritual of descent and return? Why does a story have to contain certain elements, in a certain order, before the audience will even recognize it as a story? Because our society, each human mind within it and all of life itself has a rhythm, and when you play in that rhythm, it resonates.

Now you understand that all life, including the human mind and the communities we create, marches to the same, very specific beat. If your story also marches to this beat- whether your story is the great American novel or a fart joke- it will resonate. It will send your audience’s ego on a brief trip to the unconscious and back. Your audience has an instinctive taste for that, and they’re going to say “yum.”

The return bit is the most important…

“We need RETURN and we need CHANGE, because we are a community, and if our heroes just climbed beanstalks and never came down, we wouldn’t have survived our first ice age.”

 

Some story telling tips

Step 1 – Establish a (relatable) Protaganist:

“How do you put the audience into a character? Easy. Show one. You’d have to go out of your way to keep the audience from imprinting on them. It could be a raccoon, a homeless man or the President. Just fade in on them and we are them until we have a better choice… If there are choices, the audience picks someone to whom they relate. When in doubt, they follow their pity. Fade in on a raccoon being chased by a bear, we are the raccoon… The easiest thing to do is fade in on a character that always does what the audience would do.”

“He can be an assassin, he can be a raccoon, he can be a parasite living in the racoon’s liver, but have him do what the audience might do if they were in the same situation.”

Step 2 – Demonstrate a need: We’re being presented with the idea that things aren’t perfect.”  

“This is where a character might wonder out loud, or with facial expressions, why he can’t be cooler, or richer, or faster… This wish will be granted in ways that character couldn’t have expected.”

Step 3 – Crossing the threshold: “What’s your story about?”

“The key is, figure out what your “movie poster” is. What would you advertise to people if you wanted them to come listen to your story? A killer shark? Outer space? The Mafia? True love? Everything in grey on that circle, the bottom half, is a “special world” where that movie poster starts being delivered, and everything above this line is the “ordinary world.” Step 1, you are the sheriff of a small town. Step 2, strange bites on a murder victim’s body. Step 3… it’s a werewolf.” 

Step 4 – The Road of Trials: preparing for the task at hand…

“Hack producers call it the “training phase.” I prefer to stick with Joseph Campbell’s title, “The Road of Trials,” because it’s less specific. I’ve seen too many movies where our time is wasted watching a hero literally “train” in a forest clearing because someone got the idea it was a necessary ingredient. The point of this part of the circle is, our protagonist has been thrown into the water and now it’s sink or swim.

Step 5 – The opposite of comfort: The climax at the bottom of the circle

“Imagine your protagonist began at the top and has tumbled all the way down here. This is where the universe’s natural tendency to pull your protagonist downward has done its job, and for X amount of time, we experience weightlessness. Anything goes down here. This is a time for major revelations, and total vulnerability. If you’re writing a plot-twisty thriller, twist here and twist hard.

Twist or no, this is also another threshold, in that everything past this point will take a different direction (namely UPWARD), but note that one is not dragged kicking and screaming through these curtains. One hovers here. One will make a choice, then ascend…

Step 6 – heading back up: symmetrical redemption.

“When you realize that something is important, really important, to the point where it’s more important than YOU, you gain full control over your destiny. In the first half of the circle, you were reacting to the forces of the universe, adapting, changing, seeking. Now you have BECOME the universe. You have become that which makes things happen. You have become a living God.”

Step 7: Bringing it back home: This is how the character ends up back where they started, having experienced the rollercoaster (and having been changed by it).

“For some characters, this is as easy as hugging the scarecrow goodbye and waking up. For others, this is where the extraction team finally shows up and pulls them out- what Campbell calls “Rescue from Without.” In an anecdote about having to change a flat tire in the rain, this could be the character getting back into his car.

For others, not so easy, which is why Campbell also talks about “The Magic Flight.””

Step 8: Showing the Change: This is where the protaganist is confronted with an opportunity to show that the ‘journey’ they have been on is worth it.

In an action film, you’re guaranteed a showdown here. In a courtroom drama, here comes the disruptive, sky-punching cross examination that leaves the murderer in a tearful confession…the protagonist, on whatever scale, is now a world-altering ninja. They have been to the strange place, they have adapted to it, they have discovered true power and now they are back where they started, forever changed and forever capable of creating change. In a love story, they are able to love. In a Kung Fu story, they’re able to Kung all of the Fu. In a slasher film, they can now slash the slasher.

One really neat trick is to remind the audience that the reason the protagonist is capable of such behavior is because of what happened down below. When in doubt, look at the opposite side of the circle. Surprise, surprise, the opposite of (8) is (4), the road of trials, where the hero was getting his s*** together. Remember that zippo the bum gave him? It blocked the bullet! It’s hack, but it’s hack because it’s worked a thousand times. Grab it, deconstruct it, create your own version. You didn’t seem to have a problem with that formula when the stuttering guy (4) recited a perfect monologue (8) in Shakespeare in Love. It’s all the same. Remember that tribe of crazy, comic relief Indians that we befriended at (4) by kicking their biggest wrestler in the nuts? It is now, at (8), as we are nearly beaten by the bad guy, that those crazy sons of bitches ride over the hill and save us. Why is this not Deus Ex Machina? Because we earned it (4).”

 What’s cool about this model is that it actually works for telling the story of Jesus. I think. And for telling our own stories. Like I said at the top – I have no idea what this does for preaching – I do believe we’re culturally hard wired for receiving stories, and I think that part of being God’s image bearers means being story tellers, if God is the master story teller who arranged the whole of creation and human history to tell his story, and then arranged for it to be masterfully told in a text that has lasted thousands of years, then something of that is essential to us. We all process our lives and new information through something like a master story too, events are incorporated into this narrative and interpreted through it (that’s why Biggest Loser contestants keep banging on about their journey).

 

To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man. So said WWE icon Rick Flair (who could probably teach a little bit about rhetoric). That’s kind of the logic underpinning Joseph Romm’s Language Intelligence: Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady GagaRomm runs the website Rhetoric.com and applies his rhetorical skills on the Climate Progress blog.

While Romm doesn’t pay much attention to Cicero, he does offer a guide to eloquence based on looking at some of the most persuasive story tellers from the past and present. He reverse engineers the rules of persuasion from the world’s great orators – Jesus and Shakespeare, with a pretty cutting assessment of the communication techniques of modern politicians, and quite a sympathetic reading of Lady Gaga.

“If the Bible is the word of God, then rhetoric is God’s way of speaking. The Elizabethans certainly viewed rhetoric that way. One best-selling sixteenth-century handbook asserted that rhetoric makes the orator “the emperour of men’s minds & affections, and next to the omnipotent God in the power of persuasion.”

He suggests rhetoric isn’t much more than helping people to speak naturally in a way that understands what makes people tick.

“…from the very beginning, rhetoric teachers aimed to help orators speak more naturally, in a manner that as closely as possible matched the way people actually speak. Here is Aristotle discussing the importance of matching natural speaking: Your language will be appropriate if it expresses emotion and character…. To express emotion, you’ll employ the language of anger in speaking of outrage; the language of disgust and discreet reluctance to utter a word when speaking of impiety or foulness; the language of exultation for a tale of glory…. This aptness of language is one thing that makes people believe in the truth of your story.

Ultimately it’s a book about how to tell a story that persuades – particularly an extended story. And this is where I reckon it’s incredibly powerful for preachers. If you’re not thinking about how your sermons relate to each other, and to your church’s vision, and to the way you do things – and you’re not tying those together with some sort of extended, coherent metaphor or narrative, you’re being less than effective as a persuasive communicator. And that, ultimately, is what we’re on about as Christians.

“Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others.” – 2 Cor 5:11

Romm gives some tips drawn from his pool of experts, summed up in this list:

1. Use short, simple words.

2. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Repetition is the essential element of all persuasion.

3. Master irony and foreshadowing. They are central elements of popular culture, modern politics, and mass media for a reason—they help us make sense of the stories of our lives and other people’s lives.

4. Use metaphors to paint a picture, to connect what your listeners already know to what you want them to know. Metaphors may be the most important figure as well as the most underused and misused.

5. Create an extended metaphor when you have a big task at hand, like framing a picture-perfect speech or launching a major campaign.

6. If you want to avoid being seduced, learn the figures of seduction. If you want to debunk a myth, do not repeat that myth.

I think most preachers have been taught 1 and 2, but it’s 4 and 5 that are key. I’d say you can even get away with not following 1 if your metaphor is powerful enough and infuses everything you say with a bit of life and verve.

Here. So you don’t have to buy the book (you should anyway). Is a bit of an expansion on some of these points.

Repetition and clarity

“Eloquence requires the repetition of words and phrases. Persuasion requires the repetition of slogans, sentences, and ideas.”

For Romm the key to repetition is something like sloganeering. You figure out the simplest and most punchy way to make a point. And you make it. Again. And again. And again. But you’ve got to aim not to bore your audience with the repetition – which means you’ve got to work hard at getting your weight behind the punch. He suggests the noble (and vastly underrated) chiasmus is a nice way to hammer home a blow. I quite like the idea of structuring speeches and sermons as something like a chiasmus.

“Perhaps the most elegant—and certainly one of the most popular—figures of repetition is chiasmus: words repeated in inverse order. Chiasmus is a great source of aphorisms. Mae West famously said, “It’s not the men in my life, it’s the life in my men.” Ray Bradbury advised writers, “You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance. Chiasmus makes for a memorable tweet, since it is pithy and profound.”

Clarity isn’t just about short words. It’s about removing impediments to your message. It’s ground clearing so that your storytelling can stand out – so that your metaphor is given the context it needs in order to shine. But it isn’t even just about vocab. It’s about clarity of emotion and tone as well. Making sure the mood and thus, in a speech, the medium, is apt to the message.

“Clarity is rightly seen as one of the most important virtues of a speech. If our goal is to persuade people honestly, then we should be as clear as possible about what we are trying to say. Clarity is most important when we are trying to convince people with the facts, with logic. As we’ve seen, however, truly persuasive speech requires a simultaneous appeal to mind and heart, logic and emotion, especially if you are trying to penetrate and change someone’s worldview.”

Stories as metaphors

“Memorable storytelling, whether in life or politics, is built around the same figures of speech used by the master storytellers, the ancient bards—metaphor, foreshadowing, irony, and especially extended metaphor, which is what some, like the linguist George Lakoff, call a frame.”

Romm argues that metaphors speak to us because they speak to our brains. They give us something that appeals to how we’re wired – words that evoke pictures. Speeches that are just words might fire up one part of the brain, but when you get people to visualise something, and give them a memory hook – it’s like injecting steroids into their head. Strengthening your message.

“Metaphors are not just a pleasing figure of speech we use by chance. They reflect the very structure of our thinking and of our brain itself. Edward O. Wilson argued in his book Biophilia, “The brain depends upon elegance to compensate for its own small size and short lifetime.” As we evolved, the brain “was forced to rely on tricks to enlarge memory and speed computation.” Hence, the human mind “specializes on analogy and metaphor, on a sweeping together of chaotic sensory experience into workable categories labeled by words and stacked into hierarchies for quick recovery. Metaphors enhance our memories in at least two ways. First, they create another place in the brain for a word or phrase to reside. People remember words better when they have multiple ways to remember them, such as combining repetition and a rhyme (“Double your pleasure, double your fun with Doublemint Doublemint Doublemint gum!”). In particular, metaphors create a visual aid to memory. Metaphor is “used for the sake of creating a vivid mental picture,” wrote the author of one of the rhetoric textbooks used to teach Elizabethan children.”

“Metaphors aid in memory a second way: They require the hearer or reader to think more, to light up more brain circuits, to figure out the connections and what they mean. As one study of “Figures of Rhetoric in Advertising Language” put it (in muddy jargon that no ad writer would use), “Effortfully processed information is more readily retrieved from memory than less effortfully processed information.”

It’s not just that metaphors are more memorable. Metaphors are also more compelling. Especially if they work at the level of providing a framework for people to think. Extended metaphors shape worldviews. They let us carry our stories across time and space. They help us link our stories together (a bit like Coca Cola’s “Liquid and Linked” approach to telling stories on social media)

“Extended metaphor is, for me, the most important rhetorical device. This figure is at the heart of some of Lincoln’s greatest speeches. It pumps the life blood into Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Political candidates with a strong extended metaphor have a long political life while those without one don’t have much of a pulse. Like the best figures, extended metaphors make ideas and phrases more memorable, expanding the vivid visual imagery painted by a single metaphor to create an entire mental mural for the audience. And like the best tropes, which “turn” the meaning of words, extended metaphors force you to think—and in a deeper way than most figures.”

This again, works because we think not just in metaphors, but in extended metaphors. Here’s how it works in politics. There’s not a huge jump to figuring out how we can make this work in preaching.

“Extended metaphors are essential to politics for several reasons. First, as we’ve seen, they are a key to great speechmaking. Second, we humans think with extended metaphors. So the best politicians naturally present themselves to fit our metaphors, linking those metaphors to their personal story, feeding the modern media’s growing interest in personalities and dramatic stories. Third, the best way to attack your opponent’s positive extended metaphor is to hit back with a negative extended metaphor. Put another way, rhetoric is the art of creating a persuasive story, the art of making—and unmaking—an emotional connection with voters.”

For preaching the issue isn’t so much conforming to the audience’s metaphor – it’s conforming the audience to a new worldview by the Gospel. Which comes packed with its own metaphors. So, for example, at Creek Road we link the Gospel, with our vision, with the way we do things using the metaphor of heart transformation. Being able to alter worldviews is vital for preaching – it’s a vital work of the Holy Spirit, who works through our preaching. But it’s an incredible challenge for us now – because we are both bombarded by tens of thousands of competing metaphors and advertising images every day (well, on the days you walk the aisles of a supermarket), and we are getting better and better at filtering out messages that we aren’t interested in.

“If you cannot change the public’s worldview, microcosm, paradigm, extended metaphor, or frame, then you cannot change how they perceive the facts. This is especially problematic in our time, a time when people can easily choose to watch only those media outlets that share their political views and thus pre-filter facts for them.”

One of the really nice things about Romm’s book, and one of the reasons it’s so readily applicable in a Christian context is that he values, rather than dismissing, the Christian tradition and its contribution to rhetoric. This isn’t a Christian book, but Romm uses Jesus as an example to back up many of these points, and acknowledges that Christianity brings its own inherent extended metaphor in the pages of Scripture.

“The systematic application of rhetoric is one of the few ways to create a worldview—what more profound paradigm is there in America than the Judeo-Christian ethic as created and sustained in the supreme rhetoric text, the Bible? In the beginning was the Word.”

 

The power of stories

This should have a profound impact on how we share Jesus with people. Less propositions. More stories.

I’m aware of the irony in that sentence. It would have a profound impact on how I blogged if I was able to figure out how to tell a story about telling stories – and just how powerful they are.

 

Storytelling is the new communication. In fact. It’s the old communication. These tips are pretty good. If you want to make stories that people are interested in. It’s properly basic stuff. With some nice tips and twists.

Some of these are video specific – which is great if you want to catch up with the present, and communicate into the future – but most of them are generic enough to be slightly relevant to the non-video world.

Here’s a nice coffee “story”…

Coava, a case study of storytelling from stillmotion on Vimeo.

Pixar’s storytelling tips

Every time this gets reposted somewhere I think “I really should add that to the virtual filing cabinet that is my blog”… This time I had the will, and the headspace… so here are some great storytelling tips that have helped Pixar produce blockbuster after blockbuster.


Image Credit: Aerogramme Studio

They were tweeted to the world by a Pixar staffer. They’re part fun, part principled, part practical, part imaginative, part geared to get your creative juices flowing after writer’s block…

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

These have been all over the web – but I got them here this time.

This is a great piece from Mumbrella.

Remember Dumb Ways To Die? If not, take a moment to familiarise yourself with it.

John Mescall, who made the ad, loaded up this piece with a bunch of really handy, and easily transferable, bits of advice for communicating with the YouTube generation.

A couple of samples.

Not many advertisers allow themselves to be that honest about things, but Metro did and that’s a great starting point. In a world dominated by spin, honesty in itself can be disarming and refreshing. I think the title helps. I’m a big believer in titles, and as advertising moves from paid interruptions to a storytelling model, it’s something we all should pay much more attention to. Titles sell books, and they sell movies. Your campaign needs a good title.

Dumb Ways to Die is a good title because it’s succinct, evocative and very suggestive of reward-for-effort. Who wouldn’t click on ‘dumb ways to die’? If we titled this piece ‘Be safe around trains’ would it have worked as well? Not a chance.

And the clincher – it’s about telling a story, and doing it with authenticity.

Ultimately, it’s an ad that doesn’t feel anything like an ad. It’s happy and silly and joyful and clever and more than a little odd; the intangible things that are so hard to rationalise, but so very important.

And finally, but very importantly, we made sure the campaign was easy to share and discuss. That meant turning the whole thing into animated gifs for tumblr. Making the song downloadable via iTunes, soundcloud and our website. Not disabling comments on youtube. That kind of thing.

Ira Glass is a brilliant broadcaster/storyteller/journalist. He’s also an atheist. In this video, a conversation with a Christian guy named Jim Henderson, Ira Glass talks about how Christians are misrepresented in pop-culture. It’s nice.

It’s up there with Penn Jillette’s great testimony about a well-meaning Christian who approached him after a show.

Especially this clip…

Glass also talks about the “Christian pitch”… and his investigations of Christianity.

“Christianity is number one for a reason. It’s a great story… and it’s a reassuring story.”

He tells a cool story about how some prison evangelists framed the gospel for the prison kids they were working with… It’s worth a listen to hear an atheist trying to represent Christianity accurately.

Thanks to Cosmo on Facebook for the link to the video.