Friday, 17 October 2014

The Four Elements of Successful Storytelling

What is storytelling? The answer seems obvious: to tell a story. However, it might be helpful to stop and think for a moment about what this really means. To tell a story means doing something. A story is created over time. Thus, storytelling is not a thing, but a process. And that process is made up of four elements: the storyteller, the audience, the subject and the story. Successful storytelling needs to pay close attention to each of these four elements.

1. The storyteller.  Obviously, for a story to even exist, we need someone telling it. Makers of stories need to ask themselves what kind of storytellers they are, because that is something the audience will also want to know. Before you reach out to your audience, you must decide for yourself what kind of storyteller you are. More importantly, you must have an idea of what kind of storyteller your audience thinks you are. After all, it makes a big difference whether we are told the story of a murder by the possible murderer defending herself during a trial, or by the victim’s loving son who wants to prevent such tragedies from happening in the future. 

2. The audience. The person or persons to whom the story is told. The importance of the audience is known very well by marketeers, but other storytellers sometimes forget to reflect on who will read, listen or hear their stories.  However, in order to become a successful storyteller, you really need to know your audience. Now, I’m not saying that you always should cater to received tastes. You may want to push the stylistic envelope or may even seek to shock your audience. But it really does help to know what shocks your audience and what pleases it – if you don’t know this, you may end up shocking or pleasing people when you don’t intend to. Or you may commit the worst sin a storyteller can be guilty of: you may bore your audience.

Therefore, make sure you know which language and visuals your audience understands, which references they will get, what symbols and metaphors they are familiar with – or people will find your storytelling tedious, incomprehensible, they may not get your carefully crafted joke, may lose your drift. As a result, your story will be unsuccessful.

The audience can be passive – just listening to, reading or watching the story – or might be more active: disagreeing with the storyteller about what happened next or offering alternative storylines. We find such interactive storytelling with the medieval storyteller on the market square arguing with his audience. These storytellers did not tell their stories to people who quietly listened to and accepted everything they had to say, but rather told their stories together with their audience. This kind of interactive storytelling has made a spectacular comeback with the rise of the internet and social media.

3. The subject. The subject of storytelling is what the story is about, what is referred to. Take for instance the famous fable about a crow that finds a piece of delicious cheese and reclines in a tree to devour it. A passing fox tells the crow he is very beautiful and asks him to sing for him, since such a beautiful animal will surely have a very beautiful voice as well. When the crow opens its beak, the cheese falls to the ground, where the fox is quick to run away with it. The subject of this story is, of course, a warning against listening to flatterers. It is interesting to note that it isn’t always the storyteller who decides what a story is about: the audience might very well have a different opinion and it is difficult to prevent this. 

4. The story. The final element of storytelling is the story. As I’ve said, we shouldn’t just concentrate on the story, but need to pay attention to the storyteller, the subject and the audience as well. However, the story is of course very important. Over the coming weeks, I will devote a series of posts to what a good story looks like, but let me give a short definition of a story here. A story always has a main character; that main character always has an aim; and he or she acts to achieve this aim. The story is the account of how this main character ends up achieving his or her aim – or not. 

This is the first article in a series of seven articles about storytelling.

Read the other articles here:
1. The Four Elements of Successful Storytelling
2. Ten Essential Building Stones for a Good Story 
3. Telling your story with the right voice 
4. Guide Your Audience! 
5. Telling Your Story With the Right Point of View 
6. Why Your Story Needs a Moral Dilemma    
7. The Fifth Element of Storytelling