when a story isn’t exciting

In a recent workshop, a participant lamented after hearing everyone’s story that he didn’t have anything worth saying. Unlike his peers, he didn’t feel he had unusual experiences or insights. I tried to reassure him that he didn’t need either; a story is a snapshot in time, and whatever he writes as long as it tells his specific story, would be fine. What makes a story authentic and compelling has little to do with what the content is and more to do with what the storyteller is willing to bring to the content. I think this is what we’re doing as storytelling facilitators more than anything.

I wanted to write at the end of the last paragraph that it’s the storyteller that creates the drama, but that somehow seems dishonest in the way that media narratives can sometimes be criticized. So let me say that it’s the storyteller who makes the emotions, questions, and the arc explicit. A story isn’t inherently ethical or not–that is dependent on the participant. However, the principles that we work from in our model is intended to draw the audience into the world of the storyteller. Whether or not they have an empathic response is ultimately up to the openness (or perhaps naivete if the intent is indeed to manipulate) of the audience member, but we can lend a hand in pushing them towards it. The “manipulation” of using music and exaggerated intonations should be a benevolent attempt to help the audience walk a mile in our shoes.

Part of that design comes from someone can relate to what’s being said. Robert McKee, in the beginning of Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting, states the “archetypal story unearths a universal human experience, then wraps itself in a unique, culture-specific expression.” Joe Lambert , founder of StoryCenter echoes similar sentiments in in his philosophical workbook Seven Stages. We might not understand why two people would bond and maintain an interest over tree slugs, but we do know how friendships can form in the most unlikeliest of circumstances. And if a story can communicate that, maybe we’ll even view tree slugs in a new light.

It might seem awesome to fight off ninja pirates and saving your best friend from certain doom in the process, but it means very little if your audience can’t connect with you. Part of the appeal of, for example, Captain America (2011) was the fact that he was an underdog trying to prove something, and most people have been in a situation where they needed to prove or overcome something even if it’s not defeating the Red Skull. Without breaking the confidence of the aforementioned participant, he did reflect  a little more deeply on his experiences and create an enjoyable story that people could relate to. But occasionally it’s hard to convince people that finding these connections is more important that having had something “exciting” happen.