Last week I talked about the somewhat surprising frankness with which the Chronicle of Philanthropy has been discussing the art of manipulative storytelling. Most storytellers want to arouse emotions in their readers, and not all of them know how; I wanted to share some tips and tricks from this unusually open discussion of manipulation in storytelling. These articles, not being about for-profit marketing, are a lot less distasteful than a marketing manual might be; being about nonfiction narratives, they also come across as a little more ethical.
And honestly, I wanted somewhere to stash some of this advice.
Let’s begin with the very recent “Are You Really Telling Stories?” which focused on the essential task of making people care in the first place. This is the bare bones of the narrative, but because it’s so basic, it sometimes gets overlooked, even in writing classes. They asked four questions, three of which I’m going to hit up here:
1. Who is your protagonist?
The protagonist cannot be an organization or a community or a large group of people. […] The psychologist Paul Slovic points to research that says people become numb to social problems when too many individuals are affected.
2. What does she want?
When gathering or writing stories, ask yourself or your storyteller about her needs and desires. Listen for words like “love” or “angry” or “searching”—anything that indicates the journey she’s on and where she imagines it leads.
3. What obstacles does she face?
Many nonprofits leave us in precisely this sort of storytelling hell of no obstacles, no conflict, just smooth sailing to the end. I suspect that’s partly because they don’t want to reveal their own difficulties as an organization for fear of alienating their supporters. “No, we’re doing great–keep giving us money!”
In almost every instance (Haruki Murakami excepted, perhaps) these three questions form about 80% of your story. If you can answer these, you’ve made the bare bones of your outline. If your work is fizzling, then perhaps the reason is that the answers to these questions aren’t clear. This isn’t even about manipulation yet — this is just about good basics. Also about good basics comes the advice “Mix struggle and success” from How To Turn Audience Emotion Into Action:
…too many success stories leave out the struggles that the real-life characters go through to achieve that success. […] Leave out the struggles, and all you have are pleasant “examples” that nobody can connect with and act on.
This is something I often face in my literary work. I shy away from confrontation in my life, and because I avoid it in life, I tend to avoid it in writing. It’s a major issue I’m still working on.
All this leads nicely into an article about the Essential Elements of Storytelling, which mainly addresses storytelling from a non-prose perspective — ie, what you have to do on the back end to get a good story out the front end. It is in two of their four elements where we start to see the ways you can tinker with your reader:
We think in stories, we tell stories, we hear them and read them and watch them every day. So there’s a temptation to say that the best and really “authentic” stories are those that spring fully formed from someone’s heart. Sometimes that’s true, but most of us need practice.
An opinion piece that I’ll get to in a minute supports this, citing the 2008 Obama presidential campaign which used “Public Narrative”, a technique developed by Harvard professor Marshall Ganz, to strengthen itself and its message:
Volunteers would get together in groups and tell stories about what drew them to the campaign, how they identified collectively, and the challenges facing the country. Those stories were then used to help them connect personally to voters and build grassroots leadership. The method is now used by civic, student, and activist groups worldwide.
Practicing storytelling isn’t simply about increasing vocabulary, developing grammar, and learning how to write clearly — it’s also about working out how you structure a narrative, who you are as the writer, and what works (or doesn’t) when it comes to impacting a reader. Essential Elements went on to talk about understanding your reader:
Suppose an advocate tells an audience that one in three black men in Baltimore is behind bars; that audience might not take that statistic as evidence of bias in the criminal-justice system but as evidence of the inherent criminality of African-American males. Research on public opinion would help inform what stories that advocate tells and to whom.
Knowing the beliefs held by those you address is important in activist writing; understanding the target audience for your story helps you work out how to impact them. Understand your genre or, if you’re not writing within a genre, identify who you are writing for, and learn about them. The more you know about who you’re speaking to, the more efficiently you can work out how to influence their reactions to your work.
Once you’ve actually begun work, there’s great advice from an article on small wins and long-term goals for constructing single scenes in large narratives:
Speaking of his “fireside chat” radio broadcasts, [President Roosevelt] said, “I want to explain to the people … so that they will understand what is going on and how each battle fits into the picture.” The president was confident that people could “take any bad news right on the chin” if they understood the larger story.
Brett Davidson […] cited the example of the marriage-equality work of the Human Rights Campaign. That organization, he says, “does a great job of highlighting small or interim victories and featuring individual stories at the heart of these battles, while maintaining a clear long-term vision.” The organization’s website features stories of victories and setbacks in individual states, and maps and other tools to show the big picture.
In a clear marketing campaign, or in a well-constructed linear narrative, every small scene, even ones that are complete stories in themselves, is part of a larger story — the ultimate goal is the large story, but the hook that keeps people interested is the momentary scene. (I am aware the HRC and its focus on marriage equality can be problematic, but lots of problematic organizations get to be big and problematic by having really well-crafted narratives.)
Now let’s revisit the fourth question from the earlier article on basic storytelling:
4. How does it end?
You owe your audiences an ending, something that gives meaning to what you’ve just told them. As story trainer Andy Goodman wrote for the Working Narratives blog, “By the time the last line is spoken, they should know exactly why they took this journey with you. Otherwise, you’ll have wasted both your time and theirs.”
I didn’t find the full answer entirely satisfying, so instead let’s leap to that opinion piece I mentioned earlier, on the purpose of storytelling in not for profit campaigns:
Last fall I attended a talk by David Simon [creator of The Wire]. I expected him to say he was drawn to his subjects by a desire to change society, but he said that’s not at all how he sees it. Instead, he’s drawn to “fault lines” in the culture. Not coincidentally, it’s at those fault lines where issues of social import lie. But social relevance is not necessarily the same as social change.
We must link personal narratives to political challenges; provide audiences with ways to take action; treat stories as one dimension of a larger effort to create change; and engage people who may be new to a cause or who disagree with us.
VanDeCarr has seen a lot of “tell your story!” and “awareness raising” projects fall by the wayside or fail to create direct action because they don’t point out a way to go or a solution to a problem. This is a dicey subject in social justice circles, because calling out the dysfunctions of our society should not require the person doing the calling-out to suggest a solution. But within a more narrow boundary, that of storytelling, your narrative will have more impact if a suggestion of action or resolution is made. Dr. Seuss knew this:
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.
SO! Catch, calls the Onceler….
An ending, for an activist writer, needs to be a call to action. For a wider-band storyteller, perhaps not, but it still needs to do one of two things: provide a resolution, or challenge the reader with its lack. There’s a difference between a story that simply stops, and one that demands you provide your own resolution; the latter should cause readers to examine their beliefs as they work to answer their questions about the ending.
We always have something to learn from other disciplines, and I’m lucky that I get to learn a lot about my secret writer alter ego’s craft from my Clark Kent Day Job. The ultimate lesson of all that, above and beyond the visible, is to keep learning, and keep asking your own questions, whether or not someone gives you a resolution.