When I was very young, I spent many evenings listening as my father told me and my older brother stories he invented on the spot. They were what he called his Black Jack the Pirate and the Golden Princess series, and they involved daring rescues, flying turtles, ominous birds of prey, and lots of cliffhangers. I would close my eyes as my father spoke, letting his words form shapes and colors and places in my mind, picturing the swash-buckling Jack and his woebegone princess and the strange characters and magical lands of their adventures. This was the hero’s quest brought to the level of a five-year-old, and it was delicious. I ate it up.
Listening to a serialized podcast this week, I thought about how we’ve entered a new age of storytelling, and how everything old is new again. Hanging on to each word of Alex Blumberg’s StartUp, I was back in my childhood listening mode, concentrating hard to set the scene, laughing out loud at parts, and pulling for the hero from the start. Podcasts like this and the wildly popular Serial are new selections at the entertainment buffet. They sit beside all the amazing work being done in scripted television (Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Downton Abbey, etc.), interactive publishing (Wattpad), long-form narrative sites (Narratively), and live story-slam organizations like The Moth, all dedicated to the high art of storytelling.
For readers and listeners, it’s like a Willy Wonka Story Factory – there’s almost too much storytelling goodness to take in. There will be some garbage produced before things shake out and we’re able to discern what’s quality and what’s not. But, for now it’s a free for all. And a lot of it actually is free. Welcome to the all-you-can-absorb paradise. You have a golden ticket.
The stories that will attract us to the table are the same ones that have won us over for millennia. They’re best if they have a purpose and are moving through a narrative arc. The more compelling the language is, and the crafting of the tale, the more we get sucked in. We have to feel a connection to the characters and their lives; we have to care enough to put ourselves in their shoes and commit at an emotional level. Finally, the story has to reach some kind of resolution, or at least our nagging questions have to be answered satisfactorily. The good guy doesn’t always have to win, but we need to understand why he lost.
Storytellers know that when all of that has been achieved, there is still an element of magic to it. I never thought about it then, but the worlds our minds created separately at story time – me, Matt, Dad – were likely quite different from each other. In a way, a story is simply a framework and we, individually, make it whole.
There is no perfection, then, in how we tell our tales, and there is no perfect medium to deliver them. Stories taste different to each of us, so their flavors are perfected once they’re out in the world. Instead of getting it just right, we should do what my father did all those years ago: close our eyes, take a deep breath, start with “once upon a time”, and let the story unfold from there.