The Elements of a Story
Words hold power—the power to soothe, excite, offend, embrace, and cut. They are “events unto themselves” (Sidwell, Community, 2007). Stories, as amalgamations of words, possess the same power. Great stories grab our attention—they evoke deep and lingering emotions as they transport us, excite our senses, preserve our past, create a sense of community, or engage us fully. Our lives are transformed by great stories.
Which, of course, begs the question, “What makes a story great?”
Vonnegut humorously posits that great stories follow prescribed paths along the Y-Axis of “Good Fortune” and the X-Axis of “Beginning to End” wherein the hero (or heroine) experiences personal growth and challenge before (undoubtedly) triumphing in the end (Comberg, 2010). Although not explicitly stated, Vonnegut’s description assumes a dramatic arc as his recounted stories begin with exposition, continue through rising action to climax, and experience a fall in action as a denouement signals the (usually) happy ending (Comberg, 2010; Melcher, 2012).
Tongue-in-cheek aside, it is our experience of shared humanity in a story that holds our attention. In The Clues to a Great Story, Karin Hueck & Rafael Quick (2013) posit great stories “make me care, take me with you, [are] intentional, let me like you, and delight me.” The National Storytelling Network (n.d.) describes interactivity, the use of word and action, presentation of a story, and the active imagination of the listener as fundamental characteristics of a compelling story.
Although “storytelling isn’t a one size fits all” (Stevenson, n.d.) approach, in a great story, the listener creates “vivid, multi-sensory images, actions, characters, and events…based on the performance of the teller and the listener’s own past experiences, beliefs, [and] understandings” (National Storytelling Network, n.d.). Powerful stories…great stories…require our participation as they enrapture us in the world of vivid pictures they paint. As Sidwell (Community, 2007), states “When you want to give information, write it down; when you want to give images, tell a story.”
Why do we tell stories?
Stories teach us to understand our individual place in the world and embrace interdependence as we see the intrinsic value of others through their stories. We experience the universal emotions of love, death, joy, grief, and aching sadness intimately and personally and as a part of the collective whole (Sidwell, Community, 2007). Through story, we teach new generations, “[passing] on traditions, community and cultural paradigms, and moral and ethical codes” (Sidwell, Community, 2007). In short, stories shine the light of our humanity, enabling us to vividly see the connection of self to the whole.
Powerful stories push the boundaries of experience shared to embrace experience created. A phenomenal storyteller understands the capacity of an individual to capture the hearts of a community, provoke an emotional response, and affect real change. “When a system is unjust, our voices must be heard. When a community is suffering, our voices must be heard. When children and families are hurting, our voices must be heard; and when process has been compromised and corrupted, we must speak out and tell our stories” (National Association of Black Storytellers, n.d.) [original emphasis]. “Powerful stories illustrate our shared humanity and show how much more we [have] in common than divides us…every story matters and every voice counts” (StoryCorps, Discover, n.d.).
Finally, “the simple pleasure of remembering is another reason to tell our own stories” (Sidwell, Telling, 2007). Our stories become welcome friends and ageless comforts as time passes; remembering a parent’s love, sharing a fiery grandmother’s tales of her youth, holding a child for the first time, reminiscing time spent in the arms of an unforgettable lover, or something as simple as driving down a dark country road, feeling the warmth of a loved one’s hand resting on your knee as a warm wind caresses your cheeks and rustles your hair, the radio softly playing the music you hear in bars with scarred wooden floors beaten by the boots of “regulars” as they keep time to the antiquated jukebox in a small Texas town, watching the headlights weave in and out of trees, occasionally lighting the eyes of something wild, as the powder blue 67’ Chevy bumps and rattles over hills and dips lending infinity to the moment only a teenager could experience but one whose feeling we, aging though we may be, will never forget.
We tell our stories because our lives matter and we want to be heard. (StoryCorps, About, n.d.)
How does “digital” change stories?
Digital stories do not vary from the traditional concept of storytelling in element or purpose; we expect both to enthrall our senses, engage our emotion, and carry us with the story (Iwancio, 2011; Hueck & Quick, 2013; Smith, 2013). A great story is a great story regardless of environment or delivery.
Digital diverges, however, as its affordances allow readers to interact with and “experience the story differently” (A.C., 2015). In a digital environment, the storyteller may select the platform(s), increase interactivity with the story, include stronger images and content, or choose the medium/media that best tell the story (Smith, 2013). Digital media allows for bold experimentation and “[nudges] the reader into a new kind of relationship with the story” (A.C., 2015).
Further, multimedia expands the canvas for storytellers, creating “transmedia storytelling” wherein our interactions take advantage of machines, as opposed to “organic communication” to bring “orality [back] into the communal circle as a core human activity” (Jenkins, 2010). Using social media and other Web 2.0 platforms, anyone can tell a story to a potentially unlimited audience; the widespread availability of these platforms encourages mass engagement around both the most important and most mundane stories in the global community in a way that would have been impossible in years past (Jenkins, 2010).
Digital; to what end?
The greatest affordance of digital storytelling is its ability to reach audiences around the world, creating intimately shared experience across the global community. In the last ten years, my world has expanded exponentially. Whereas before “snooze” was my favorite morning activity, when I wake up now, through Instagram, I see StoryCorps blurbs about fellow citizens whose lives are very different from mine but with whom I find commonality. I read stories of love, loss, fear, rejection, and overwhelming hope on Humans of New York, and I relate. People willingly bare their souls, even when “it’s hard and scary,” and I see their fearlessness as a gift (Choi, 2015; Sidwell, Telling, 2007).
Digital storytelling empowers those whom circumstance has marginalized. By teaching people how to use digital media to tell their stories, the Center for Digital Storytelling, pushes for a new “literacy” as they teach the language of production and ask participants to tell “the story that only [they] can tell” (Martin, 2009). The technology associated with digital storytelling allows those oral cultures whose language and are at risk or those whose disability or age has “trapped [their stories] in their minds,” to “continue to nourish these [communal] relationships even when the traditional means of reciting stories aren’t available” (Cook, 2014).
As an educator, historian, and archivist, the potential to use digital storytelling to weave context and story around historical primary source records fascinates me. I long for a day when classrooms move beyond a textbook, instead asking students to engage with the original voices of history to make meaning of our shared past. Where they, and not only historians, act as detectives and explorers of our shared past. I learned to love the relationship of object and communal story as a young girl when my grandmother would share family stories with me around objects I’d dug up in her home. As I hope to inspire this in other someday, I’m very excited to see where digital takes us.
“The breath of life,
The spirit of life,
The word of life,
It flies to you and you and you,
Always the word.” – Maori Proverb
(Sidwell, Telling, 2007)
A.C. (2015, November 23). The real future of electronic literature [Web log message]. Retrieved Nov 26, 2015 from http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2015/11/interactive-fiction?fsrc=scn/tw_ec/the_real_future_of_electronic_literature
Choi, A. (2015, July 8). The art of storytelling, according to the founders of StoryCorps and Humans of New York. Ideas.Ted.Com. Retrieved from http://ideas.ted.com/the-art-of-storytelling-according-to-the-founders-of-storycorps-and-humans-of-new-york
Comberg, D. (2010, August 30). Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oP3c1h8v2ZQ
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Melcher, C. (2012, October 3). Empathy, Neurochemistry, and the Dramatic Arc: Paul Zak at the Future of Storytelling 2012 [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1a7tiA1Qzo
National Association of Black Storytellers. (n.d.) The issue of safety in our communities has been intensified by the Ferguson, Mo. Grand Jury decision. Retrieved from http://www.nabsinc.org/issue-of-safety
National Storytelling Network. (n.d.) What is Storytelling?. Retrieved from http://www.storynet.org/resources/whatisstorytelling.htmlhttp://www.storynet.org/resources/whatisstorytelling.html
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StoryCorps. (n.d.) About. Retrieved from https://storycorps.org/about/
StoryCorps. (n.d.) Discover StoryCorps. Retrieved from https://storycorps.org/discover/