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SUBHODEV DAS

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 12/15/2016 |


"The greatest art in the world is the art of storytelling."
-         Cecil B. DeMille, Filmmaker and Founder of the Hollywood film industry

Everyone tells stories in everyday life.
Whether you think of yourself as a storyteller or not, you tell people what happened to you – be it over a long phone conversation or in a Facebook “status” update. How profoundly are you engaged in such activities? Jeremy Hsu notes in The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love a Good Yarn (Scientific American, August/September, 2008) that personal stories and gossips make up 65% of our daily conversations! It is not surprising that human history is nothing but a series of stories. When told correctly, these stories can teach us lessons, give us insights into a variety of concepts, or entertain us.  Every story serves a purpose, even if to simply relay a message.  Without history, without chronicled stories, mankind would never learn from its mistakes, would never dream to emulate past heroes, and would never see anything but the now.  We would be clueless to the past, and therefore helpless for the future.

Scriptures such as the Vedas and the Bible’s Old Testament spoke of men and women, of events and lessons learned that occurred many, many years before they were written.  A majority of the books relied on solid resources for their writings.  What were these resources?  Stories.  People witnessed events, heard the stories and kept them alive through word of mouth.  They told their friends, families and communities about the events, and a chain was formed, one link, one storyteller, at a time. Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets weren’t meant to be published, but his status became legendary once they were.  He was known as a great storyteller to many of his close friends, but soon became immortalized in the works he produced.  From a young street rat in London to being the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist, he made his mark on literature forever.  How did he do it?

Storytelling.
Steve Jobs was famous for his keynotes. Whether launching new products or making an announcement, Jobs would agonize for hours over the details of his presentations.  People were amazed at his ability to craft a narrative, to create and maintain suspense and to deliver a solid message.  It wasn’t dazzling special effects or crazy props.

It was storytelling.
The history of storytelling comprises stories of all varieties: myths, legends, fairy tales, trickster stories, fables, ghost tales, hero stories, and epic adventures. Passing down over generations, these stories reflect the wisdom and knowledge of early people. There are stories explaining important but often confusing events and natural disasters at those early times, e.g., fire, storms, thunder, floods, tidal waves, lightening etc. It was common for people to believe in the stories of gods, which bound them to a common heritage and beliefs. In fact, it is believed by most historians and psychologists that storytelling is one of the many things that define and bind our humanity. Humans are perhaps the only animals that create and tell stories. Wikipedia defines storytelling as the conveying of events in words, and images, often by improvisation or embellishment. Stories or narratives have been shared in every culture as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation, and instilling moral values.

Don’t you want to know how it all began?
Stories predate our recorded history. As human civilization evolved, the art of captivating audience through stories transformed. However, our desire to tell and hear stories has remained unchanged. Today, stories are woven into the fabrics of our societies and culture. Movies, books, music,  news media, religions, architecture and painting, you name it, and the influence of storytelling can be seen in all aspects of our life. Proliferation of video games has given rise to the new genre of interactive storytelling. The storytelling history is quite ancient, lost in the fog of time. Nobody knows when the first story was actually told. Thirty four thousand years ago, in a large cave in Southern France, an artist used pigment to create some of the first known paintings. Herds of bison, charging rhinos, leaping gazelle – the animals, some of them now extinct, were rendered in startling detail. However, these were not simply portraits. The animals were interacting with one another – and interaction is story. The artist was a storyteller.

During Mesolithic era (10,000 to 4,000 B.C.), storytelling through rock art emerged in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas. The notable among these rock paintings are the ones found in Bhimbetka, India. These mostly depict groups of humans engaged in hunting, dancing and various other rituals, as well as everyday activities. When closely examined, these early murals actually followed very simplistic series of events in their narratives. Fast forward to 700 B.C.  The first printed story, the epic of Gilgamesh, was created and began to spread from Mesopotamia to other parts of Europe and Asia.  The story was carved on stone pillars for all to see and share. In the 200s B.C., Aesop’s fables were documented, which continue to teach life lessons even today.  Aesop lived in the 500s B.C., but his stories were remembered for centuries through oral tradition. Isn’t that amazing?  Oral storytelling was so powerful and people remembered Aesop’s tales so well that even 300 years later the stories were revered enough for mass consumption. Around the time Aesop’s fables were being popularized in the West, Jataka Tales, a collection of some 550 anecdotes and fables depicting earlier incarnations of Gautam Buddha, was being incorporated into the canon of sacred Buddhist literature in the East. Storytellers of that era discovered fables to be the appropriate vehicle to encapsulate ideas that were timely and appealing and to be more amusing than tales. Fables turned out to have lasting appeal because of their many interpretational levels and because their heroes are reflections of ourselves.

Stories have been carved, scratched, painted, printed or inked onto wood or bamboo, ivory and other bones, pottery, clay tablets, stone, palm-leaf books, skins (parchment), bark cloth, paper, silk, canvas and other textiles. More recently, stories are being recorded on film and stored electronically in digital form. Oral stories continue to be created by impromptu storytellers, as well as committed to memory and passed from generation to generation, despite the increasing popularity of written and televised media in much of the world. Modern storytelling has a broad purview extending beyond history to encompass personal narrative, political commentary and evolving cultural norms. Some believe that the origin of storytelling may have come across as an excuse for failure. Perhaps stories were used as ways to calm the fears or doubts of a family. As families grouped with other families and formed clans, the storyteller, who was good at telling heroic events or other important events of the tribe began to reach position of respect and power. People found them interesting and began to listen to them. The priest, the judge and the ruler were perhaps the earliest to use this craft with efficacy. The ability to tell stories effectively and memorably was a valuable skill.   Why?  As wars were fought and valiant deeds were done, people needed a way to remember them.  Instead of simply stating what happened, stories began to emerge as a way to preserve the raw emotions of the actual event. Storytelling days became important in social calendars.

Before man took to writing, he had to rely on his memory to learn anything. For this, he had to be a good listener. A good storyteller could easily find an audience, eager to devour every exciting bit of information in the stories. These stories were also shared with others in faraway lands, when people traveled. And when they returned home, they brought with them exciting new tales of exotic places and people. In order for stories to live on, they must appeal to human emotions. Thus, the art of storytelling rely on sound, rhythm and repetition of words to paint word pictures. A story can only be told at a particular place and time, with someone telling it and someone else listening. Since every situation is unique, it follows that there is no unique way to tell stories. Stories can be told from an omniscient point of view, where the person telling the story sees and knows everything, or from a limited point of view, where the reader only sees, hears, or knows what a certain narrator does. Some stories use different points of view at different points in the story. Fractured fairy tale is a classic example of storytelling. It utilizes familiar stories but alter characters, setting, points of view or plots. The popular children stories such as The Princess and the Pea, Jack and the Beanstalk, or Little Red Riding Hood belongs to this genre. Most traditional fairy tales are told by a narrator from the omniscient view point but who still has a certain way of looking at things. For example, the wolf is always “the bad guy.” But many new versions of these stories narrate from a different point of view — for example, these are told by the giant or the pea. If you’ve enjoyed listening and would like to try storytelling, here are a few basic rules (according to experts).

The first step is to find good stories. A good story has single theme which is well defined with a good plot. With a dramatic appeal, it is faithful to source. It should bear good characterization and be appropriate for the listeners. The best stories often come from personal experiences. One should learn the story as a whole, always knowing the first and last lines by heart! The beginning of the story should set the stage, introducing the characters and the location. One should not lose the original flavor and essence of the story while simplifying or adapting it. Even when narrating an old and well known story, narrators can use their imagination to make the story come across as fresh and alive. The true storytelling art aims at keeping the storyline brief and simple and taking the story as close as one can to the audience. Adapting to the audiences is essential for effective storytelling, for the audience has a very important role to play. A good storytelling involves deep interaction between narrator and listener. However, with the attention spans getting shorter and more demanding, storytelling has become more difficult.  People are not good at visualizing things and imagining independently. However, a well-stimulated audience may able to use their imagination to feel, smell, touch and listen, visualizing vivid pictures. So one’s storytelling skills should be strong and immaculate to lock the attention of the audience completely. A good and well-presented story is remembered long after over others. Stories can reach well beyond their intended audiences. According to the noted screenwriter Robert McKee, stories "fulfill a profound human need to grasp the patterns of living—not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience."

Stories connect human race.
When Malaysian Airlines flight 370 disappeared on March 9, 2014, the media launched extensive coverage of the story. I, for a change, followed the news for weeks. What drew cable subscribers like me to feast on the information coming out of the search and rescue command post? The answer is simple. At the heart of every issue is a human element that leads to the question: What happens next? One who can fulfill that yearning is a storyteller. Psychologists and neuroscientists have begun to explore the human predilection for storytelling. Why do our brains seem to be wired to enjoy stories? And how do the emotional and cognitive effects of a narrative influence our beliefs and real-world decisions? The answers to these questions appear to be rooted in our history as a social animal. We tell stories about other people and for other people. The safe, imaginary world of a story may be a kind of training ground, where we can practice interacting with others and learn the customs and rules of society. And stories have a unique power to persuade and motivate for such role playing, because they appeal to our emotions and capacity for empathy.

What are the physiological underpinnings of storytelling? It turns out that our brain activities are higher during storytelling engagements than when passively participating in intellectual discourses. When we tell to others, the stories that have really helped us shape our thinking and way of life, we can have the same effect on them too. The brains of the person telling a story and listening to it can synchronize, says Prof. Uri Hasson of Princeton University. Greater the anticipatory speaker–listener neural coupling, greater is the story comprehension. Why does the format of a story, where events unfold one after the other, have such a profound impact on our learning? It is because our brain is wired that way. A story, in its most elemental form, is an ordered set of causes and effects. And that’s exactly how we think. Whenever we hear a story, we want to relate it to one of our existing experiences. That's why metaphors work so well with us. While we are busy searching for a similar experience in our brains, we activate a part called insula, which helps us relate to that same experience of pain, joy, or disgust. A simple story is more amenable to metaphorical analysis than a complex one, hence has a greater appeal.

Self-revelatory stories, such as those heard on the Moth Radio (themoth.org), often have cathartic and therapeutic effects. The goal of the self-rev is the expression and transcendence of the issue, and the transcendence might even be in the future, but it is alluded to in the performance. These efforts are growing in their use and application, as in Psychodrama, Drama Therapy and Playback Theatre. We all crave stories because they allow us to sympathize with characters.  Tell your audience a story, and you will gain their support.  You will create a following for your cause and inspire your audience to act and believe. In your next presentation, remember the power of storytelling.  Remember that even in a straightforward business presentation, a story helps to illustrate a point better than a set of facts.  A story gives people a reason to care about what you’re saying.  They relate to the characters, the plot and the lessons learned.  They relate to your story, and therefore your message.

So, what’s your story?


[SUBHODEV DAS]

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