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Aspects of Storytelling

blog 11 of author James Watson


Previous sorties into storytelling –

BLOG 7 – Triggers
BLOG 8 - Props
BLOG 9 – Frames, Codes and Characters
BLOG 10 –Fiction and News

Part 5:

Stories not only influence us, they are part of us. In his
book Narratives in Popular Culture, Media and Everyday
Life (Sage, 1997), Arthur Asa Berger says that we
‘spend our lives immersed in narratives. Every day, we
swim in a sea of stories and tales that we hear or read
or listen to…from our earliest days to our deaths’. We
are truly Homo Narrens, the storytelling animal.

Of course, we can’t be exact and we certainly can’t

predict what stories will influence, whom and to what
degree. Very often we have to judge the potential power
of stories – to influence or change attitudes, and
sometimes to influence and change behaviour – by the
reaction to stories; by the behaviour of those who would
censor those stories.

When the Roman Catholic church introduced the Index

Librorum Prohibitorum they were seriously worried about
the power of books. Authoritarianism in all its forms
fears what books can do; in fact it very often shows
more respect for the potency of reading than perhaps it
warrants. Nobody ever suggested that, for example, the
bar should be raised on Jane Austen’s work, unless it
was those worried about people idling their time away
with ‘a good read’.
On the other hand, Tom Paine would have been hanged,
drawn and quartered by the British ruling establishment
if they had been able to lay hands on him for his
scurrilous condemnation of monarchs and self-serving
governments in The Rights of Man and other works.

Fear of the collective

Attempts to curtail tale power have only marginally
anything to do with what readers get up to in their own

Rather it is about stories that bring people out of their

homes to join the company of others with questions to
ask, demands on their lips. What the censors fear most
is people power. When those responsible for publishing
D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in paperback
landed in court the target was not the book but the kind
of people who might read it and be influenced by it; that
is, what Edmund Burke one termed the ‘swinish

Today those who rule us are more polite about these

things: we are customers, sometimes citizens and the
Official Secrets Act keeps the only really dangerous ‘tale
power’ under lock and key.

Slow seeds fermenting

For most of us, reading remains a personal experience.
What impresses us, we share with friends and family. If
we are teachers, we spread the world a little farther. We
not only wish to communicate the specifics of a story or
stories, but transmit our enthusiasm for reading itself.

Little by little, personal enthusiasms are shared, passed

along, passed down.

At this level we are considering personal empowerment,

but it would be risky to underestimate the transition of
acorn to mighty oak. Indeed every collective begins with
individuals, minorities; every ideology that at first
struggles to surface is the work of individuals.

Without St. Paul, where would Christianity be? Without

Karl Marx would the most populous nation on earth be a
Communist regime?
There are tales which so
powerfully take hold that
we can no longer control
them. What begins as a
narrative slowly or even
suddenly becomes
promoted to the level of
myth. This takes the form
of explanation, then
hardens into definition
finally graduating into an
incontrovertible truth: one
word for this is religion.

Those who might challenge

that truth – a new generation of writers, for example,
may find they are regarded as enemies and punished for
daring to call Truth Myth.

As races, as nations, people seem to have a profound

need for collective reassurance which is what stories are
good at providing. American professor Ernest Borman
has referred to what he calls ‘rhetorical fantasies’ that
‘fulfil a group psychological or rhetorical need’.

In the Journal of Communication Autumn 1985, Borman

writes that when members of the mass share a fantasy,
‘they jointly experience the same emotions, develop
common heroes and villains, celebrate certain actions as
laudable, and interpret some aspect of their common
experience in the same way’.

Ground prepared
1930s Nazism in Germany was delivered through
propaganda but it seems to have been sown on
receptive ground. There came a time when principles of
democracy, tolerance, fair-play and justice tippled over
into their opposites. Arianism, notions of white
dominance, became the key narratives of the time, with
variations at work in Italy and Spain.

How do you undo a ‘true’ story that has gathered up the

power of myth and become the only story in town; the
only tale the powerful will tolerate? One might suggest
that honest history will do it combined with fearless
journalism; but how long will that take?
It was a puzzle to me on visiting post-Franco Spain how
little there was in the public domain telling visitors, or
indeed the Spanish people themselves, about the Civil
War; how little that war was commemorated.

Tell me how it happened…

The true story was so horrific, reminiscence about it so
sensitive, possibly hazardous, that it remained for more
than a generation a secret, no part of public discourse.

Yes, there was Picasso’s Guernica, the most dramatic

counter-narrative to Franco’s fascist tyranny, but it was
not until a TV soap, Cuentame Como (Tell Me How It
Happened), first broadcast to the Spanish people in
2000, that the story of the Civil War and its aftermath
became a public property.

Writing in the UK Independent (9 August 2002),

Elizabeth Nash viewed the soap opera as catching ‘the
imagination of all generations of Spaniards: those who
remember Franco relish the authenticity of every detail;
youngsters who never knew him are fascinated by this
window on their otherwise silent and invisible history’.

Similarly, in Uganda, a radio serial modelled on the

BBC’s The Archers, Ngom Wa (Our Land), told the
stories of the victims of the Civil War in that country –
the massacres, the kidnappings, the rapes, the forced
marriages; allowing communities to come to terms with
the suffering of the Ugandan people at the hands of the
rebel Lord’s Resistance Army.

It is crucial to ask whether tale power is gaining or
losing in the Age of Tweet, where 140 words may be our
lot in a speeded up world where that number of words
might be sufficient for most purposes of communication.

Fears abound about the younger generation abandoning

their reading for text-tale; and in the wider context of
Internet postings and exchange there are legitimate
anxieties about the risk to traditional storytelling
professions, journalism in particular.
Watch this space
We are not, of course, talking here about the dislodging,
or failure to survive, of media forms. We are deliberating
on the power of the story. If, in the past, the story had
power became it was communicated through limited
channels, is there an argument for saying that the more
diverse those channels, the more story-power might be

At the moment, it is impossible to say, but what can be

affirmed is that people are slower to change than
technology, and that they are more likely to adapt that
technology to their requirements than become its slaves.

Blaming the means of communication rather than

attitudes towards its use makes for easy excuses. We
may mourn the apparently trivial driving the serious into
the margins of cultural life, and rue the dominance of
those Usual Suspects, Profit and Celebrity.

Yet it was ever thus as any swift glance at history

indicates. The difference is the opportunity to
communicate now available to hundreds if not thousands
where in years past those presenting their literary wares
to the public were numbered in hundreds.

Today as never before there are detours around
traditional gatekeepers. Nothing stands in the way of
writers posting their stories, poems, protests,
arguments. Naturally the downside of such opportunity
is that distribution may be confined to one’s granny or
the cat.

However, the potential is what counts and with a little

bit of luck the writer can, in theory for most of us, but
actually for others, turn a dozen followers into
a thousand or even a million: they are all out there.

Ultimately, storytellers both influence and shape the

world. As Plato (c.428-347 BC) believed, those who tell
stories also rule society. Today, narrative is two-way,
multi-way, feedback instant. Just occasionally our stories
tune in to grander narratives in which the power-elite
discover that communicative dominance is no longer
their private, uncontested territory.
It is a tantalising question: bearing in mind the
exponential growth of the blogosphere, where
cyberspace and ‘my space’ have become synonymous,
could it be that citizen stories pose a potential threat to
existing structures of order and control, the ultimate
example of tale power?
The Bull Leapers the cover of which is illustrated
on page 3 set out to bring myth down to a degree
of historical earth without losing the magic of the
story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Where would
the narratives of western civilisation be without
the stories of ancient Greece? The absence of
metaphors alone would leave our culture and
language poor indeed.

BLOG 12 will review the new biography by Michael

Scammell – Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual
(Faber and Faber).
THANKS FOR READING THIS! As usual, feedback