Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Storytelling and meaning

Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.
                                         Hannah Arendt

When we stand in front of an audience and tell stories, we give our listeners the chance to apply their own meaning to the narrative we present. As storytellers, our job isn’t to be explicit about meaning, but to reveal it as if we are drawing back a curtain to a stage where the audience can both see the story play out and place themselves on the stage. A well-told story gives the listeners a chance to find their own meaning in our words and gestures; a poorly-told story requires that we be explicit in the meaning. It requires that we expose Oz as a fraud; when we spell out that there is no magic, we assume the listener isn’t clever enough to figure it out themselves and certainly not clever enough to understand the magic in the message of the story - that there's no place like home.

Let’s take a look at a story.

Think about the story of Little Red Riding Hood. A child goes into the forest after a warning not to stray off the path. She encounters a wolf, to whom she tells her destination. The wolf races ahead of her, eats her grandmother and ultimately the child. What is the meaning of this story? Is it a warning to not stray off the path? To not talk with strangers? To obey our parents? To be wily in sourcing our supper?

Maybe your understanding of the meaning in Little Red Riding Hood differs from that of your listener. For some it may be a simple warning about the dangers in the woods. For others it may be an allegory for growing up too quickly. Or for abuse. Or for how hunger drives wolves to extreme acts.

Does the story lose power if you conclude with, “And that’s what happens to bad little girls who disobey their mothers and talk to strangers”? Is it more powerful if you use all of your craft to show, not explicitly tell, your meaning in the story, thus leaving the audience with the image of the wolf’s bloody mouth and the child who has been silenced, allowing them to insert their own meaning into the story guided by your images?

I’ve written before about the wonderfully flexible nature of story, the way that the teller cannot control what happens in the listener’s head, so how ultimately our job is to get out of the listener’s way. Storytelling works best when all three players (teller, listeners and tale) are allowed to dance with one another without interference.

If you explicitly tell your audience what the story means then you are cutting into their dance with the tale. It’s inadvisable to do this unless it’s important that the moral be explicitly stated.

You may be thinking that none of this applies to you, that  your stories don’t have deeper meaning. Every story has meaning, because every story is commentary on some aspect of the human condition. When you describe your commute to work you are saying something about your community, your socio-economic status, your feelings about your employment and more. You are also giving your audience the chance to compare your commute story to their own, to put their own feelings and meaning into your story about your wait for the bus or drive through traffic or walk to your office. Stories reveal meaning because story allows humans to connect one to another.

When you develop your stories for performance, decide early in the process what meaning you hope your audience will walk away with. You may find your understanding of a story and your sense of its meaning will change as you tell it, but don’t forget throughout that there is meaning and your audience can be guided in a particular direction. Should they leave with a question? Moral certitude? Construct your telling so that meaning is a likely outcome, but bear in mind you cannot control the story in your listeners’ minds. The best you can do is guide them along a path.

If you want Little Red Riding Hood to be about staying on the path, make sure the danger in straying is apparent as she strays and the consequences are clear. If you want it instead to be about talking to strangers, make that the danger moment. Or, if it’s about cleverly finding new foods for dinner, make sure your wolf is sympathetic, leave little room for your audience to think otherwise.

In revealing meaning without defining it, you have the opportunity to dance with the story and your audience without having to tell them when to turn. You are letting them lead their own internal story and own it, thus making it a more powerful experience for the listener. They will be more invested in the story and in you as a teller, because you trusted their intelligence, the story and your own skill. You didn’t need to show them the man behind the curtain, they knew he was there all along and believed anyway.

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. Storytelling works best when all three players (teller, listeners and tale) are allowed to dance with one another without interference.---such a nice line, and oh, so true.

  2. Thanks for this. Now I know that what I want to tell my listeners in my present storytelling is the importance of what light does in water, in nature, and how this is can be expressed in art. Thus the Monet painting I expose when I finish. I will the the results....


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