Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Ask the storyteller: The story triangle

Welcome back to Ask the Storyteller. As you know, I am answering your questions about storytelling, one a week, until you run out of questions or I am utterly stumped. Last week we looked at scripted vs. improvised storytelling, an aspect of performance. This week we're delving a little more into mechanics and philosophy.

Vanessa B. wrote via email: I am interested in the three-way relationship involving the story, the teller and the audience – do you want to comment on that? Happily.

Every storytelling experience is about managing a set of relationships between the teller, the story and the audience. The story triangle is a dynamic interaction between these three elements that are present during any storytelling experience.  The teller, story and audience interact in such a way that the story experience is different every time. The story triangle itself is derived from Aristotle's rhetorical triangle, which encompasses reason, character and emotion. I love the way the story triangle helps me craft my stories with the audience at the forefront of my mind. I love the way it helps me move beyond my own experience as the artist and into something much bigger.

The story triangle, rather than emphasizing narrative elements or performative aspects, focuses on the players and relationships present during a storytelling event. For the purposes of this post, I'm talking about live, oral storytelling events. I'll touch on how the triangle exists in mediated storytelling below.

Let's start by looking at the individual participants.

The Storyteller
The simplest definition of storyteller is one who interprets, shapes, and expresses the story. Whether they're telling their own material, a traditional story, giving a speech or presentation, the storyteller’s choice of words, tone and body language makes that story uniquely theirs.

The Audience
The audience takes in the story as told by the teller, and uses the teller’s words and performance cues  to interpret the story, in addition to their own life experience. They react to the whole story and its individual parts by applauding, laughing, crying, yawning, etc.  Their mere presence affects the storyteller and the story.  While a story may exist before it is told by the storyteller, even in written form, the primary and most important place a story exists is in the individual minds of the audience during the story experience.

The Story
The story itself has a life apart from both the teller and the audience.  Stories are both containers and triggers.  As containers, they carry and convey characters, experiences, events, and even worlds to a listening audience.  As triggers, they set off sparks and flashes of recognition and meaning within the minds of the audience.  Like a molecular reaction, stories can bond to the life events of the audience, which allow stories to feel more authentic.  By identifying with the characters and events of a story, we sometimes have the opportunity to see our own lives differently.  We see what the characters see, we learn what the characters learn.  Stories fulfill both container and trigger roles simultaneously.  They have the capacity to present the new and the old, the novel and the recognizable to an audience.

From the participants, we now can consider the relationships. Each of these relationships are two-way. Every player influences the others.

The storyteller and the story have a relationship. 
The teller studies, thinks, practices and builds their story. They consider their movement, language and more. The story is shaped by the teller. It is an intimate relationship. The teller may very well be shaped by the story as well, when they consider the meaning of the story to themselves, to the audience and to the world.

The storyteller and the audience have a relationship.
The audience watches and listens to the teller, absorbing their interpretation of the story. The teller, in turn, watches the audience and responds to them. Because storytelling is such a fluid art with little or no fourth wall, the teller can change the story as needed to meet the needs of the audience; this is often where improvisation comes in. Does the audience really love trees? Fine, spend more time in the forest. Does the audience not appreciate your humor? Fine, let's move on.

But the most important relationship in the storytelling performance experience is the relationship between the audience and the story.
As tellers, we can't control this. All we can do is craft our story and pay attention to the audience as best we can. It's what happens in the mind and imagination of our listeners that makes the magic. Every single listener will interpret your words and actions in their own way, colored by their own experiences. Every single listener will hear a different story. Every single listener will have their own relationship with the story. Yes, the teller is the vehicle that allows it but our job, as tellers, is to do the best we can, then get out of the way and let our listeners' infinitely creative minds dance with the words, the images, the narrative.

The audience will be changed by a well-crafted, well-told story. The story changes, too, both in their minds and in our performances.

Mediated forms of storytelling, such as film, books and television, also use the story triangle, though axes and angles may change, because there is a greater distance between the audience and the teller.

For example, a film maker (the storyteller) is deeply influenced by their story; if it's a well made film the audience will be, too. The audience has less control over the creation of the art, so that relationship is minimally two-way, unless they are at a test screening and even then, their influence is limited. This means the triangle still exists, but with less equality of relationship. That isn't to say these art forms are less meaningful than live storytelling, but there is a different expectation from all the players because the relationships are different. It's less intimate and immediate though far less constrained by issues present in live performance and the linear nature of time.

This is what makes oral storytelling so special. We can respond to each other in real time, we are influenced by the art itself and the audience. It is a dance that gives equal value to all participants. I am awed every time this three-way dance happens. And it happens every time I trust myself, my story and my audience.

Vanessa, thank you for your question. I hope this answer helped. Please comment or email me if you have further thoughts. If anyone has a question they would like me to tackle please add it into the comments or email me here. Until next week!

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. I am loving Ask the Storyteller and learning along the way. So glad you are doing this!

    1. thanks! I'm glad! And let me know if you have any questions.

  2. Nice piece, Laura; I particularly like the bit about a story being at once a "container" and a "trigger."
    --Andy Davis

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Love this piece, Laura. Lots to gnaw on, and learn from.

    I wonder, though... Seems to me that the three parts of the triangle are equally important. If there is a truly fluid relationship, then there is give and take among all three. And each needs the other to be a full story experience. To be an equilateral triangle.

    Just a thought. For my wise colleagues.


    1. Hi Robin,

      I'm sorry if I was unclear: One of the amazing things about live, oral storytelling is that it IS an equilateral triangle. Every player has significant influence on the others. It's only in mediated forms of storytelling, such as film, that the relationship is less equitable.

  5. I am using this page in my citation for my Storytelling Workshop at my org right now!!!


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