The Story

by Suw on February 20, 2010

Yesterday I went to Matt Lock‘s event, The Story, at The Conway Hall. The day was billed thusly:

The Story is a one-day conference about stories and story-telling, to be held at The Conway Hall, London, on Friday, February 19th, 2010

The Story will be a celebration of everything that is wonderful, inspiring and awesome about stories, in whatever medium possible. We’re hoping to have stories that are written, spoken, played, described, enacted, whispered, projected, orchestrated, performed, printed – whatever form stories come in, we hope to have them here.

The Story is not about theories of stories, or making money from stories, but about the sheer visceral pleasure of telling a story. Whether it is in a game, a movie, a book, or a pub, we’ve all heard or told or been part of stories that have made us gasp, cry or just laugh.

There have never been so many stories, never so many ways to tell them. The Story will be a celebration of just a small sample of them.

Looking back at that, I should have been a lot less surprised that the day was not a day about stories, but a day of stories. The first few speakers all gave readings, which were entertaining in the main, but I was still sitting there waiting to learn something. I know I wasn’t alone in that. I’m really busy at the moment and so I wanted to have not just an entertaining day but an educational one too. I wanted to be able to very clearly justify to myself a day away from work at a time when I have deadlines screaming towards me like juggernaut with an afterburner cranked up to 11.

That isn’t what I got. (Only two talks that I saw, and I did miss two after lunch, weren’t a story of some sort.) Talking to James Bridle afterwards, he nailed it perfectly when he said that there were quite a few people there who were expecting a conference and found themselves at a spoken word event. I was certainly one of those people.

If this had been a Saturday event, I think I would have been a lot more laid back about it, but it was a Friday, a workday. I spoke to a few people who had had to persuade their bosses to give them the day to attend and were wondering what they were going to report back, how they were going to justify that day out of the office. Holding an event on a weekday does change the tenor of it, especially for people who have less sovereignty over their time than the self-employed.

I want to make clear that I still enjoyed the event. Many of the speakers were fab and there was a lot of laughter throughout the day: It really was a lot of fun. The fact that I came to the day with expectations that weren’t met is my problem, not Matt Lock’s. So none of this is a criticism of Matt or the speakers, it’s just that at about 11am I had to readjust my expectations to fit reality. That’s not an easy thing to do, but I managed it and once I’d done it I really relaxed into the rest of the day.

Because so much of the event was readings, I didn’t come away with very many notes. I did pick up two titbits though, which I shall now share with you:

  • Don’t become a one-trick pony. If the only way you have to make people laugh is the non sequitur, use it sparingly lest you wear it out.
  • When a character makes a choice, it reveals something about that character. Depth of character correlates with the number of choices they make: the more choices, the deeper the character. The way that people make choices is interesting, even if there’s no risk and no reward. When we make people make choices we make a story. When we don’t tell people the answer, we create mystery. (Not telling people the answer is also rude: It’s rude to ask people to make even a simple choice and then not pay attention to their decision.) — Stuart Nolan

James and I also talked about an underlying theme of lying-as-storytelling to the day. Tim Wright’s entire story was based on a period of his life when he was lying to a friend and perhaps also to himself as his marriage broke down. Stuart Nolan also lied when he sat on the stage with a straight razor set against his wrist, implying that if a member of the audience got the answer to a question wrong that he would top himself. Jon Spooner started off talking about storytelling and science in a way that sounded as if he was a genuine science storyteller and that we were going to be treated to the tale of the neutrino, but then took it off down a rather bonkers path that bore no resemblance to reality and which for a while there looked much more like a lie than a story.

There is of course the question about where lying ends and stories begin, but for my money, the difference is complicity. When you tell me a story I know it’s not true but I’m complicit in that untruth – I accept it for what it is because I know what it is. When you tell me a story as if it’s true and want me to believe it, that’s lying. Obviously the line is blurry and as stories can blur into lies, so lies can blur into stories, but I wonder why that theme came out in yesterday’s events.

That complicity can be a double-edged sword, when a story turns sour and yet you’re still laughing. I noticed that a couple of times, when the performers ran a story down a dark and uncomfortable hole that took the audience to places where not everyone was happy, but they laughed nonetheless. Maybe it was my imagination but the tone of the laughter changed at that point, from belly laugh to nervous laugh and I wonder how many people sat there asking themselves why they were laughing.

Fiction can take us where we don’t want to go, a point noted by Annette Mees & Tassos Stevens when they were talking about their play-without-actors, A Small Town Anywhere. They told of how one audience member (who also becomes a player in this 100% participation play) really took his role as a town bureaucrat (I think) on with gusto and wound up as a Town Mayor who collaborated with the invading army. Although he felt that he had been in charge of his own choices at every step of the way, his character had ended up somewhere that was not where he would have chosen at all.

Me, I’m not really into the edgy stuff. Never have been all that interested in using fiction to manipulate my audience so that they find themselves in places they wouldn’t otherwise willingly have gone. So whilst it was interesting to observe this once, it was not something i feel I want to emulate or explore. I’ll leave that to other people.

So no, I didn’t learn very much that will help me improve my storytelling, which is what I had hoped for, but I did get a lot of food for thought and I did enjoy myself.

(Coming shortly: Video of the best presentation of the day by Sydney Padua. I may be biased, but she was fab!)

Alison February 24, 2010 at 11:02 am

Interesting reflections. Storytelling seems popular at the moment with people like science communicators and I’m curious to know whether it really works – well, whether it genuinely fits with science, whether it enhances what people do. I haven’t yet been on a storytelling course in order to make up my mind.

I do research presentations for a living – it’s great when you can create a clear story from that data, but I wonder if I’m using the word ‘story’ in a way that people on the day you attended would recognise?

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