Tips and Programs
What Are the Rules? Part 1
is a question I have been asked a number of times. Usually the question
comes up in a class or workshop where I can tell that what the questioner
really wants to ask is "how do I do this?" and so my usual
answer is to launch into a discussion of how to learn and develop
a story, how to develop the basic skills of storytelling.
But recently the question has come up in situations where the questioner
obviously does not want to know how to tell, but, in fact, "what
are the rules?" What are the rules for telling a good story?
What distinguishes a good story, a good telling from bad? What things
should be avoided? Why?
My first inclination is to respond "it all depends." To
insist that there are no rules, no one right way to tell a story,
no single approach or style or voice that is correct. Art, after all,
is about creativity, about freeing the artists vision and voice,
about transcending limits.
"So you are saying that anything goes?" one questioner
responded skeptically. That brought me up short. I know the answer
to that question is a resounding "NO." Anything does not
go. Every story, every performance is not just as good as any other.
Everything does not work. I have no problem distinguishing good, bad,
mediocre storytelling, nor even expanding at length as to why a telling
was good, bad, or mediocre. So there must be rules guiding this.
Of course there must be rules. All artforms have an underlying structure
of rules that guide and inform artistic decisions. Painting is structured
by geometry and the interplay of shapes, forms, and angles that guide
the eye, by the characteristics of light, color, perspective. Music
by the physics of sound and the mathematics underlying that, by rules
governing how sounds get put together, what notes to use, rules of
harmony, melody, rhythm.
But what of creativity, of innovation, of unique vision and approaches?
Isnt art about breaking rules? Of course it is, or, at least;
can be. But to break the rules one must first know the rules. Indeed,
one must know the rules intimately in order to know what, how, when
and why to break them. A good artist does not randomly break the rules,
but does so deliberately and carefully, knowing exactly what effect
they hope to achieve by doing so.
In high school, I spent three years on the fencing team. Most of
our time was spent in drills, practicing basic moves over and over
again until we got them right. My friend Fred hated drills and preferred
to do things his own way, making up his own versions of the moves.
When our coach scolded him for this, Fred pointed out the top-level
fencers we saw in tournaments did not step, lunge, thrust as we did
in class. They did things their own way; they had their own style.
Fred claimed that he was developing his own style as well, and so
did not need to bother learning the standard way of doing things.
Our coach pointed out that those top fencers had spent years doing
things by the book, practicing the proper moves again and again. Only
when they knew the standard moves in their bones did they start to
vary them, knowing exactly how and why they were doing so. To deliberately
break the rules once you know them is style; to skip learning them
in the first place is simply sloppy.
So, of course, storytelling has rules and principles, reasons why
some things work and some do not. So what are they? Unfortunately,
I can not say; at least, not in any organized, here-they-are-1-2-3...
fashion. Storytellers have only just started to look at our artform
and examine its foundations. We do not have the rules yet. However,
we can lay out some general guidelines of what they should cover and
what they should be rooted in.
Most importantly, we need to look for not one set of rules, but several
different sets corresponding to different levels or aspects of the
storytelling artform. In particular, we need to sketch out rules governing
the craft, the genres, and the form of storytelling.(1)
The first of these categories, craft, concerns the basic skill of
storytelling. These are those rules that first come to mind, the "how
do you do this?" rules. These rules storytellers have explored
and diligently laid out. In recent years we have seen a number of
excellent books come out addressing these "how-to" rules.
Beyond this first set of questions, we need to carefully distinguish
the message from the medium, the tale from the telling. Not all stories
work the same. When the book Who Says? came out a couple of years
ago, heralded as the first serious attempt at examining the foundations
of storytelling, I eagerly snapped it up. As I read it; however, I
grew increasingly disappointed. The majority of the articles in it
dealt only with the telling of folktales, not telling in general,
and much of what the authors said, while useful and intriguing concerning
folktales, had little to say about the telling of other tales, or
the simple act of telling per se as if telling folktales and telling
stories were one and the same.(2) They are not. We have
all sorts of very different stories: ghost stories, personal stories,
historical stories and more. All of these genres have their own sets
of rules of what works and what does not.
I rarely buy tapes of ghost stories any more. I love ghost stories,
but I am almost always disappointed in ghost story tapes. The stories
do not scare me. They entertain. They amuse. But they do not scare,
even though scaring us is one of the things we expect from ghost stories.
After puzzling over this for a while, I realized that the problem
was that these stories are told like folktales with ghosts in them,
not like ghost stories. Similarly, I once listened to someone tell
a personal story in a dramatic, lively fashion - complete with character
voices and vivid acting out of motions. The telling would have greatly
enhanced a folktale, but completely ruined this story. The entire
story felt artificial and fake. All I could think throughout the telling
was " no one talks about their own life like this." The
teller did not understand the critical distinction between genres
of stories. Folktales, ghost stories, personal stories all have their
own, unique sets of rules which we must learn if we want to tell them.
Yet, at a deeper level, all genres share the same rules. All genres
are, after all, variations of the same artform. They are all types
of storytelling. And storytelling, as an artform, must be governed
by rules; rules that structure the process of telling a story, regardless
of the content of that story. These rules are rooted in the fundamental
nature of the artform. Storytelling is telling; it is communicating
(specifically communicating a narrative) through the spoken word.(3)
That suggests some basic conditions. Speech, for example, is linear.
We can not perceive an entire story at once the way we can perceive
an entire painting at once. We can only perceive a story one idea
(perhaps even one word?) at a time. Only in retrospect can we put
all the ideas together to perceive the whole.
Similarly, we can only perceive a story in a set order, the order
in which it is told. In contrast, when we look at a painting, we are
free to examine the details in any order we wish. Much of this derives
from the ephemeral nature of speech. The spoken word exists only at
the instant of speaking, and then is gone.
Perhaps one of the most defining characteristics of the spoken word is that the act of speaking implies a reciprocal act of listening, an act that further shapes and constrains the artform. Listening is fundamentally different from looking or reading. These two acts - speaking and listening - define our artform. It is within their nature that we should begin to search for the rules. Perhaps the best way to approach them is to compare speaking and listening to the other set of manipulations of words: writing and reading. It is that comparison that I will pick up next time.
(1) These categories are discussed at length in "The
Six Steps: A Storytellers Journey," in Works In Progress,
Winter 1997, which expands upon ideas first discussed in Scott McClouds
Understanding Comics (Kitchen Sink Press, 1993)
Next: Responses to Part 1 -->
Why I Hate Lady Ragnell Alan Irvine's article and the rebuttal it engendered.