A storm in a rural area.
An awful lot of writing, film, television, and social media masquerades today as a story, when they’re anything but. YouTube videos of your dog balancing on an exercise ball or parrots harassing the family cat may be entertaining and engaging for a few brief moments, even making you smile. But their effect is limited and short-lived, in large part because they don’t reach the threshold of being a story. A Tweet of 144 characters filled with vitriol and wild claims may bring a sense of satisfaction to the sender, or incite a riot in the receiver, but more often than not it passes away into a clutter of quickly forgotten words. There is a major distinction worth making when considering whether all media containing some semblance of narrative is a story or what we’d characterize as an anecdote. In our everyday interactions, we traffic in both, but there is something decidedly more impactful about a story in contrast to its first cousin, the anecdote. The best way to illustrate this is with two decidedly different narratives that on the surface look somewhat alike.
Imagine you are a tourist visiting the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Encamped on a beautiful plain, you wake early and decide to take a stroll. It’s a beautiful morning and you can see herds of elephants at a watering hole in the distance. A large flock of exotic birds land in a tree nearby, with a cacophony of song. The breeze is cool. You feel at peace. After about a half hour you saunter back into camp just in time for breakfast and share with your travel mates the awe-inspiring things you just observed.
Now, while the description you weave over breakfast may be filled with rich and colorful details, aspects of which are fascinating and even inspiring to your friends, does it rise to the level of being a story? Would you pay $15 at your local movie theater to see “Jack Goes for a Stroll on the Serengeti?” I doubt it. I’m not even sure it would keep you glued to the screen for long if it was showing on the National Geographic channel. Now, let’s revisit this scene from another perspective.
Imagine you are a tourist visiting the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Encamped on a beautiful plain, you wake early and decide to take a stroll. It’s a beautiful morning and you can see herds of elephants at a watering hole in the distance. You want to get a closer look. Disregarding the advice of your guide, you head further out on the plain beyond the perimeter of trees he pointed out the night before as a secure zone. It all seems safe enough. Your camera’s telephoto lens doesn’t quite give you the detail you’d like. You decide to get just another hundred yards closer to get that award-winning picture. As you’re raising your Nikon to your eye you spot in your peripheral vision some things moving in the distance. You pivot around. It’s hard to make out what they are, but it’s definitely a small group of animals moving in your direction. Hesitating for a moment, you raise your camera with its telephoto lens to get a better look. It’s a pack of hyaenas. They’re heading right for you.
Looking back at the camp in the distance, you make a quick calculation that the hyaenas will cut you off before you can get to safety. The thought crosses your mind that you wished you had listened to the guide. Scanning the horizon, you see a large tree and think, “If I can make it to the tree and climb up it, I’ll be safe.” You start running, at first jogging. Looking over your shoulder you see the hyaenas also picking up their pace. That’s when you break out in a full sprint. The hyaenas also pick up their pace and are now in full hunting mode and you’re the prey. As you run, you realize it’s going to be close. The hyaenas are only 20 yards away as you reach the tree and quickly scramble up a fork in the trunk just as the hyaenas converge, jumping up, growling and nipping at your pants leg as you climb higher. As you settle in on a branch out of their reach and catch your breath, you look over and see on a branch extending from the other part of the trunk a leopard looking squarely at you. He licks his chops while also nervously eyeing the hyaenas. You look down at the hyaenas then over at the leopard. What to do?
To make matters worse, an early morning thunderstorm that had been brewing in the distance when you left the camp has been picking up steam and the storm clouds are now moving overhead. Suddenly, with a loud crack, a bolt of lightning zaps one of the higher branches, almost knocking you off your perch. The branch catches fire. Impulsively, you scream, “Help!” hoping that someone might hear you over the thunder that is rippling across the plain.
How our character gets out of this pickle is the stuff of suspense. And, I bet you’d pay to find out the conclusion!
While the first account is a narrative, likely representative of the vast majority of our life experiences, it doesn’t reach the threshold of being a story. At best, it’s what we’d call an anecdote. The second account, though, has all of the stuff of a good story. A sympathetic, likeable character, a big problem, drama, complicating action (it was bad enough that our tourist almost got mauled by a pack of wild hyaenas, but then had to contend with a hungry leopard, not to speak of the tree catching fire), a conclusion, and the character’s reaction to being saved, that is of course if he did survive. I dare say it was more interesting than the first account. It also illustrates what it means to engage an audience, as well as what it means to lend meaning and relevance to the banality of our lives. Whether you’ll pay 15 bucks to see the movie version may be another matter.
In the DNA of a story is the stuff that grabs us, inspires us, and moves us to engage meaningfully in our world to find hidden patterns and solutions to the real-life dramas of modern existence, whether it be surviving a pandemic, or weathering the disasters unleashed by climate change. It’s the stuff that makes any form of communication interesting and commanding. It’s also the stuff of life.
Next Week: The Perils of Destorification