Opinion: The art of the story


Published: 11-12-2023 7:00 AM

Parker Potter is a former archaeologist and historian, and a retired lawyer. He is currently a semi-professional dog walker who lives and works in Contoocook.

I recently wrote about why I write. Today I write about how I write. More often than not, when I put pen to paper, and fingertips to keyboard, it is to tell a story.

Storytelling is an ancient art. I suspect that storytelling began as a way of communicating information and evolved into a form of entertainment. Then some stories, once passed along orally, were written down, and literature was born.

In the West, we have Homer. On the other side of the world, in several of the centuries-old classic Chinese novels, it is common to find a sentence like this one, which concludes chapter 1 of the Jenner translation of “Journey to the West:” “If you want to know what success [the Monkey King] had in cultivating his conduct, you must listen to the explanation in the next installment.” I can almost see a wizened old storyteller and his or her rapt audience sitting together around a charcoal brazier.

The entertainment value of storytelling is clearly evident. From story time at the library when we were very young right up to whatever we most recently streamed on a device, we have all enjoyed stories that have made us laugh or cry, or that have transported us away from the events of the day.

Stories also have tremendous educational value. It is one thing to flatly state a moral principle, as Confucius did in the writings attributed to him. It is another thing, and more effective, to put those principles in motion and in a context, in a story. Aesop knew this.

I can give a serviceable definition of karma, but I think I demonstrate that concept much better in a story I sometimes tell about finding a $10 bill on the ground on the day I picked up every discarded COVID facemask I could find on my morning walk.

Moreover, as a form of communication, storytelling has stood the test of time by proving its usefulness in situation after situation. When I was a law clerk drafting opinions for judges, I was always conscious of storytelling techniques and used them whenever possible. Why not provide information in a way that is familiar to its intended audience?

So what, then, is a story? With all due respect to those who tell stories in unconventional ways (I once wrote a scholarly article with six introductions, two conclusions, and less than three pages in between), I see a story as consisting of a beginning, a middle, and an end, plus a reason to be told (or written) and a reason to be listened to (or read). A story’s reason to be told, its point, or its moral, is essential because a person telling a story is also asking his or her audience not to talk themselves, and to listen to him or her rather than anyone else. That’s a big ask, and to reward the listeners’ indulgence, a storyteller owes the audience a good reason to listen.

One of the best pieces of writing advice ever is the admonition to write about what you know. For many writers, myself included, that means writing about ourselves. But when the point of a story is nothing more than “look at me, tell me I’m great,” the payoff to the reader is just too meager. When I draft a My Turn or a Facebook post that doesn’t go any further than that, I scrap it.

When I tell stories about myself, I hope to encourage readers to do something I’ve done and found rewarding. That something might be an action, or it could be more personal and intimate. I share pleasant and entertaining memories with the idea that readers might find some joy in exploring memories of their own that they might have mentally mislaid.

I conclude by trying to deliver on the promise of my opening paragraph, with a few suggestions on how to tell a story effectively. They all involve involving the listener as an active participant. When I tell a story out loud, I’ll sometimes use a technique I learned many years ago from a theatre director: I’ll lower my voice, which focuses the listener and makes him or her lean closer.

On paper, I’ve found that with adjectives and adverbs, less is more. Why tell your reader that something is “amazing” when, with just the right nouns and verbs, you can lead your reader to conclude, on their own, that the thing you’re talking about is amazing?

The same principle applies to the overall moral of the story. When a story is told well, the listener will get to the moral on his or her own, and I have to believe that when a reader learns a lesson that way, the satisfaction of learning it imprints it more deeply than it would have been if the storyteller had shouted it out, in all caps.

The end.