I went to see a storytelling show this evening. Each storyteller gets ten minutes to go up on stage and tell a story from their own life. They’re not allowed to look at notes. There were six storytellers, which made for lots of variety. Four of the stories were complete failures – for various reasons. One was rather fun, but a bit of a mess. And one was just sublime. For me the entire event turned into a lesson on what makes for good storytelling.

The first thing I learned was that you can’t announce to the audience what it is supposed to feel. The first storyteller made this mistake, and you could just feel the air going out of the room. If you tell people who the good/bad guys are, or who they are supposed to sympathize with, you’d better be doing it ironically. Otherwise the general response will be “Who are you to tell me what to feel? Why aren’t you showing me?”

Another thing I learned is that self-promotion is a total disaster. One of the storytellers was rather blatantly using the occasion to promote her career and her other “real” show. I think much of the audience was simply puzzled that anybody would have the audacity to get up on stage just to be patronizing and self-serving.

Wisely, they saved the best storyteller for last. You could tell from the first breath that you were in the hands of a master – someone who knew how to play an audience like a fine violin. His key rhetorical device was to create a deliberate difference between what he told you, as the narrative voice, and what he was really telling you, as the story’s author. Gradually the audience came to understand that this supremely reasonable man standing before them was an extremely unreliable narrator, just loaded with hidden agenda.

Gradually the difference widened between what the man was saying and what the audience realized was really going on in his story. Every time this gap grew larger, the tension increased, until we were all on the edge of our seats, letting out little explosions of nervous laughter along the way, as the story built to its outrageous climax.

It was quite a beautiful thing to behold. The audience knew it was being manipulated, but it didn’t care. We were all three years old again, watching somebody lift a water balloon higher and higher in the air, knowing that sooner or later it was going to drop. Everybody was holding their breath, waiting to see how high up this particular water balloon would go before the inevitable plunge and awesomely messy splash.

Finally came the delirious climax, and people were practically falling out of their seats with laughter. The valuable lesson I learned is that people are perfectly happy to be manipulated – in fact they are expecting it. But you have to do it properly – through a true revelation of the contradictions of character – or they’ll never forgive you.

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