A Storyteller’s World

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Recently I saw Gone Girl, easily one of the most intelligent story lines I’ve ever seen depicted. After a lot of discussions, arguments and introspection over the message and the theme of the story, my mind wandered elsewhere. What struck me was, both in reel (Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne aka Amazing Amy) and in real life (Gillian Flynn), good storytellers rule the roost. The more I thought, the more convinced I was- that not only with respect to this novel turned film, it was true almost everywhere. The difference between sterling success and mediocrity or even worse ignominy is often a good old story.

Have a look at history (history in itself is more or less an exercise in story writing- to explain it fully would require another full article) – right from the prehistoric times till present, if something hasn’t changed it is the yearning to tell and listen to stories. The methods might have changed; from paintings in the Stone Age caves to social media in today’s web age, storytelling has remained a persistent companion of humanity. Everyone who is someone in history has an anecdote or the other associated with him/her, be it rulers Alexander the Great or his contemporary Porus (who is probably more famous through the ballad describing how he asked Alexander to treat him like a king instead of mercy after defeat at Alexander’s hands than his achievements) or inventor’s like Faraday and Benjamin Franklin and I have not even started naming writers and poets- whose very job is to tell stories or fictional, religious and mythological entities, many of which are little else than what their stories (albeit brilliantly woven) make them to be. The epitome of story weaving was the justification provided by the colonisers to citizens back home- that they were emancipating rather than exploiting the colonised peoples. We Indians have excelled at this art from the early ages. I do not wish to get into whether Ramayana, Mahabharata or the Puranas are fact or fiction, but one can’t deny that as stories they are one of the best in the world. No wonder they have not only survived through the ages, but remain immensely cherished and revered even today. Coming to relatively recent eras, Gandhiji, who has been bestowed with the title of the Father of the Nation, had his own share of anecdotes in the public domain, one of the most famous one relates to his being thrown off the first class from a train in South Africa. Even our present Prime Minister is not spared. There are several versions about how he left home one day in his youth and wandered into the Himalayas etc. In the heyday of the ‘Ache Din’ campaign, Bal Narendra Comics were launched as well to encash people’s sentiments.

So what explains why we have fallen and continue to fall for a well woven story? I’m no psychologist or storyteller par excellence, but according to me, it is the human mind’s reluctance to accept a void. We simply can-not stand leaving the trivial most of things unexplained. Each one tries to fill the void with what he/she thinks to be the most suitable explanation. And the explanation (regardless of how far from reality it maybe) which seems to explain it the best, captures the imagination of the masses and starts its journey towards being moulded into a semblance of truth or the apparent truth over generations. As Krishna (a master storyteller himself) said: ‘Truth itself is not a constant, it’s a dynamic ever evolving entity’;  the popular story is modified bit by bit over repeated narrations and ultimately becomes a part of folklore or even accepted history over time.

Not only in history, even in day to day lives, good storytellers often have it easy. I mean lets accept it; no one in today’s world is cent percent truthful all the time. And how good or bad a person can concoct stories (not necessarily consciously, it’s subconscious at times too), often determines whether one is perceived favourably or as a liar or a hypocrite by people at large. So what are the traits of a good storyteller and a well woven story in day to day to life?

Firstly successful storytellers should have a highly analytical and speculative mind- capable of interpreting events of the past and foreseeing multiple scenarios in the future and people’s reactions, doubts and beliefs, before picking upon the most suitable combination. Second and most important is confidence- just the right amount. No one believes a sketchy, diffident account but get too over confident and people may just begin to get doubtful as well. Thirdly, carrying a general perception of being intellectual and knowledgeable helps to enhance the trust factor- critical to the art of telling stories and making them pass as truth. And equally important is the art of underplaying oneself, the moment a person begins to be known as someone who excels at fabricating stories, people begin looking at him/her with suspicion and find it difficult to trust whatever he/she may say. Last but not the least, consistency is the key; it’s essential that the narrative stay more or less the same when told to different people.  But again, not word to word same, because that would seem mechanical (and thereby less believable).

As for the well woven story, acceptability is the key. It should neither be too complicated (else the average person loses interest too soon, especially in today’s modern world where time is the limiting factor), but nor too simple. Rather it should offer just the right amount of challenge to the listener’s intellect- force him/her into doubting the narrator’s version, trying to come up with their own, before ultimately giving up realising that the narrator’s was the best. This way the listener feels humbled by the narrator’s intellect and acknowledges it to be superior; which makes it easier for the listener to accept the narrator’s version.

So for those who fear that storytelling is a dying art, fear not, you are surrounded by storytellers- good and bad- wherever you go………………………………………………………………………….

PS.: Someone may ask, what about those who say ‘I always say the truth, because I suck at making up stories.’ Beware; that in itself is one heck of a story if one can pull it off.