Dorothea Tanning: A Very Happy Picture, 1947 | From Dorothea Tanning Foundation (fair use)
Dorothea Tanning: A Very Happy Picture, 1947 | From Dorothea Tanning Foundation (fair use)

During that winter we all told our most colourful stories. Max was especially happy at this, spooking everyone with his hexes: coincidences, omens, funny, freakish happenings, all cleaving a rather sinister zigzag behind him like the path of a tornado, dogging his step from one opening to another. Curious tricks played themselves out around his pictures, and brought him up each time, laughing and yet not laughing. Hearing them, I thought of those tales of headless ghosts on wild stormy nights that make one shiver while sipping cognac before the roaring grate in the trophy room of the old castle that your host, its sole heir, has idly decided to visit. Tales within tales.

I was enchanted by this little fragment from Dorothea Tanning’s autobiographical book which I am currently reading, Between Lives. [The period she describes is the winter of 1965 in Seillans, and Max is the her husband, the artist Max Ernst.] For some reason, a memory came to my mind of childhood summers, spent with friends and cousins in the country, when I would make up some gruesome story every night after we had been put to bed, and get so immersed in them myself that I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep. Childhood was all about stories: told and untold, shared with friends or guarded in my imagination.

When I was reading that passage in Tanning’s book, I thought: what happened to storytelling in our lives? The bliss of instant communication in the age of the internet is also its curse: we share everything that happens to us the moment it happens to us. Experiences, adventures, funny incidents aren’t treasured and withheld to be later told over some nice food and wine with our friends. Instead, they get instantly summarised in one-sentence posts on Facebook and Twitter, and so when we finally meet up face to face, there aren’t many colours to unravel. Perhaps that’s the reason why we meet less in real life – our curiosity and thirst for stories gets satisfied with their shortened scraps and random out-of-context comments we read on the screen. Like a bag of crisps, they provide a quick snack for the brain but offer next to no nutritious value when compared to a wholesome meal.

So what happened to those long, delicious feats of storytelling? The popularity of role-playing games, book series and sagas, sequels and prequels in films, perpetually extended television series; the rise of graphic novels and cartoons shows just how much we crave listening to other people’s stories.  In the absence of regular meetings with friends, we get attached to characters from literature and film.

And so the quest for storytelling continues. In the UK there’s the Society for Storytelling which “aims to support and promote the most ancient art of oral storytelling,” as we read on their website. There are numerous storytelling clubs, workshops, and events, and there are nearly 50 registered storytellers one can hire for school events, birthday parties and other occasions. There is the annual World Storytelling Day, celebrated on the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere and the first day of autumn equinox in the southern. Originating in Sweden in the early 90s, the World Storytelling Day aims to have as many people as possible telling and listening to stories in as many languages and at as many places as possible, during the same day and night. The theme for 2014 is Monsters and Dragons.”

Storytelling is a necessary component of our psychological development. According to an article on Wikipedia which quotes F. Michael Connelly’s and D. Jean Clandinin’s Stories of Experience and Narrative Inquiry, we are organisms which lead storied life, both individually and socially. Our knowledge is based on stories and our brain “consists of cognitive machinery necessary to understand, remember, and tell stories.” We think in narrative structures and find it a lot easier to remember facts when they’re in the form of a story. Kumail Hemani, an SEO consultant, in his recent blog post on storytelling, emphasizes that the reason he remembers so much from his 6th grade history class is thanks to the teacher’s ability to tell facts in stories instead of asking the students to learn dates, events, names and places by heart.

Storytelling is also a powerful business tool. Lou Hoffman, CEO and founder of The Hoffman Agency, thinks that the same elements that can make a book a compelling read have a place in the business world and can enormously increase the likeability of a company among customers, journalists, job candidates etc. “Unfortunately,” he says, “this concept around storytelling is counterintuitive to many business executives, particularly those coming from engineering orientation where science rules the day. I’m not suggesting you need to lose an appendage to a large mammal before anyone will notice you but the ability to build some drama in business communication is a means to capture attention.” On his blog called Ishmael’s Corner/Storytelling Through a Business Prism, Hoffman gives advice on ways to incorporate storytelling techniques into various fields of communication: leadership, team dynamics, branding, sales & marketing, and he analyses successful and unsuccessful narratives in the business world.

Doug Stevenson, founder and president of Story Theater International, which trains thousands of professionals and executives including Microsoft, Amgen, Bayer, Caterpillar, Oracle, Volkswagen, Hewlett Packard, Maytag, Super 8 Motels and others, believes that “emotion is the fast lane to the brain,” and by learning acting, storytelling and drama techniques, company executives can connect with people at a deeper level.

Robert McKee and Bronwyn Fryer, authors of Storytelling That Moves People article on the Harvard Business Review website, say that since persuasion is the centerpiece of business activity, whether it is convincing customers to buy products or services, employees and colleagues to go along with a new strategy, or persuading investors to buy the company’s stock, creating a compelling story is the foundation of success. In order to motivate someone to do anything, a manager must “engage their emotions, and the key to their hearts is story.” But it’s not about telling a “beginning-to-end tale describing how results meet expectations,” say McKee and Fryer, “This is boring and banal. Instead, you want to display the struggle between expectation and reality in all its nastiness. (…) But most companies and executives sweep the dirty laundry, the difficulties, the antagonists, and the struggle under the carpet. They prefer to present a rosy—and boring—picture to the world. But as a storyteller, you want to position the problems in the foreground and then show how you’ve overcome them. When you tell the story of your struggles against real antagonists, your audience sees you as an exciting, dynamic person.”

The ability to create a compelling tale that captures the audience’s minds and hearts is a difficult art. And without undermining the growing popularity of storytelling among CEOs, people who face the challenges of creating successful tales are artists and writers. Andrew Stanton, an American filmmaker, and author of Toy Story, Finding Nemo and WALL-E, gave a great TED talk on the secrets behind telling great stories. Despite the popular notion that in order to succeed, an animated big-budget film has to include certain components like songs, a love story or “a happy village,” Stanton’s films proved that storytelling has guidelines, not hard, fast rules. Yet it is important to follow the guidelines, for there are elements that are indispensable. Stanton said:

The children’s television host Mr. Rogers always carried in his wallet a quote from a social worker that said, “Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.” And the way I like to interpret that is probably the greatest story commandment, which is “Make me care” — please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, just make me care.

His guidelines have been nicely visualised by Karin Hueck and Rafael Quick of the Brazilian culture and science magazine Superinteressante, and besides making people care about the story, they include the following aspects: making a promise and enticing the audience to follow, giving the protagonist a clear intention, making the characters relatable, and being able to charm and fascinate the audience.

Still from Pixar's WALL-E | Image from Slash Film (fair use)
Still from Pixar’s WALL-E | Image from Slash Film (fair use)

When listening to Stanton, I couldn’t help but think about a series I have been for the past few weeks completely obsessed with: David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. This series is by no means perfect. The level of supernaturalism and deus-ex-machina devices occasionally weaken the plot. The second season suffers from convoluted and clichéd narratives (which resulted from the network’s pressure to reveal the Laura Palmer murder mystery which Lynch never intended to do and later stated that by doing so, they had “killed the goose that laid the golden eggs”), some of the acting is unconvincing, but despite the flaws, it is overall a masterpiece. The complexity and variation of the characters with their motives, fears, desires, obsessions, their light and dark side, provide for hours of analysis. Every single episode entices the viewer to follow the Twin Peaks inhabitants on their journeys, and fills his mind with endless question marks. I have never been a huge TV series fan (needless to say, I haven’t had a television since I left my parents’ house over a decade ago) but Twin Peaks really grabs me and satisfies my craving for stories, as there is no shortage of them in the 29-episode show. It is a shame that when making his last film, Inland Empire, Lynch seemed to have abandoned the storytelling guidelines, and made a film which makes the viewer unable to engage, understand and be moved by anything that happens on the screen. Which only proves that storytelling is not a skill granted for life, and each new film, book, or play demands the same thorough process of studying, perfecting and applying the key components to create magic that can mesmerise people and hold their attention.

Still from David Lynch's Twin Peaks TV series | Image from Twin Peaks Archive
Still from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks TV series | Image from Twin Peaks Archive

Andrew Stanton says that stories “can cross the barriers of time, past, present and future, and allow us to experience the similarities between ourselves and through others, real and imagined.” I dare say that the absence of sharing stories with our friends creates the sense of isolation. Networking services like Twitter, where interaction is limited to 140 characters, only deepen the crevice in communication. The depth and subtlety of the stories get lost, and there is not enough to see the human behind the tweet. I try to use Twitter more as a communicator of simple messages and news, not a replacement for sharing my experiences, views and beliefs.

As I am moving away from Facebook-style interaction, I am beginning to fantasise about a day, when I will gather various of my friends around the table, and, not having seen their posts and pictures for a while, I will immerse myself in their stories. In the meantime, I have Special Agent Cooper & co, and Dorothea Tanning’s book.

Still from David Lynch's Twin Peaks TV series | Image from Twin Peaks Archive
Still from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks TV series | Image from Twin Peaks Archive