Apparently we’re all storytellers, and that’s a tougher job than many people think.

I just read an excellent article that suggested everything is fiction:

“And I mean that—everything is fiction. When you tell yourself the story of your life, the story of your day, you edit and rewrite and weave a narrative out of a collection of random experiences and events. Your conversations are fiction. Your friends and loved ones—they are characters you have created. And your arguments with them are like meetings with an editor—please, they beseech you, you beseech them, rewrite me. You have a perception of the way things are, and you impose it on your memory, and in this way you think, in the same way that I think, that you are living something that is describable. When of course, what we actually live, what we actually experience—with our senses and our nerves—is a vast, absurd, beautiful, ridiculous chaos.”

So we all go through the same trials and tribulations as any professional writer, but as it’s a kind of second nature we’re generally unaware that we’re doing it. Perhaps it’s worth having a look at a few of the limitations a writer experiences that also find their way into all our abilities to tell stories:

When most of us tell stories it’s often spontaneous. We don’t rehearse them or write several drafts before giving them to people. So what does that do? It means we have to find the best word/sentence/image/analogy our brains are able to come up with at that time. Does this lend itself to accuracy or the kind of evocation that reflects the essence of the story? Probably not, but once you are called upon to tell the story you suddenly have the writer’s worst nightmare…the deadline. This is especially important when you are called upon to tell a story that you don’t want to tell; the kind of situation that forces you, with very little notice, to make up a lie. That’s an even more demanding form of fiction that leaves you researching and creating simultaneously, as well as attempting a delivery that does not betray your mendacity. Thank god we get loads of practice at it as kids.

Tonality is a huge factor: do you convey a story in a duller way because that’s how it really was, or do you embellish it to make one person sound snickier/braver/louder/funnier/ruder? Is the important thing the story or the truth? I once had a colleague who used to tell stories with a great deal of drama, particularly when he was conveying the way another person spoke. This left me with the impression that this was an interesting person who often found himself in all manner of crazy situations, where the people around him reacted as if every little thing was of major significance. Then I started working more closely with him, leaving me able to compare the ‘real’ situation with his telling thereof. You may be unsurprised to discover that there was quite a large discrepancy between the two that often left us in quite different circumstances. But let’s be honest: we’ve all ‘massaged’ what really happened so that we might influence an outcome or appear in a more positive light. The real question is: how can we possibly know when that’s happening to us? All fiction writers are limited in their ability to convey tone, leaving the words on a page as an approximation of what is in their heads.

The audience has a significant effect. Few people speak to their boss in the same way they speak to their kids. Instead we pare and shape the facts and tone until they work in the way we think we intend. How does that affect the truth? Ask a newspaper or CNN. Every fiction writer has an intended outcome, which can only work if they bear in mind the way the words will land. If you want to scare someone or inspire them you will use the same story in different ways, again, without even thinking how you’re doing it.

Sometimes you don’t have the vocabulary because it doesn’t exist (I’ve written before about the way we use the word ’emotional’ to mean something we don’t really have a word for. And although I can’t find the link, I’ve also mentioned how strange it is that we have a word for what bukkake is, but not for that thing you do when you put your hands out, palms up, to protest your innocence). We also misuse words (eg: ‘literally’; ‘infer’) until they lose their original meaning and we collectively concede that we’re just going to use the new meaning, leaving us with no word for the old meaning. Or we use words that have a million different, often subjective, meanings (‘eg: ‘wrong’; ‘good’, ‘cool’) as if they have just one, and we all know what it is.

I mention the above because people seem to be increasingly inclined to describe advertising creatives as ‘storytellers’ without really considering what that means. If a car has a slightly boring story about the efficiency of its airbags we’re generally inclined to embellish that story in order that we might elicit a desired outcome (eg: people buying the car). But like all human beings we’re usually inclined to bend things in our favour, even if that does unspeakable things to the truth.

So sure: be a storyteller, but be aware of all the little tricks you’re employing to tell that story, and be aware of what that means.