Monday, July 23, 2007

Telling vs. Storytelling

Playwrights think of themselves as storytellers. We throw that word around all the time. It’s often used to describe the reason we set out upon the arduous task of writing a play.

“Why do you write plays?”

“Well, ultimately, because I’m a storyteller…”

This is all fine and good- most of the time I’m a storyteller, too. Or at least I tell myself that. But every time we put words to paper are we truly being storytellers? We should know for sure- because storytelling is our business, right?

So does anyone know EXACTLY what it means to be a storyteller in the theater? I feel like it’s a word I use often- but I don’t have any kind of tangible definition for it. I feel that I do see work that is NOT storytelling. (Somehow I can’t define the word for myself, but I can definitely pinpoint when a playwright is NOT being a storyteller.)

I’ve sat in a theater and watched plays that I would not consider storytelling, but the audience still loved it. 10-minute plays do this all the time. These mini-plays are often just two characters sitting around talking. The dialogue is humorous and entertaining, but ultimately, there is no beginning, middle or end. The characters are never really in conflict with each other- there are no real needs or wants between the two.

There are full length productions that follow this pattern. “I Sailed with Magellan” that just played at Victory Gardens and “August: Osage County” currently at Steppenwolf are two that come to mind. These productions seem to be collages of scenes. There is no sense of a beginning, middle and end- or a story arch for the entire play.

So I guess my question is this: what makes a play a piece of storytelling? And if it’s not storytelling, then is it just plain “telling?” Is one better than the other?

So far, I have a couple of examples to differentiate between TELLING and STORYTELLING:
- In STORYTELLING, the wants and needs of characters are carried out through the entire play.
- In TELLING, the wants and needs of characters operate predominantly on a scene-by-scene basis.
- In STORYTELLING, there is a clear beginning, middle and end. In other words, there is a dramatic question which is tied to the inciting incident. Once the dramatic question is answered, the play has resolution and therefore ends.
- In TELLING, structure is more a "slice of life," with little concern for structure. The concern seems to be more character and dialogue based, rather than structure based.

Anyone have any thoughts on this??


Aaron Carter said...

This adds a new dimension to the whole "show don't tell" imperative. In "show don't tell" we are instructed to show human behavior rather than just have characters talk about behavior.

But the plays which "tell" in Christopher's definition are "showing" human behavior, just without an arc.

One of the differences must be the goal of the piece - if you're not out to show causality, do you need a story?

David Moore said...

Chris, I want to point out that you're discussing the "storytelling" vs. "telling" question from the POV of the teller.

A totally valid question: How do we present... er... our "stuff?"

However, I've been thinking about this issue recently from the other side: How do our audiences (and the individuals that form them) create stories -- in their heads and among each other -- from what we present?

My bias: Whether or not we set out to tell a story, present information, or just a random series of images, words or blobs, the witnesses -- the audiences -- the individuals -- will always create a story from what they've observed. It's what they do, it's what we, as human beings, are wired to do.

When I was a grad student in clinical psychology, that was the foundation of the so-called "subjective" tests we'd give patients and clients: the Rorschach, the PAT, etc. People get images, and the stories they create (and/or the ones they refuse to tell -- yes, psychologists are also mindreaders, didn't ya know?!) are windows into what's happening in the psyche, the soul, the mind...

So while I wouldn't go so far as to say that "storytelling" vs. "telling" is a false dichotomy, I would say that it ignores a huge chunk of the interaction that's occuring. As a writer, I question what I'm trying to do, and how I do it, as well as what the audience makes of it. And I ask myself how much or how I little I want to constrict the audience's role in this process.