Inside Stories – Part Two

The second in a series of articles about storytelling

Spontaneous oral storytelling exercises my creative mind. And when I became a father, I couldn’t wait to tell stories to my children before they went to bed. Those stories were pure improvisations. My children loved them because they came from our every day experiences. Others were fantasies where the children were encouraged to suspend disbelief and to accept the world as I presented it. The stories were often interactive and participatory. I remember inventing a fantasy world without television which prompted my daughters to reinvent radio drama as a storytelling device. Neither child had ever heard a radio drama. Children love radio drama because it invites them to complete the stories in their mind’s eyes.

What if storytellers presented only the basic facts? A plot for a movie might read something like this:

Steve worked at the same advertising agency for twenty-four years. He is presently semi-retired and writing a play.

It is not likely the movie would ever get made. There’s just not enough information to get us interested. We don’t care about Steve because his character was never developed. We don’t have any information about what he did at the agency or what kept him in the same job for twenty-four years. This story is boring. What if we turned the facts into a story?

Steve’s story is written in the present tense which is the preferred format for a scenario. Each action occurs in the present and builds anticipation. Spontaneous oral storytelling often follows this format. It is a natural way to build an improvisation.

Steve resembles Albert Einstein. His disheveled white hair and droopy mustache calls attention to his advancing age in this young person’s fickle advertising agency world. He does not know how to tell his colleagues he has been fired after a career making award winning advertisements. Steve was once the boss – a capo di capo of copy oriented conceptual creative directors. Steve was the one who did the firing. He is loyal to the agency and expects the agency to return the favor after twenty-four years. Betrayed, it suddenly hits him that he is just one year short of being vested in the profit sharing fund which would have left him a rich man for the rest of his life. Now he will have to struggle.

Later, at the local gin mill, he sips on his seven dollar martini afraid to tell his wife. He makes her his excuse for suffering the daily abuses his bosses threw at him. Now they are gone. They sold the agency out from under him. Steve is bitter. It’s ten PM. Steve has not eaten. He is ordering his fifth martini and slurring his words.

He wonders what he will do tomorrow. Will he even bother to clean out his desk? He has lost any last vestige of self esteem. Steve enters into a conversation with a stranger at the other end of the bar. Steve tells the mildly interested and very polite gentleman about his dreams, he would have, could have, should have been a playwright, if it weren’t for his wife who demanded money – lots of it. Later Steve pulls a cardboard box from the top shelf of a closet, he finds an unfinished manuscript, sets up his typewriter, and begins to work. The noise disturbs his wife, who insists on knowing what Steve’s doing. He lies. Etc.

We are all improvisers. Richard Lederer points out in The Miracle of Language, “The most common form of improvisation is ordinary speech. As we, talk or listen, we draw on a set of bricks (vocabulary) and rules for combining them (grammar).” Think of each of your conversations as a form of word jazz. A conversation between two people is like the spontaneous dialogue between two musicians. The activity of instantaneous creation is as ordinary to us as breathing.”

Lederer’s computer studies have shown that it would take ten trillion years — two thousand times the estimated age of the earth – to utter all of the possible sentences that use exactly twenty words. He wrote, “Therefore, it is unlikely that any twenty-word sentence an individual speaks has ever been spoken previously. The same conclusion holds true, of course, for sentences of greater length and for most shorter sentences. That is why almost every sentence in every book magazine, and newspaper that has been written, is expressed, or will be expressed is in its exact form for the first time. Every story you tell is likely to be told for the first time.”

Even stories about common occurrences are unique. In our lifetime we collect sensory experiences about people, places, animals, landscapes, events large and small. We store factual and reactive data in our subconscious. None of us sees the same events in the same way. Couple that with the infinite ways of expressing ourselves and Richard Lederer’s calculations are most believable.

Storytelling is a lot easier when you have two hours of film, actors, costumes, lighting, a large crew, and a variety of cameras and angles. Even a television commercial director has ten to thirty seconds to get his or her story told. What if you were a visual communicator like a still photographer or an illustrator and had only a single frame or canvas to tell your story? Remember the bell curve your junior high school English teacher used to demonstrate the energy of a short story? Many creators are driven to use the climax as their picture choice. That is usually the most obvious and often least interesting image. Fragments of the story just before or after the climax are much more interesting. That’s because they are incomplete. There is a sense of anticipation. The viewer feels something has just happened or is about to happen. The image requires and, if it is dynamic, demands the viewer’s participation. This may get the viewer to spend a little more time with the image. Get people involved by coaxing them to participate.

During the seventies I believed it was essential for every viewer of an advertisement to get precisely the same message. How is that for arrogance? Consider the concept of the television commercial. Media buys often include the times a commercial will be aired. Clients could literally measure how that specific commercial increased sales.

Glance through any popular magazine published in the last three years and you will notice some provocative advertisements bordering on fine art. Remember the memorable award winning Timberland campaign which displayed photographs of lakes and woodlands which helped us to dream. A tiny product shot of shoes broke the border. We remember these ads because they invited us to participate. Each of us brought our own experiences to them. They present incomplete stories and we are compelled to complete them in our mind’s eyes. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, we demand involvement or we will turn the page.

Back in the early seventies, my creative team tried to convince a men’s fashion client that radio was a visual medium. The client, who traditionally advertised in Esquire and Playboy, thought the agency was out of its collective mind. The client was a a high end conservative shirt company wishing to increase profits by introducing a less expensive hipper garment appealing to hippie wannabes. The agencies account executives and media buyers were able to prove their target audience listened to lots of radio and were less inclined to read magazines. We demonstrated the efficiency of radio delivering the client’s audience on a much more frequent basis and a lower cost than television. This was an era when advertising tried harder. Our client took the risk.

We named the shirts Them. We named the ties Those. We set the commercials in a department store. We cast Second City actors and encouraged them to improvise. The commercial opened with sound effects; the familiar sounds of bells and chimes peculiar to department stores. Then we threw the script away. The first actor asked, “Do you have Them?” The salesperson replied, “This Them or that Them? Some Thems come with blue stripes on red. This Them has red stripes on blue.” The customer said, “This Them is for me and that Them is a gift. Please gift wrap that Them, but not this Them.” The salesman doing his job said, “May I show you Those? Those are designed to go with Them. And this Them goes with Those…” Sure, it’s corny. But it is also fun and memorable. Listeners saw the farce in their mind’s eyes. When the commercial was tested most listeners insisted they saw it on television. They did – the television of their minds.