2020 StoryHow in Review

 

While it will be good to see 2020 in our rear view mirror, we still managed to accomplish a lot here at the StoryHow Institute. In addition to publishing 20 articles, we also released our newest product: The Proverb Construction KitTM.

Here’s a recap of the StoryHow blog in 2020:

1. Meaning is Negotiation

People find themselves in trouble when they violate the metaphors of others.

2. When Customers Revolt

What happens when customers refuse to wait for you to step through the self-aggrandizing opening to your marketing presentations?

3. Engineering a Story

Ron explains how his roots in engineering have served his storytelling well.

4. Interest Piques When Our Expectations are Violated

Have you ever stopped in the middle of a discussion and said, “That’s an interesting question?” In this article, Ron addresses what makes things interesting.

5. Telos Precedes the Telling

Ron discusses the role of the Greek word telos in human communications.

6. Looking to Share a Big Idea? I’ve Got a Preposition for You

Ron explains how the smallest, most commonly used words in the English language are more effective in conveying universal meaning than their larger, multisyllabic cousins.

7. The Sound Designer and the Storyteller

What does a sound designer and a storyteller do with a borrowed drone? Ron takes you behind the scenes of a family storytelling project.

8. Storytellers Address Symptoms and Causes

When solving a problem, it’s too easy to focus myopically on eliminating the symptoms as opposed to the cause.

9. The Story You Start is Rarely the Story You Tell

The best stories begin by telling a different one.

10. Character Development isn’t just for Fiction Writers

Inspiration comes from many places. Who are some of the most influential people in your life? Perhaps they represent the beginnings of some incredible new characters in your next story?

11. Storytellers Make Stuff Up (and that’s OK)

Sometimes storytellers need to invent things–to make a point, rather than to deceive.

12. The Buntling Ball Prize: Lessons from a Century-old Marketing Disaster

Sometimes we stumble onto one story while researching another. A few years ago, an advertisement caught my Ron’s eye while he researched a story an in an 1870s magazine. He filed it away, forgot about it, then came across it again a couple of months ago. Today we’re going back 135 years to tell the story of two books: a best seller and an epic flop.

13. Storytellers Don’t Underestimate the Power of Metaphor

Metaphor is both misunderstood and under-appreciated. And while most people have an elementary understanding of it–the act of describing one thing in terms of something totally different–they stop there, using it as a clever writing trick as opposed to recognizing the fundamental role that it plays in human thought, understanding, and communications. Ron opens the first of a multi-part series on the importance of studying metaphors.

14. We Use “Good” and “Bad” Metaphorically

In the second post of this series on metaphor, Ron explains how we attach the concept of good and bad to the properties we us to convey new meaning.

15. Storytellers Make Puzzles

In the third of our series on metaphor, Ron describes how storytellers create puzzles that their audiences feel compelled to solve.

16. The Great Chain Metaphor

This fourth post in a series on metaphor looks at the reasons why metaphoric property transfers are unidirectional.

17. The Comet of the Century

Writing a story for audio is different than one intended for text. Here’s story told each way. Ron presents a personal story through both his 15-year-old podcast (Griddlecakes Radio ®) and a blog post with photographs.

18. The Proximity Effect

The fifth post in our series on metaphor reveals fundamental truths about the human condition, and thus are effective devices to explain complex concepts. We do so by taking a deep dive into the metaphor: Proximity is Power.

19. Ignorance is Bliss

The sixth post in our series on metaphor takes a look at the power of combining seemingly incongruous terms to convey the deepest of meaning.

20. All Stories are WhyDunnits

The best storytellers draw their audiences in by presenting characters that act in ways that seem incongruous with achieving the best outcomes.

 

All Stories are WhyDunnits

 

Mystery writers reveal just enough information to create a WhoDunnit puzzle for the reader to solve. Yet, the story doesn’t end with a discovered culprit, because we don’t yet know the crux of the story–the WhyDunnit–when the accused explains why they chose their actions. You see, all stories are WhyDunnits because we want to know why people choose their actions.

In our recent series on metaphor, we discussed how humans are autonomous beings that evaluate the signals gathered through their five senses and make decisions primarily for self-preservation. However, there’s something missing from that equation. While we’re all born selfish, we eventually learn that a life requires the help of others to reach our full potential. So, in addition to making decisions that benefit ourselves, we simultaneously seek collaboration opportunities.

I first learned of Moral Foundations Theory when fellow storyteller, Park Howell, recommended that I read Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind. In it, Haidt describes five moral foundations that influence human behavior:

  1. Care: We feel human connections through our shared experiences. For example, since we as individuals understand the concept of pain, our innate capacity for empathy causes us to dislike seeing pain in others and so we feel compelled to take care of other members of our communities.
  2. Fairness: True collaboration requires alliances with people who are worthy of our trust. One such test is “reciprocal altruism,” whereby if someone does us a favor, we feel an obligation to return it. Experience teaches us to align with individuals that reciprocate while avoiding those who just take, take, take.
  3. Loyalty: We expect those who’ve earned our trust to be loyal. As a result, we respect those who keep their promises while rejecting those who don’t.
  4. Authority: All communities are built upon hierarchies. Families have parents, companies have management, and communities have leaders. Healthy communities rely on the trust that each member will perform their role. Leaders are responsible for making decisions that protect the community. Those farther down the hierarchy are expected to respect that authority and support the group through playing their roles.
  5. Sanctity: The human experience teaches us that while all things have value, some things are more valuable than others. Those at the top of the list, such as life, religious beliefs, or the way we conduct ourselves, are sacrosanct and thus worthy of our vehement defense.

But there are two sides to morality. For example, every moral compass has a north and a south pole. Consider:

  • Care vs. Harm
  • Fairness vs. Cheating
  • Loyalty vs. Betrayal
  • Authority vs. Subversion
  • Sanctity vs. Degradation

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the roles of protagonist and antagonist–with the left side representing virtue and the right side representing vice. The best storytellers use these concepts to draw an audience into a WhyDunnit. For example, when the protagonist betrays an ally or the antagonist opts for fairness, the storyteller presents a puzzle for the audience to solve: Why would a good-guy be disloyal or a bad-guy be fair?

The best characters act in ways that seem incongruous with achieving the best outcomes. The next time you write a story, consider experimenting with each character’s moral foundations.

And remember, bad morals make for good stories.

 

Photo Credit: United States Office Of War Information, Hollem, Howard R, photographer. Production. Tin smelting. Texas City Texas Galveston County, 1942. July. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017694353/.

The Great Chain Metaphor

The fourth post in a series on metaphor

Humans establish meaning by transferring properties from one object to another through metaphor. But, there’s something odd about this property-transfer action–the fact that it’s unidirectional. Why does “Meghan is a rock” work, while “a rock is Meghan” doesn’t?

The reason is found in the Great Chain Metaphor.

We think of humans as higher order beings than animals, animals as higher than plants, and plants as higher than inanimate substances. With each of these levels, there are higher and lower sub-levels, so that dogs are higher order beings than insects and trees are higher than algae…Thus, where a being falls in the scale of beings depends strictly on it’s highest property.1

This concept is powerful because somehow, humans understand it innately. We understand by default that a) our species sits at the top of the stack and b) such a position affords us the benefit of containing all of the properties of the levels below us. That’s a ton to unpack, so let’s start with an example like the property of life.

Humans, animals and plants share the property of life, but the “level” of that life varies. While people, cats and geraniums can all grow, eat, age and die, plants live in one location, cats always land on their feet, and people can drive cars. So, although all three share the property of life, animal and plant life is more restrictive than humans.

And while inanimate objects don’t possess the property of life, yet they still share other properties with their higher order cousins. Consider that all groups (humans, animals, plants, and inanimate objects) are built with matter, thus share the properties of elements, molecules, and compounds. Which brings us back to Meghan.

Since Meghan sits on top of the Great Chain Metaphor, she possesses all of the properties of animals, vegetables, and minerals, and thus has the capacity to accept the transfer of any of their properties. She can have the heart of a lion, the flexibility of a fern, or the strength of a rock. However, since lions, ferns and rocks only contain a subset of Meghan’s properties, the ability to transfer her vast set of properties to them is limited.

In other words, metaphoric properties flow up the Great Chain, not down.

Notes:

1. Lakoff, G., & Turner, M. (1989). More than cool reason: A field guide to poetic metaphor. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. Kindle Location: 3171 of 4619

Photo Credit: Frees, Harry Whittier, photographer. Planting Time. , ca. 1914. June 24. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2013648290/

Storytellers Make Puzzles

The third in a series on metaphor

Jessica and Rob, cast members of the reality television series Below Deck Mediterranean, are attracted to one another. As they get closer, we learn something that Jessica doesn’t know–that Rob is in an open relationship with his girlfriend back home. When another cast member decides to drop that bombshell into a group conversation, we see Jess’s physical expression change dramatically as she retreats into her thoughts.

Rob notices and asks, “What puzzle are you trying to put together?”

I grabbed the remote control, hit the pause button, and repeated the question out loud. “What puzzle are you trying to put together?” I loved this question because it reveals the storyteller’s role–to create puzzles for their audiences to solve.

Storytelling works because it mimics our never ending cycle of rectifying new knowledge with our prior knowledge. When we see, hear, feel, taste or touch something that defies our understanding, we become fixated and thus mentally paralyzed. Just as Jessica turned inward to rectify her feelings for Rob with this new information, dichotomies force our minds into overdrive–shutting out the rest of the world until we can square up the two competing thoughts.

Good storytellers create puzzles to hold people’s attention. Great storytellers balance the level-of difficulty of solving those puzzles. A puzzle that’s too easy to solve bores an audience, while one too difficult makes them give up.

Which brings us to the focus of this series. If storytellers create puzzles that our brains are programmed to solve, then metaphors are super puzzle pieces that fill the gap between prior knowledge and new knowledge. While “Meghan is a rock” may at first blush seem like a puzzle, it resolves itself quickly as our brains transfer the properties of rocks to define her personality.

If stories are puzzles, metaphors are the super pieces.

Storytellers Make Stuff Up (and that’s OK)

 

 

Storytelling works because our brains are in a perpetual state of assessing whether or not something makes sense to us. If we see, hear, touch, taste, or smell something that defies our expectations, our brains churn until we somehow rectify the differences. The good news is that humans have an uncanny ability to fill this meaning-gap. The bad news is that they can fill it with ANYTHING–from pure logic to pure lunacy–because the meaning-gap is a breeding ground for things like superstitions and old wive’s tales.

Great storytellers anticipate and fill potential meaning-gaps before they form. For example, the movie Men in Black is based on a premise that aliens from outer space have not only been living among us secretly, but they’ve also been policed by a top-secret government organization. While this is a great premise to build a movie upon, it carries a potential flaw. Would an audience willingly believe that this huge secret could be kept from the public? To address this potential distraction, the script writers had to make something up.

Enter the memory eraser. With the ability to erase people’s memories, the government could then selectively remove an alien encounter from someone’s mind. Even though memory erasers don’t exist in real life, audiences were willing to suspend their beliefs for the duration of the movie.

But making stuff up isn’t limited to fiction. Storytellers in nonfiction communities like math and science make stuff up all the time. Consider the mathematical concept of the square root. To find the square root of 4, we ask ourselves, “What number, multiplied by itself, is 4?” The answer of course is 2, just as the square root of 9 is 3; square root of 16 is 4, and the square root of 10 is 3.162278…

So, what’s the square root of negative 4?  Wait. That’s impossible, right? Didn’t we learn in grade school that a negative times a negative is ALWAYS a positive? Well. yes and no. Although it’s hard to wrap one’s brain around the situation occurring in the physical world, some mathematical equations require us to calculate square roots of negative numbers.

So, how did the mathematicians rectify the logical inconsistency? They not only made something up, but didn’t even try to hide the fact by calling the fictional device an “imaginary number.” No joke. They invented the number “i,” which when multiplied by itself is negative one (-1). Therefore, if you’re ever asked, the square root if negative 4 is “2i.”

“C’mon, Ron,” you might be saying, “That’s nonsense. They just made something up that has no bearing in the real world.”

Think so? Without imaginary numbers, communications engineers could have never designed things like cellular telephone networks.

Do you have a complicated concept to convey–one that may create more confusion than clarity? If so, consider making something up, like a memory eraser or an imaginary number. What device can you invent that conveys meaning while simultaneously filling a potential meaning-gap?

 

Photo Credit: Bunny, Rupert, Artist. Vaudvilles and other things by Bunny. , None. [New york: isaac h. blanchard co., between 1900 and 1910] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2014647846/.

Character Development isn’t just for Fiction Writers

 

Novice storytellers spend more time focusing on story-structure than developing their characters for two reasons. First, they think that character-development is only for fiction writers. Second, it’s infinitely easier to partition a sequence of events into beginning, middle, and end than it is to uncover the motivations of people who participate in those events.

People are the wildcards of any story because two seemingly contradictory things can be true at the same time. One person can react in such a way that’s totally consistent with their personality, while a third-party observer can see those reactions as odd. For example, if a child is presented with a plate of warm chocolate-chip cookies, more likely than not, he or she will swipe a cookie or three. However, if the child does something unexpected, like cry, toss the plate on the floor, or pour barbecue sauce on them, the storyteller has now put a question in the listener’s mind. “Why did the child do that?”

Character development starts with studying everyday people. How do they react when they’re happy, sad, or under pressure? What are their belief systems? What gets them out of bed in the morning? The more you study, the more opportunity you have to find something unique enough to build a story around it.

Today, I wanted to share a little character development exercise. Don’t worry, I’m not asking you to create the next Han Solo or Wonder Woman. Instead, I want you to think of the most influential people in your life. Perhaps it’s a family member, a sports legend, an author, or a leader.

Start by creating a table with three columns. Put the name of someone that you admire in the first column, followed by the role they played in your life in the second, and a lesson that you learned from them in the final column.

I’ve created the following one as an example.

  Name Role Lesson
1 Art Father Healthy skepticism produces a healthy outlook
2 Ralph Grandfather The best way to understand human nature is to study the actions of others
3 Flora Grandmother You only feel as old as the people you hang around with
4 Stan Grandfather Chess is life
5 Fred Uncle Creativity is seeing something in an object that others can’t
6 Richard Feynman Physicist If you can’t explain it to someone with a high school education, you don’t understand it yourself
7 Arthur Billionaire friend Good management is better than good luck
8 Mr. Reich Neighbor There are always two sides to every story
9 Mother Antonia Nun Don’t own too many things because they eventually own you
10 Wally Shirrah Astronaut Pushing the envelope is relative

Finally, think about that next story, presentation, or talk that you need to make. What do you need to accomplish with it? Go one-by-one through your table and see if there is something that you can use from the ten characters that you just listed.

 

Photo Credit: Characters in the new piece now poforming [sic] at the Theatre Royal Cotten Garden. England, 1820. London: Pub by John Marshall Junr. 24 Little St. Martins Lane, Nov. 6. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2005676991/.