Posts tagged with: storytelling

gift-of-magi-ohenry-della-jimAmid the wide array of quaint and compelling Christmas tales, O. Henry’s classic short story, “The Gift of the Magi,” continues to stand out as a uniquely captivating portrait of the power of sacrificial exchange.

On the day before Christmas, Della longs to buy a present for her husband, Jim, restlessly counting and recounting her measly $1.87 before eventually surrendering to her poverty and bursting into tears. “Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim,” the narrator laments. “Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling—something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.”

Wishing to buy him a new fob chain for his gold watch — his most valuable and treasured possession — Della decides to sell her beautiful brunette hair — her most valuable and treasured possession. “Rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters,” Della’s hair was so long “it made itself almost a garment for her.” And yet, shedding but a “tear or two,” she goes through with it, trading her lovely hair to secure the $20 needed to buy a present for Jim. (more…)

Brand-Storyteller“The plural of anecdote is not data”, claimed toxicologist Frank Kotsonis, in an attempt to correct sloppy thinking. While Kotsonis has provided a useful aphorism, it can obscure the equally interesting fact that the singular of data is anecdote.

Consider, for example, the following two stories. The first is the shortest work of fiction ever written by Ernest Hemingway:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

This powerful story is a marvel of economy. In a mere six words and three punctuation marks, Hemingway is able to convey a sense of tragic loss without ever introducing a single character.

Compare to a story with a similar theme from an anonymous author:

Infant mortality rate: 6.9 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Although it lacks the emotional impact, this too is a model of brevity. Seven words, two numbers, a comma, colon, and two periods are used to express — albeit rather dryly — an important fact about the human condition. Indeed, if Hemingway’s story was not fictional, it could be considered a singular instance of the second story; a particular example of a more general phenomenon.

At this point, you may object to the use of the term “story” in reference to a statistic. You may be tempted to repeat back to me Kotsonis’ mantra: “The plural of anecdote is not data.” But if the singular of data is anecdote and anecdotes are a form of story, then why can’t data be a collection of tales, sifted down and pressed together, into a narrative?Transforming data back into narrative form can provide the oft-lamented missing link between the data and analysis produced by conservative think tanks and the storytelling that appeals to the general public.

Lack of storytelling ability is one of the reoccurring themes of modern conservatism. At National Review Online, Lee Habeeb is the most recent writer to point out that conservatives need to become better at getting our point across by the use of stories:
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Blog author: Mindy Hirst
Monday, September 3, 2012
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Over several weeks we have been talking about the skills we need to develop as we are On Call in Culture; a Kingdom-focused memory, storytelling (which involves observation and reflection), and vulnerability. Each one plays an important part of us making an impact on our culture as God works through us daily. We have also provided resources to help you develop each skill.

In “My Mind in God’s Hands” we thought about focusing our minds on Kingdom values so our memories will be tools that God can use in our work. Remembering to ask your coworker how their mom did after surgery or whether your boss’ migraine is feeling better can be important in God’s plan for your relationships with them.

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Last week we talked about how our memory is important to God using us where we are. Now we talk about another skill that is important to cultivate while being On Call in Culture: Storytelling. Only when we can express what God is doing through us can we truly understand our own experiences.

The first step in storytelling is observation and reflection. After observing our spheres and reflecting on what happens we can begin to share with others what we are learning through our journeys. But reflection and observation are difficult in our culture. There just doesn’t seem to be room in our lives for anything more! But without them, life is simply survival, not growth.
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Blog author: jcouretas
Friday, June 24, 2011
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Ben Shapiro was at the Heritage Foundation recently to talk about his new book, Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV. Publisher HarperCollins describes the book as “the inside story of how the most powerful medium of mass communication in human history has become a propaganda tool for the Left.”

Shapiro made the point at Heritage (see the video of his talk here) that conservatives underestimate the power of narrative and its purpose — moving the emotions — and that’s the case we’ve been making here at the PowerBlog for some time.

“Narrative matters,” Shapiro said at Heritage. “Unfortunately, conservatives have abandoned narrative as an emotional tool … you hear it on talk radio all the time. We have all the logical arguments; we have the facts on our side; they just rely on emotion all the time. Yeah, [because] it works.”

But logical arguments aren’t often the stuff of mass entertainment. Liberals, on the other hand, move the emotions via story telling and write sympathetic characters who may “behave badly” yet advance their agenda. Shapiro:

They’re very clever about it; they recognize that if they slide their messaging in, it’s much more effective than if they simply come out and hit you in the head with a two-by-four.

In a May 2009 PowerBlog post about film making, not television, titled “Cheesy Christian Movies and the Art of Narrative,” I pointed out that “the cultural right still hasn’t mastered even the rudiments of cinema storytelling.” That may have overstated the case somewhat, given that more and more films are coming to screens that conservatives can like (see NRO’s list of best conservative movies). But by and large the right is still much better at rhetoric than it is at storytelling. My main point from “Cheesy”:

The power of narrative lies in its ability to reach the whole person, the heart and the head. It begins by creating an effect on the emotions — moving a person — and can register indelibly in human memory. Thus, narrative can serve as a powerful means of communicating ideas, but not primarily in message form. It works at a deeper level, sometimes tapping into the mythic consciousness of an entire people. That is why narrative is essential for political mass movements; once you get the hearts and the minds of the people excited, you can then move their feet in the direction you want them to go.

Also see “Obama and the Moral Imagination” my Acton Commentary from January 2009 about the use of narrative in politics.

Writing on the Big Hollywood blog, Dallas Jenkins asks the question: “Why are Christian Movies So Bad?” Jenkins, a filmmaker and the son of “Left Behind” novelist Jerry Jenkins, points to a number of telling reasons for the glaring deficit in artistic accomplishment, what you might call the dreck factor, that is evident in so many films aimed at the faithful. Jenkins’ critique points to something we’ve been talking about at Acton for some time: the need for conservatives to understand and master the art of narrative, not just the rhetorical skills that have served them so well in politics and policy. Jenkins says:

The problem is that everyone knows good art should always put story and character above message. Message films are rarely exciting. So by their very nature, most Christian films aren’t going to be very good because they have to fall within certain message-based parameters. And because the Christian audience is so glad to get a “safe, redeeming, faith-based message,” even at the expense of great art, they don’t demand higher artistic standards. So aspiring filmmakers who are Christians have little need to perfect their craft, and Christian investors have little need to spend a lot of money because the message is going to be most important anyway. Add in the fact that the average heartland Christian couldn’t care less what a critic thinks — if anything, they assume they’ll feel the opposite of a movie critic — and you’ve got even less incentive for Christian filmmakers to be obsessed with quality.

Or, as producer Samuel Goldwyn has often been quoted as saying, “Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union.”

Does the left make “message” movies? Sure, all of the time (think of just about any George Clooney picture). And these agit-prop productions frequently bomb. But Jenkins is is correct in pointing out that generally speaking the cultural right still hasn’t mastered even the rudiments of cinema storytelling. This is a grave problem because America’s chief myth making industries — feature films, television entertainment, book publishing, popular music — are largely the province of the cultural left. Then again, if you’re in that camp, you could plausibly argue that, “We’re just better at this stuff.”

The power of narrative lies in its ability to reach the whole person, the heart and the head. It begins by creating an effect on the emotions — moving a person — and can register indelibly in human memory. Thus, narrative can serve as a powerful means of communicating ideas, but not primarily in message form. It works at a deeper level, sometimes tapping into the mythic consciousness of an entire people. That is why narrative is essential for political mass movements; once you get the hearts and the minds of the people excited, you can then move their feet in the direction you want them to go. Most recently, this political narrative form has been used artfully by candidate and now President Barack Obama (see “Obama and the Moral Imagination”). (more…)