“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon. Too often, we forget that.” – Wit, The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
What is the role of the storyteller? He or she brings a tale to the audience, yes, but what is the purpose of doing so? It could be to entertain. After all, entertainment is the reason most of us regularly partake of stories in the first place. In fact, a story can be said to have failed in its purpose if it doesn’t entertain, whether through humor, excitement, suspense, pathos, or some other means. I agree that a storyteller must entertain, and cannot fulfill the real purpose of the profession if he fails to do so. But entertainment is not the significant role of the storyteller.
In a world that always has been, is now, and will ever be gray, we storytellers have, by and large, abominably bungled the presenting of that fact. The present is no more polarized than times before – humans will always find reasons to break into opposing camps, extolling their side’s virtues while vilifying their “opponents” – but we are not any less divided either. Which proves only that we’ve done a poor job of learning from the past. Right and wrong are rarely what separate people and their enemies. It’s different standpoints, different perspectives. Just two sides holding disparate views about what is most important. What does this have to do with storytelling? Why, it shows that much of the time we have forgotten our role as storytellers! Many of us are as guilty as anyone of dividing the world, cutting it up into stark sections of black and white, of using our stories to cram agenda down our audience’s throats.
The reality, however, is this: The role of the storyteller is not to tell people what to think, but to teach them how to think for themselves.
We storytellers often try to influence how people think and act, though it is not our place to do so. Rather, our goal should be only to get people to put that brain between their ears to work. Questions! The storyteller’s duty is to present them with questions upon which to ponder, because thinking for ourselves, not merely mimicking what we’re told to think, is the only we grow.
So we must make them think. We coax them into evaluating life – both the big and small things – on a deeper, more personal level.
You might say: “Come now, Dakota, all storytellers build their stories around theme. Without theme, without purpose, a story is just a jumble of words or images. Themes are all about trying to influence people to act a certain way.” You may be right. Themes are important. They do provide purpose to a story. But I will say this:
Good themes are about questions, not solutions.
I absolutely write themes into my stories. I write with a purpose in mind, but always with the intention of revealing universal principles, thoughts, and feelings, never blatant conclusions that READERS MUST ACCEPT. I want my readers to see what I present in my stories and use it to consider who they are. I want questions – glorious, inspiring, dark, bitter, infuriating questions – to be the product of my work.
We all want to change the world in some fashion, don’t we? Of course we do! But consider how you do so, otherwise you may end up changing it in ways you would never wish to have done so, because the forcing of change often backfires. Don’t force it. Promote it. And more than that, accept the fact that you are not, nor ever will be, fully in control of change. Change cannot be forced on people; you will harden them against it. Change can only grow from within, as they consider things for themselves. The movie Inception is a great visual representation of this. People will often reject the ideas forced on them. But the ones that seem organic? Those ideas shape the world. Remember: The ideas you plant without rancor, without design, without insisting people should think a certain way are the ones that will be deeply and seriously considered. Don’t browbeat them. Inform them.
“Here is an interesting concept, reader. Perhaps you should consider it, and decide how it affects the world.”
“Here’s an issue we struggle with in today’s world, viewer. It’s there now, front and center in your mind, why not analyze how you see it? What you think about it? How we might be able to fix it?”
As a storyteller, think of the philosophy you champion when you try to force an agenda on others. This, in a nutshell, is what you are saying: If only the whole world thought as I do we would never have any problems! You’re absolutely right. We wouldn’t have problems. Not of a certain sort, at any rate. What we would have is stagnancy. Apathy. A world full of boring people who might as well be vegetables for all the stimulation we would receive from others, since everyone would be carbon copies. We would all be mindless clones of one another, espousing the exact same things. I don’t want to live in a world like that. Do you? Then why bully others with your stories? You’re not changing the world for the better when you tell people what to think, but you most certainly are when you help them learn to do so for themselves.
Asking tough questions is to be encouraged in storytelling, pushing agendas is not.
The example this week is going to be The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. The story, if you’ve not read it, starts out great. There are some excellent scenes that really hit you with a new appreciation for tragedy, and the early stages raise some provocative questions about rampant capitalism. By the end, however, it has devolved into a soapbox, a pedestal for what can only be labeled as propaganda. And you know what? The novel did change things, though not in the way Sinclair intended. The Jungle did not convince the American people of the benefits of socialism (the agenda which Sinclair pushed with all the subtlety of a Super Bowl half-time show), but it did expose horrific conditions in the meatpacking industry. In effect, the agenda espoused by The Jungle fell flat, while the questions raised by Sinclair’s tale inspired a generation to enact change in what had been an oppressive, unsanitary industry. What would have been the result if Sinclair had simply provided his readership with thought-provoking questions about socialism instead of cramming it down their throats? We’ll never know. Because he didn’t.
“But The Jungle is a classic!” I can hear the outrage from the peanut gallery even as I write this. “How dare you use a literary work, hailed the world over, as an example of abusive storytelling?”
The answer is simple. To a certain extent, people like to be told what to think. Life is easier that way. We can either eagerly embrace or easily reject what is shouted at us, because we are given no reason to give such blatant messages serious thought. If we agree with a brazen message? We heartily agree and move on. If we find it out of line with our preconceived notions, we either put the story aside or ignore its obvious propaganda and continue on with the story. When we are told what to do, we don’t have to go through the hassle of carefully considering life. We simply agree or disagree out of hand. Passivity is easy. Scrutiny is hard. Ladies and gentlemen, storytellers are not obliged to make life easy for the audience. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is our purpose to make certain that they never stop moving forward, never cease growing and learning and being.
So let’s make a resolution, shall we? No more agendas. Only questions. People will learn to be who they need to be without our sanctimonious preaching. Our audience, after all, is no less human, and they’ve got more to teach us than we ever could them.
Did my post about questions raise any questions? Comments? Rants? Do you find it ironic that I used a post about not using stories to tell people how to think to tell people how to think? Let me know!
Go on! Go introduce the world to some questions!