Storytelling Basics #1: Three Aspects of Storytelling and Rhetoric

Let’s start at the deepest foundations of what storytelling is.

To do so, I’m going to adapt a story from my theater teacher:

If we look back across time, most storytelling was oral (as we didn’t always have this wonderous invention of writing). This oral storytelling was often ritual, often a kind of theatrical performance– probably for the purposes of religion. Let’s say that the first instance of this was two cavemen: Oog and Ugg.

Oog looked out into the great expanse of the world and had a lot of questions, but no answers. Why does the storm come? Why did mother die when the longtooth came? What is he supposed to do with his life?

So he went to his father, Ugg.

Ugg, who had been alive long enough to ask the same questions and find answers, began to tell a story. There’s no way to know the wisdom passed on to Oog from Ugg, but already we see the triangle of storytelling and rhetoric: storyteller/writer/speaker, story/message, and audience.

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The origin of the story/message is the storyteller/writer/speaker.

Ugg sought to give his son, Oog, the wisdom he had gained over his 30 long years of living. (Cavepeople didn’t get to live too long.)

Ugg is the focus of any ethos analysis (stick a pin in that for a later post). Ugg is the person who can be analyzed by what they say. Ugg is the author, the storyteller, the writer, the speaker, the priest. And he is believed because he is Oog’s father and has managed to live for many more moons than the younger man. Even if Ugg is completely wrong, Oog will believe him for these two reasons.

Oog might be inclined to not believe Ugg for a number of reasons. Perhaps Ugg was an abusive father, creating emotional antipathy between the two. Perhaps Ugg appeared to survive by luck– didn’t he almost fall off the cliff last sun? Perhaps, for modern senses, Ugg is a racist bigot (this, unfortunately doesn’t become a recognized problem until far too recent history). Oog will probably, for any of these reasons seek knowledge elsewhere.

But let’s say that Oog does trust Ugg. Ugg is the storyteller; Ugg is the priest discussing his understanding of faith; Ugg is speaker, giving the first presentation for a particularly literal pyramid scheme.

When you are a writer, a podcaster, a game master, a salesman, or whatever, you are the storyteller.

Which brings us to:

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Whoever is consuming the story/message given by the storyteller/writer/speaker is the audience.

Oog listens to Ugg. Oog internalizes much of what Ugg says. He may or may not believe all of it, but he remembers.

The relationship between the audience and the storyteller is important, regardless of the media used for the story. When we tell stories, we must think, at least somewhat, who our audience is.

Ugg is telling a story to Oog, his son. This gives an easy connection. They probably have a lot of shared language, whatever that is for them, for the sake of understanding.

For the sake of this blog post, I though of a few of my favorite students from when I was a teacher. I imagine us (in an odd time warp, considering half of them wouldn’t ever be able to take classes together due to age difference) all sitting around in my first creative writing classroom and this is my presentation on the first or second day of classes. (This covers me as the storyteller, them as the audience, and this post as story/message.) This is what I imagine whenever I sit to write these kinds of blogs.

When I write different things, I consider different audiences. When I’ve written grants, I have had to actually research what the audience wants (or else risk not getting the grant). When I write creatively, I either write to a version of me who wanted to see the story, or someone else I know/knew. It can also be a combination of some of these. I can write a story that I wish would have existed when I was a teen while also thinking of some of my students who I think also could have used that story.

When you’re the storyteller as a marketing specialist/salesman, your audience is who you are trying to target with your ad or message. Children’s advertising shows age appropriate kiddos shooting each other with supersoakers– even though we all know that there are plenty of adults who would love the carefree simplicity of squirting each other with waterguns. A bunch of grown men doesn’t have the same effect for a children’s toy commercial. Sales would plummet. You would lose your job, probably.

Nerdy aside:

If you are a game master, audience is a vital part of playing your TTRPG as they aren’t merely audience, but co-collaborators in the creation of the story. You have to find a group willing to co-tell the story you want to run. When you join a game, you have to consider if you’re the right audience for the story being told– especially if you’re joining a game which has already been going on.

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But most advice, including the majority of this series I’m starting, focuses on the Story/Message. Story is what Ugg actually told Oog. This is what, years later, Oog would tell a variation of to the tribe he became chieftain of.

With that in mind, for the sake of this post, I’m going to skip over the ins-and-outs of story. We’ll be talking extensively about the story/message part of communication.

Instead, let’s think about the first two parts: Storyteller and Audience.

Storyteller and Audience

In a lot of ways, this is a part of storytelling that you have little control of.

In a way: you are you. In a way: your audience is your audience.

When I lived in America, I felt like I was the odd-man-out politically. I lived in Indiana, a red state. I was a politically liberal moderate. Could I have changed to be more like the people I was around to fit in? Sure. But not really (without convincing). What actually happened is that I suppressed a lot of who I was except in my more intimate circles– people who made me feel comfortable with who I was or comfortable to amicably debate ideas.

I moved to Europe for two years. I actually became more liberal by this contact (which I wouldn’t notice until I returned to Indiana), but I was considered a politically conservative moderate. The change in audience changed the perception of me, though I was relatively unchanged or even changing to be more like them. I still was able to find like-minded or open-minded individuals to discuss ideas with, but, much like I was unable to change the swath of Indiana to fit with me, Ireland was likewise impossible to change large swaths of.

But notice: I was able to find people to talk to. Discussions are a back and forth version of communication, switching storyteller and audience back and forth, but the concept still works. In this same way, you may need to focus to hone in on your audience. This is the audience you’ll learn to avoid certain topics with and to give the content they want (that you want to create).

If you want to write romance novels, you will have to write for the kind of person who reads romance novels. If you want to write fantasy, like me, you will have to write for the kind of person who reads fantasy. What if you like both and wish there was a fantasy romance? Write the story you wish existed; don’t forget that you are regularly an audience member and that the best stories come from writing the stories you wish existed for you before.

Thank you for reading!

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