Audience Imperative in Storytelling

Back in the day. Looking at the early days of storytelling, we see the prehistoric clan gathering around the campfire as darkness approaches. The people are talking excitedly about the hunters who will soon return and also anticipate stories of their adventures, of the hunt and kill.

When the hunters arrive, they are greeted by the clan. One hunter, the storyteller, takes his place in front of the fire, facing the assembled clan members who are twittering like birds as the hunters move through the group. The teller knows that the expected tales of the hunt, the bravado of the hunting party, of the stalk and the kill, will not be shared today. Today is the story of two brave hunters who sacrificed themselves so the clan could prosper. Today is the day of mourning, of cleansing ritual and sacrifice to the gods. Tales of the stalking, the killing and the dressing of meat are for tomorrow.

The image of an early storytelling scene allows us to look at the three pillars of storytelling in action. The story pillar is represented by all the details of the hunt. The clan is the audience, of course. The teller is the hunter who tells the tale, who conveys the emotional context of the story to the audience both in terms of the details, but also in terms of the audience expectations.

Each pillar of the storytelling framework has a direct relationship with each of the others. When the pillars are in balance with each other the story sails smoothly from intention to delivery. Without a teller, the story is a loose collection of details suggesting little direction or purpose. The teller is the story creator as well, in the sense that he organizes the details into an order that carries both human connection (emotion) and meaning. To do this, the teller must identify and understand the audience.

What Audience Does for Storytelling. By setting expectations clearly, Audience defines the nature of the story, the style of the telling and the probability of success of the storytelling effort. The action of Audience is to anticipate, expect, reflect, and ultimately accept or reject the story and therefore, the telling. Simple? The picture from the top is simple, but let’s delve a little deeper into the details.

Story is the accumulation of details that form the story idea: character, setting, theme, conflict, plot, and a multitude of other things that occupy the story pillar. The basic elements of story are presented and applied in my August writing class, Telling Your Story. Each of these elements is then subject to Audience Action as described above. Teller is likewise broken down into details such as create story from details, build emotional connection, and convey ideas and themes. The elements of teller include voice, tone, image building (metaphors, similes and symbols), rhythm, sound, and other literary devices. And teller is likewise assessed across the range of audience actions. It’s a very huge matrix if you choose to build one. But most writers don’t or wouldn’t.

Such an assessment is neither exhaustive nor comprehensive. It is not useful in creating art, which is how Story evolves. The pieces of the matrix comprise a toolbox in the brain under the “storytelling” tab. The toolbox is filled over a lifetime of creating story, assessing outcome, sharing views with peers, and coming at new challenges with the accumulated knowledge.

How Audience Affects Your Developing Work. You have read books on how to write—a novel, an essay, a screenplay, and so forth. You have been advised to know your audience. This might not be a useful first step if this is your first foray into story. There is a delicate dance that occurs between the story you, as teller, want to live in during the telling, and the story the audience might enjoy. You may want to explore story for a while before you decide on what audience you will direct it to. Then be prepared to rewrite what your work aimed in the end at the right audience. The audience for Rob Roy may not be happy with The Princess Bride as substitute.

The Audience pillar must be assessed after the first draft is done. This allows you to calibrate your perceived intention against your actual writing. If you still can’t identify your audience at this point (and believe me, I couldn’t!), STOP! Do some creative thinking and exercise work on your audience, teller and story pillars. Think of the revisions this will save you.

Audience Awareness Shapes the Telling. At all stages of the developing work, understanding Audience sharpens the work making it more acceptable to targeted markets. Participating as the fourth wall, the audience holds suspense or humor until the mood is altered by the teller. Likewise, audience plays with the teller to allow the roll out of complex plot points, or to suspend conflict afloat till the 3rd act crisis. Audience also carries the ideas of story into images of the mind, which weave the nuances of action and figurative language into an overall theme.

Your turn: It was impossible to present all the possibilities that Audience brings to the evolving story in one short blog. From your own knowledge and experience with storytelling, what additional aids do you see to bolster the Audience pillar?

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