Let’s Make a Deal – storyteller & audience

“Do you want to hear a story?”

Have you ever thought about just how weird that question is?

No really, think about it from a purely materialistic perspective. Boil humanity down to the basics, put yourself at the very dawn of humanity. I need a hammer, you need a goat.  I trade you an extra goat for your extra hammer.  This exchange makes practical sense.  You need food to live and tools to construct shelters to also live.  Perfectly logical.

“Can I tell you a story?”

What is being exchanged here? Nothing that we can see or measure or is apparently necessary for survival.  You are giving me your time and attention – and for what?  Time, after all, is Man’s most precious resource, the one thing which cannot be traded at all.  So why even bother with a story?

Obviously we do get SOMETHING from the storyteller – something intangible. What it is depends on the story. We might gain a greater understanding of the world, or of other people. At the very least, stories give us an emotion.

“Do you want to hear a story?”

If I ask a million people this question, the most common reply would be: “What kind of story?” After the first question, this is perhaps the second strangest inquiry from a person. Why do we ask about the kind? Remember earlier we established that of all Man’s resources, time is the most precious. So in order to save it, we have classified stories into “genres.” And what are genres really but a promise of the emotion the story will give you?

“What kind of story?”

If I tell you “a romantic one,” you’ll know it will try to make you feel love. If I tell you “horror,” fear should strike your heart. If the answer is “Scifi,” wonderment should await. You ask of me the genre because you might not wish to experience this or that emotion.  If you’re not in the mood for love, you don’t want to waste your time with a romantic tale.

Once you realize this, practically everyone’s reactions to stories begins to make sense.

Why is there a generation gap in stories? Well parents were once young, so they caught a tale which gave them the feeling of hope and anticipation. Then 20 or so years they make some new humans. So storytellers make a tale – maybe a little formulaic, maybe a little cliche – which aims to make the new teens feel that sense of hope and anticipation just like their parents did.  But for the parents, they already got that feeling from the old tale. If they want to feel it again, they can just experience the old story again and nostalgia will replay the feeling. To them, the new story gives them nothing, so they hate it or “just don’t get it.”  And so on, the cycle repeats.

This also explains why audiences become VERY cross if they were promised one thing, but experienced something else.

Think of it like an ordinary trade.  If I sell or trade something to you which is not at all what you expected nor functions like I promised, what would you do? Demand your money or property back, or take something of mine of equal value.  You would demand redress.

If a storyteller delivers a “bad product” to you, what recourse do you have? You’ve just traded time, and that can’t be refunded*.

Note that this does NOT care about whether the story was good or not.  Even a well-crafted, high-quality story will be loathed if it ultimately lies to the audience**.

If you want examples, look anywhere online for the “_ In Name Only” (_INO) slang. What does it mean? Well the fandom has expectations of a brand, and a storyteller out there gave them an experience SO different from the brand’s standards, that the only thing the story had in common with its siblings is the name.  Hence “In Name Only.”

Another example would be the general internet debate going on at the time of writing on Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I’ve seen several people pointing out that no movie made could have fulfilled expectations – which is kind of missing the forest because all the trees are blocking your view. Yes fans had expectations, of emotions from the film.  (The intangible trade I talked about earlier.) When the film fails to deliver even a fraction of those emotions, yes the audience is going to be upset. The studio might be able to refund their movie ticket, but how can the audience get their time back? How can they get back the emotions they were wanting to feel? They can’t, that’s why some are so very angry.

And the reply, “lighten up it’s just a [story]” misses the entire point and underestimates just how important the trade really is.

We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories

-Jonathan Gottschall


*The sole exception would be with jokes (quick little stories in their own right) because the unexpectedness contributes to the humor. Also laughter is generally a positive emotion that people like experiencing.

**This also largely explains the division at times between critics and audiences. For critics it is a JOB to experience the stories which will lead to monotony and boredom.  So a surprise can be a welcomed relief to them. For an example of this talk to a parent of a small child who has had to watch the same movie 200 times. They start to long for almost anything different. With audiences…. obviously this doesn’t apply.


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