What makes us listen to stories? Why do we get drawn in, why do we keep paying attention? In a nutshell, our curiosity is aroused.
The art of good storytelling relies on listeners’ curiosity, and plays with it on several levels. A good story is structured to not just satisfy curiosity but to keep generating more of it.
We get curious to fill in details – although our imagination will do that anyway. We get curious about motivations and feelings – “Why did she do that?” – but that often gets revealed slowly. What we really have to know, and what keeps us listening for the next sentence, is “What happened next?” Isn’t that what you want to know, desperately, when you look at the picture of Baba Yaga’s house here? Especially if you notice the skulls and click to see it full-size.
Traditional tales are entirely plot-driven, which is to say that “What happened next?” is the engine that drives the story forward. In fairytales and folktales the characters are deliberately one-dimensional, because they are universal and archetypal. They have virtually no inner life because they are more symbols than people – their natures are expressed on the outside through their appearance and actions. Max Lüthi’s excellent book The European Folktale – form and nature has two chapters on the profundities of this idea. So the actions reveal everything, and we are left to unearth their meanings and purpose.
For storytellers all this means that we have to be aware of the curiosity we are provoking and satisfying, step by step. What do the words and images of this sentence provoke a desire for? And this one? How long will it be before the audience finds out their answer? Such psychology drives the dynamics of attention, and good storytellers are in turn driven to adjust their pacing, facial expressions, nuances of tone and more, in order to give the audience a feeling of the sense of purpose and drama of the story. Some hints and curiosities are enough to keep people’s attention until the next sentence, others until the next section or even the end of the story.
As the storyteller, you have an important feat to perform in your mind. You already know the story, so you don’t need to be curious about what will happen next. Yet you have to be, if you are to convey the full power of the story. You must try to immerse yourself in the present moment of the story so effectively that you embody it, and hence discover it afresh at the same time as the audience. In this way you travel through the reality of the story yourself, and only by doing this can you take the audience fully on that journey too. You are not a mere low-tech device for reciting the story, you are their leader on the adventure.
So… in what ways do you provoke curiosity in your stories, and in which places could they benefit from tweaking or increasing that?