In a movie, there’s an exciting launch incident that pushes the viewer straight into things…
But when you tell an anecdote to friends, you don’t start your storytelling in the same way, do you? You don’t say:
1: Set the Scene
No! First you set a scene. You do a bit of staging.
There has to be a bit of background information before you get into all that action. There’s a fancy word for this, it’s called, incluing (like including, but without the letter “d”). It’s where the audience becomes exposed to useful background information before they arrive at the key event.
And, please note, incluing is not info-dumping. It’s just a sensible & seamless way to distribute important information within the confines of a story. Without a little bit of incluing the narrator may have to stop and restart the story (perhaps repeatedly) to explain things to her audience.
“Wow! I just got back from vacation… I was in Cyprus. What an adventure I had!”
The audience waits. The narrator has set the scene. That’s her incluing dealt with!
“You would never guess who I met there…”
The audience gasps. Who could it be? The prospect of a “big reveal” teases them. They inwardly hope it will be a bombshell.
The prospect of a “big reveal” teases them…
The audience will invest time and emotion in this story, so it better be worth it! If not, their active participation has been wasted. If there is no obvious conclusion, it will be a huge disappointment. The story better be delicious or there may be a sense of exasperation. Yes, her audience will get angry with this narrator if she doesn’t deliver!
Fortunately, there was a hook: did you notice? There was a hint that the audience might guess who she met on holiday. Some folks will try to figure out who it might be — could it be that weird bloke in accounts who everyone is irrationally attracted to? Could it be that dangerous psychopath who has stalked lone women all across town? Could it be the old flame she said she would never hook up with again? Could it be a celebrity she has the hots for?
2: Tease the audience
If the narrator is a master storyteller, she will now tease the audience. “You know that guy from accounts, on the third floor…” Some pals will groan. Others will gasp. “The one with the ghastly top knot… the one that always smells of pickle…” she adds, for effect.
“Oh no, not him… How could you, Sarah? He’s utterly vile.”
“No, not him. Not pickle-breath!”
“Thank God, I knew how much you detested him…”
“I do. But do you know his boss? The fair haired guy… the department head. The guy the girls on his floor call “Big” William… He’s the boss who upped and left his wife a year ago...”
“Big William? You mean “Big” William, the department manager? The guy with a new Mercedes?”
“Yeah! You know why they call him “Big” William, don’t you?”
“Um…” There are giggles all round. “Are you going to tell us?”
“Sure. Oh yeah, I will give you the low down…” Snigger
3: Add other expository components
You may call the beginning parts of this story the expository components. It’s the sub-assembly, if you like, for the rest of the tale. This is the framework upon which all the rest of the narrative will become balanced.
So, to recap so far, a story exposition includes:
- Persuasion, and
Some context must come first. The narrator in this example is telling her story to pals at work. She wouldn’t tell (the same) story in precisely the same way to her mother, would she? For example, she would not reveal some of the more lewd facts, or use such tantalizing words, and (perhaps) she’d soften the shock that will surely come. She’d be more matter of fact if she tells this story to her mother, over coffee, after church, on a Sunday morning. Context is everything.
The descriptive element is just a summary that will delight the taste buds of an audience. In this example, the descriptive elements of the story are: Vacation (implies looser moral attitude) Cyprus (implies hot ‘n’ sweaty) “Big” William (snigger, implies you-know-what!) And the fact the guy recently left his wife (what’s he up to now?)
The persuasive element is there to convince the audience to “stick around” and listen to what happens next. Surely, there will be examples and more revelations that will convince, impress or seduce an audience … or snippets that will challenge (or strengthen) an opinion. Their patience will be rewarded with a satisfying conclusion if they stay and listen to the story as it unfolds.
4: Decide the point of view
Narrative technique is the most difficult skill to “achieve” for any storyteller. It all comes down to timing, point of view, tense, character-development and story structure. Imagine that these devices are part of a “recipe” for a delightful story. Like the ingredients in a cake, we can leave some things out and the cake (story) will not fail. Other ingredients are essential. You need flour and eggs to make a cake. They are essential. Similarly, you need credible characters and a situation / event to make a wonderful story. New ingredients might be included, but they could radically alter the taste, so be careful!
In this story, the narrative time is “after the event” so the narrator can prepare the audience for a satisfactory resolution (or perhaps this will be the first part in an exciting series!)
In this example, the narrator is in a privileged position because she knows what happens next. She is speaking from a first-person point of view. She can draw-out the story line to make the audience gasp and squeal. She can speed up or slow down the pace of her story and she can consult with her audience to adjust timing. Comedians do this a lot. She may gloss over things that make her feel uncomfortable. She can exaggerate things for effect. In this example, the narrator can slow things down when she gets to complex parts, or she can skip things entirely when she guesses the audience will know (intuitively) what is about to happen next. For example, they know “what she is like” so she doesn’t have to go into detail about how she feels about certain things.
This is a first-person story. The narrator is the viewpoint character, and she has a close relationship with her audience.
But imagine if the story exposition went something like this:
“Did you hear what happened to that plain girl they call ‘Sad Sarah’ who works in the mailroom, when she was in Cyprus, on vacation?”
The audience waits. The scene has been set.
“You would never guess who she met there … and what trouble they both got into …”
The audience gasps. They know Sarah. She’s a shy girl who works in the mail-room. Didn’t she recently come out of a longtime romance? Who did she meet in Cyprus?
The audience gaze at the guy telling this story. They wonder why he’s telling it. What’s his angle? Isn’t he the guy from accounts; a weird guy who seems unduly proud of his top knot… a guy who eats nothing but pickle sandwiches…
“Do you know my boss?” he continues, “The tall blond-haired manager we call “screwup Bill” because he’s an absolute jerk...”
“Do you mean “Big” William, the departmental manager? The guy who owns a Mercedes?”
“I don’t know who calls him “Big” — all the guys on our floor think he’s a “screwup” — anyway Bill and Sad Sarah from the mailroom hooked up in Cyprus. There was a big hoo-ha; they got into a ghastly mess.”
“Big William and Sad Sarah? Seriously? Who would have thought? Tell us more, tell us more…”
“Oh yeah, I’ll tell you everything… everything I know.”
Notice how the narrator addresses the audience. This isn’t a first-hand account is it? (Unless he was in Cyprus at the time and, maybe, witnessed parts of the story… seems unlikely though, huh?) So how does this guy know all the shizzle that went on? How does he know any details? If he wasn’t there, how could he possibly know what happened? He must have an informant, right? Or maybe he spoke to one protagonist and is now retelling his own version of events. He works on the same floor as Big William, doesn’t he? So, maybe, he heard parts of the tale and he’s filling in background details with bits from his own imagination. So, for sure, there’s an element of unreality in his version of events, isn’t there? His story seems “coloured” by prejudices too, doesn’t it? It’s like this narrator is making things up… he’s stirring-things-into the story-recipe to keep hold of his audience’s attention.
It’s like this narrator is making things up…
Now imagine if some viewers went away from this guy — and his version of events — and they told their own version of the same story. By then, the exposition will have been diluted, re-interpreted and perhaps even coloured further by more assumptions and prejudices. This is what they call a third person account. And of course, a third-person account is notorious for being untrustworthy.
In a court of law, third-person testimony is known as “hearsay” and it is inadmissible as evidence. And that’s because it’s just gossip. The best kind of story is one in which we (the audience) recognize there’s a truth, and the best kind of storyteller is the person who tells an honest & open version of an attention-grabbing tale.
But, but, but … we all love gossip, right? And wouldn’t it be exciting if someone had a new “angle” on the events revealed in this story? (Perhaps they can come up with some justification for what the characters did next or their secret motivations). Don’t we love hearing and evaluating new snippets of information, especially when additional details change everything or clarify plot points? Even though the veracity & credibility of any new information cannot be guaranteed, it’s still fun to hear, right? While we might rate “third party” information as less valuable, it is still useful, informative, perhaps enlightening, and certainly entertaining. That’s why tittle-tattle is useful in storytelling too!
Let me know how you get on with your story exposition… tweet me @neilmach
Words: @neilmach July 2021 ©