Storytelling Specifically

Initially, lockdown bestowed upon me a kind of numbness, and everything was difficult, including reading. But now, I have started reading voraciously again; a wide range of fiction, both historical and contemporary, from Thomas Bernhard to Victor Lodato, but also as part of my day job from a wide range of non-fiction resources on story-writing, teaching reading, disseminating creative writing, and of course giving children a lifelong love of reading.

Why is this so important? Why do I read? Why do I impress upon children the urgency of reading and listening to stories?  

When we are living in a world of statistics and generality, with graphs and numbers bombarding our news feeds every day, and meaningless slogans resounding in our heads (Stay Alert!), it is easy to become overwhelmed, or to disappear under the deluge of data. But storytelling can lift us out, and give us insight, hope, and truth.

Storytelling gives us the specific. It distinguishes the detail from the general, and gives us the individual within the society. This is important too. It doesn’t take the individual out of society, instead it shows us their specific place within it – a protagonist would not be very interesting if they existed in complete isolation. Even Robinson Crusoe had his Man Friday.

The specifics of a story are what make it great. Take a woman walking down the street. She’s not very interesting, until you add specifics. You can’t picture her until you add specifics. Does she wear a red hat? Perhaps she walks with a limp, maybe she carries a baby in a sling, or an expensive briefcase. Perhaps she flicks her hair a certain way, or stops to look at her reflection in the shop window. The little details bring out who she is – you can start to see into her personality, into her life. Is she checking herself out admiringly, or perhaps tugging down her skirt out of inhibition and low self-esteem?

Now let’s look at the front cover of The New York Times on Sunday May 24th. It lists the names of the dead, but what makes it so effective and powerful is not so much listing the name of the person who died, but the embedded individual specifics of their lives – the key to a whole rich undertone of living and being. “Clara Louise Bennett, 91,’ The New York Times reads, ‘sang her grandchildren a song on the first day of school each year.” And “Helena Silvia, 96,” who was “known as the fashionista in her nursing home.”

The reason the Dominic Cummings story resonates countrywide is because we know the specifics of it. People can directly compare their own situation to his. Whereas the daily death toll carries no story. We need the specifics within it to understand it. We can empathise with the family of Clara Louise Bennett now because she’s become a person in our mind, one who carried out a specific act.

How about the Holocaust? We know as a fact that six million Jews were killed, but it’s only through hearing the individual stories of survivors that we can feel our way towards understanding the truth of the matter. Why does Anne Frank stand out as a seminal text – it’s a way for our teenagers to engage with another individual teenager and her struggle in going into hiding, her truth of what she saw, and her tragic end. What do I remember of reading her diary so many years later – the specifics: her longing to ride a bicycle, for example. Through this, we can grasp the complexity of what the Holocaust was all about.

On Twitter, the Auschwitz Museum excels at bringing the truth of what happened to life by each day giving their followers an individual story of a person who died there. Their photo, their name, how old they were when they were deported, the age at which they died. The photos themselves tell whole stories in their individuality. A cocked eyebrow of a cheeky young boy, the carefully tidied fringe of a small girl, the hope and passion in a young woman’s eyes as she envisages her future from the other side of the camera lens.

It is through the stories of individual refugees that we see the arrival of immigrants to our shores with a compassionate view, rather than as a threat. It is why many children’s authors have chosen to craft a story around a particular individual and their particular pain and journey, so that children reading the story here can understand the specifics of the situation there and see inside the humanity of the situation. Look at No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton, The Journey by Francesca Senna, The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q Rauf, Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird and many more.

While I read and re-read books on storytelling, each book always boils the craft down to the fact that what storytellers are doing by creating the drama of an everyday fictional life is getting at an absolute truth behind it. By showing us a specific story, a specific incident in someone’s life, it reveals who we are as humans. It reveals how different people react to situations and why. Storytelling may be fiction, but underneath the layers, it is truth-telling. It shows us how life is, or how life should be. The reader wonders if they would react like that character, it makes them wonder why characters are behaving in certain ways. Fiction shows us motivation and causality, consequences and endings.

To teach our children manners we might not just tell them about saying please and thank you, but also look to the storytelling in Please Mr Panda by Steve Antony. To explain friendship to our children we might look at the relationship between Harry Potter and Ron Weasley, to explain sacrifice we might look at the story of Charlotte’s Web. To explain nature’s power to heal we might start with The Secret Garden.  

Look at the story you’re currently reading to your child. What truth is it imbuing in them behind the dramatic scenes? Look at the The Tiger Who Came to Tea. It’s just a simple story, but behind it lies what? And perhaps it’s individual to you? Does it show you the generosity of the mother and daughter, the comfort of a family scene, that imagination can transform a boring rainy day, that despite the threat of something unusual, all can be well in the end.

In every specific story, there is a general truth to be found. And this is the beauty of storytelling – the power of the language of the specific gives a marvellous truth to the world outside, and enables the reader to see with more clarity and more heart.