teatro storytelling
28
Mar
2017

Storytelling: The exciting straitjacket

I think that those of us who decide to dedicate our careers to storytelling have a strong artistic inclination. At least in my case, the ability to communicate and connect with large audiences through moving images, was what inspired my decision.

But if we talk about art, why not become painters, sculptors or explore any other purely artistic discipline? I do not know what would be the response of the large number of people who have the pleasure of working in communication; but I can, without a doubt, say that in my case it is because storytelling is art with structure.

I am not talking about art in which the author seeks to express herself independently from what her audience can feel or understand. When we talk about a documentary, institutional video, advertising campaign, infographic or any other form of mass communication, the effect we cause in our audience is fundamental. To try to control it, our artistic impulse needs to stick to certain narrative structures. To be creative, but limited by the guidelines of storytelling, is a challenge that I love. I call it my straitjacket.

Riding on emotions

haiti storytelling

The most important element of any communication product, some would say of any commercial product, is to trigger emotions. That makes the message much more interesting and memorable.

If we go to the cinema, we do it because we expect the story to make us feel something. When we scroll through Facebook, it is because knowing what our family and friends are doing, releases emotions too. We choose the most intuitive application for our mobile phones; that is to say that the story the application tells us provokes more satisfying emotions. Every time a person spends their time interacting with a story, they do it with the expectation of an emotional reaction. Note that in this case we are talking about stories in a broader sense than the traditional; interaction with a graphic or an application also counts as storytelling.

Gathering around stories is what makes us human. The ability to communicate with each other is what promoted the development of our society. We all tell stories all the time. Some of us simply do it professionally. Yet, even if we are all born with the ability (and the need!) to communicate, telling stories as a career is not so easy. To guide us we have, as I said before, a useful straitjacket.

The straitjacket

estructura storytelling

The Syd Field paradigm. By: Emaze

It was that straitjacket that seduced me to dedicate myself to this career. How to tell interesting stories, with rhythm, which are exciting and at the same time clear, understandable and memorable? There are no infallible recipes; if there were, all the movies in which Hollywood has invested millions of dollars would be blockbusters. However, we continually hear about major financial disappointments in the Mecca of cinema.

We have no guarantee, but there are some clear clues. I call it my straitjacket because sometimes it can be frustrating to have to limit oneself, but in reality the exercise of shaping ideas according to guidelines can be a very enriching experience. Once you forget about relating a story as you please, storytelling becomes something much more polished and careful, and it is a truly unique craft.

What does that straightjacket look like? How is it used? Well, not even describing it is easy, because it depends entirely on the type of product that we are going to build. That is to say that the guidelines are different for cinematographic stories, documentaries, press releases, social networks, etc.

Broadly though, I can say that every narrative structure seeks to help us to deliver information in a way that captures the attention of our audience, makes sense, keeps them interested and produces the emotions sought.

The Hollywood narrative structure par excellence, for example, usually develops in three acts. Through them, surprises or pivot points that viewers do not anticipate are carefully threaded, while increasing the tension and speed of actions. The writer and director are planting clues throughout the story, so that the final resolution is satisfactory, and the emotions for which customers paid their entrance to the cinema take place.

The medium is the message

Herbert Marshall McLuhan, one of the first scholars of the mass media and information society, was the first to think that the message goes far beyond its content. That is, beyond the images or words and sounds that we are using. What this means is that the effect of what we say, changes even depending on what medium we say it through. It is not the same to disclose our messages in television, in a social event, the radio, a museum or twitter, for instance.

Needless to say, the challenge for us communicators today is monumental. We have to advise our clients not only on the best way to weave the story, but also on the most suitable means to reach the desired audiences.

At this point you can clearly see how that constrictive straightjacket that might initially seem frustrating, becomes a source of salvation. Before the innumerable options that we have today to build a story, and given that the audiences are bombarded at every instant with an avalanche of messages in all directions, the power to use a kind of guide to mould our work is really great news!

Yet from time to time I take a brush or sit at the piano and practice my love of art for art itself. But when I need to connect effectively and clearly with more people, beyond my own creative impulse, I always go back to studying and applying the fundamental principles of storytelling: the exciting straitjacket.

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